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Houdini, Tarzan, and the Perfect Man: The White Male Body and the Challenge of Modernity in America

3.95  ·  Rating Details ·  117 Ratings  ·  16 Reviews
A remarkable new work from one of our premier historians

In his exciting new book, John F. Kasson examines the signs of crisis in American life a century ago, signs that new forces of modernity were affecting men's sense of who and what they really were.

When the Prussian-born Eugene Sandow, an international vaudeville star and bodybuilder, toured the United States in the 18
Paperback, 288 pages
Published July 2nd 2002 by Hill and Wang (first published 2001)
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Nov 26, 2014 Courtney rated it really liked it
Kasson is accessible to the non-academic audience (which is great), but the way the book is organized is a bit odd. Each chapter follows a semi-biographical narrative for each of the stars---here's my complaint: all of the historical context us in the introduction. All of it. Kasson doesn't bother giving much more than generalized callbacks to the information needed to understand Sandow, Houdini, and Tarzan.

The chapter on Eugen Sandow is really well done but the wheels start to come off the wago
Sep 23, 2014 Sarah rated it liked it
Shelves: college-reads
Wow, where to begin with this book. At first, I thought this would be an interesting read for class just from the intro. However, as I got further into this book, I realized the argument is skewed, the citation (internal) is severely lacking, all-in-all this was a history book, and that it could not keep my attention. It pained me to actually read this. I understand that some history is necessary for a book like this, but don't skew the information in it to fit your criteria. Bring ALL the facts ...more
Amelia Briggs
Aug 24, 2015 Amelia Briggs rated it really liked it
Kadson explores the white male identity crisis at the turn of the 20th century, roughly the time period between emancipation of the slaves and the culmination of the women's suffrage movement. Within these ever-changing societal and cultural standards, the average American white man was lost, his very identity threatened, allowing men like Eugen Sandow, Harry Houdini, and fictional characters like Tarzan, to be held up as ideals of modern masculinity. Kasson could have delved more into the speci ...more
Oliver Bateman
Aug 04, 2015 Oliver Bateman rated it it was amazing
Kasson was a professor of mine at UNC-CH, and though I made little impact on him (I made little impact on anyone during those dark days, so loaded was I on various substances), his lectures on American culture changed the direction of my intellectual life (""What a terrible thing to have lost one's mind. Or not to have a mind at all. How true that is"). This book fashions a coherent narrative out of three somewhat disparate subjects, examining the concept of white masculinity through a prosopogr ...more
Sep 11, 2013 Kaufmak rated it it was amazing
Shelves: old-comp-list
When I read this book, it was still relatively new, not quite ground breaking, but still fresh. In the cascade of studies about masculinity, whiteness and body image in the ensuing decade, this book still holds up pretty well. Kasson examines three male figures from the turn of the century and discusses how they all contributed to the masculine image of the day, an image that in many ways we still admire, promote and covet. Within the discussion Kasson draws out the ties between race, civilizati ...more
Sep 21, 2015 Tori rated it really liked it
very accessible for an academic text (when writing about popular culture, imo you should write for the people who consume that culture) and genuinely enjoyable to read. limited in scope, obviously, to the white male body, but i appreciate the book's up-front acknowledgment of its own scope. it doesn't like, claim to be an All Encompassing text about The Male Body or The White Person or The Turn of the Century. it is what it is, and i really enjoyed it for that.
Peter Tupper
Mar 17, 2012 Peter Tupper rated it really liked it
Shelves: sexuality, history, gender
Fascinating read. The story of three men and their creations of new kinds of male heroes for the industrial age. I say creations because Sandow, the prototypical bodybuilder, and Houdini, the master escape artist, both adopted new names and created characters through their performances in the mass media that were akin to Burroughs' creation of Tarzan.

You can also see Houdini and Sandow's influence on pulp heroes and superheroes (E.g. Doc Savage, the Shadow, Batman, etc.)
Nicole Cordier
Apr 10, 2016 Nicole Cordier rated it it was amazing
Shelves: history
This book was really interesting. It had a strong thesis, read almost like a novel, and took an interesting look at white manhood and masculinity in the late 19th/early 20th centuries. I would recommend this for anyone interested in gender or racial studies. The Tarzan section especially interested me, as it really took race into account.
Nov 06, 2007 Jenny rated it really liked it
Shelves: history
I haven't finished it yet, but it's fantastic. Really fascinating stuff. It talks about Sandow, the first body-builder, Houdini (and his escapes) and the author of Tarzan. Really quick read. After a couple of hours, I'm already half-way through.
Nov 08, 2007 Angelina rated it really liked it
I don't usually get around to reading history, unfortunately, but this book brought together a bunch of interesting ideas about modernity, the body, masculinity and whiteness at the turn of the century in a really readable way.
Simon J.
Sep 03, 2012 Simon J. rated it it was amazing
Shelves: american-studies
Insightful chapters on three major figures of American popular culture. Kasson, an experienced American Studies author, brings them together well with the theme of the body as a new sign of modernity.
Jul 31, 2013 Kuva rated it it was amazing
Shelves: favorites
This was an excellent book! Clear, entertaining, and very perceptive. Perfect for people interested in late 19th century/early 20th century culture, gender, media, and entertainment history.
Still waiting to give half-stars....

Anyway, 3.5 overall.
Oct 04, 2011 Emily rated it liked it
Recommended to Emily by: Professor Rubin
Interesting. The Tarzan section was a bit of a stretch, though.
Jan 12, 2009 Gloss rated it it was amazing
Good, solid history, gracefully presented.
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John F. Kasson is a professor of history and American studies at the University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill and the author of Amusing the Million, among many other seminal works of cultural history. He lives in Chapel Hill.
More about John F. Kasson...

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