Reading Manhattan, Reading American Masculinity: Reintroducing the Flâneur with E.B. White's Here Is New York and Joshua Ferris' the Unnamed

By Ferry, Peter | Culture, Society and Masculinities, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Reading Manhattan, Reading American Masculinity: Reintroducing the Flâneur with E.B. White's Here Is New York and Joshua Ferris' the Unnamed


Ferry, Peter, Culture, Society and Masculinities


This article reintroduces the flâneur, traditionally a figure associated with 19th century Paris, as a methodological tool for investigating literary representations of 21st century American masculinity. Contemporary research on the flâneur has either propagated the disintegrative effect of the modern metropolis on his masculine identity or dismissed the flâneur as a postmodern trope bereft of any specific signified. Conversely, this article will argue, with close readings of E.B. White's Here is New York and Joshua Ferris' The Unnamed, that the flâneur returns as the definitive figure of the postmodern age. The flâneur, in making visible the discourses of power that shape masculinity, becomes a counter-hegemonic figure, a self-reflexive analytical agent of subjectivity and masculinity.

KEYWORDS: MASCULINITY, FLÂNEUR, AMERICAN FICTION, E.B. WHITE, JOSHUA FERRIS, NEW YORK

Masculinity Studies has enjoyed steady progress for the last three decades within the disciplines of sociology, psychology, and cultural studies (Lea & Schoene, 2002, p. 319). In response to the entrenched belief of a universal masculine essence, scholarship within the field has demonstrated that masculinity is a historically contingent construction (Foucault 1981; Connell 1987, 1995; Butler 1990; Kimmel 1996, 2000). Despite these advances within the fields of sociology and psychology, it is only in the last ten years that the field of Masculinity Studies has begun to recognise the wider cultural and social value of literary representations of men and masculinities. Studies such as Ben Knights' Writing Masculinities (1999), Berthold Schoene-Harwood's Writing Men: Literary Masculinities from Frankenstein to the New Man (2000), Alice Ferrebe's Masculinity in Male-Authored Fiction 1950-2000 (2005), and Josep M. Armengol's Richard Ford and the Fiction of Masculinities (2010) have underlined the ability of the novel to elucidate, illustrate, and critique the social condition of masculinity.

In this article I wish to propose that there is one literary figure that provides a viable metaphoric and methodological tool for negotiating the role of American fiction in portraying and shaping American masculinity: the flâneur. Flânerie, originating in 19th century Paris,1 began as the pastime of a seemingly passive languid ambler. The flâneur has evolved, however, during the course of modernity to enjoy various reinterpretations. Beginning with Flaubert's "disinterested idler,"2 to Balzac's "flâneur-artiste"3 and Baudelaire's "lyrical poet," "anonymous artist," and "philosopher,"4 the flâneur has evolved into Walter Benjamin's "detached reporter"5 and Edgar Allan Poe's "urban detective" (Barger, 2008, pp. 351-372; Werner, 2004). Contemporary readings of the figure have emphasised the role of the flâneur as "sociologist," in the view of David Frisby (1994), or "analytic form" according to Chris Jenks (1995). As a sociological type engaged in the analysis of urban discourse, the flâneur, as Deborah Parsons elaborates, continues to exist "in theoretical and historiographical means, as a model for [our] own methodology and the cultural climate we are studying" (2000, p. 228).

Investigation into the issue of masculinity and the flâneur can be traced to the research of feminist critics of the 1980s led by Griselda Pollock, Janet Wolff and Elizabeth Wilson.6 It is Wilson who declares, "the very idea of the flâneur reveals it to be a gendered concept" (1992, p. 98). Despite this apparent position of power of the male figure in the city of modernity, Wilson suggests that it is the city itself, traditionally regarded as feminine, which forms and deconstructs the flâneur/s masculinity.7 Echoing Georg Simmel's influential essay "The Metropolis and Mental Life" (1903) , Wilson argues that the urban labyrinth leads to the "disintegrative effect" on masculinity. In her view:

the flâneur himself never really existed, being but an embodiment of the special blend of excitement, tedium and horror aroused by many in the new metropolis, and the disintegrative effect of this on the masculine identity. …

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