HOUDINI, TARZAN AND THE PERFECT MAN: The White Male Body and the Challenge of Modernity in America

John F. Kasson, Author . Hill & Wang $26 (320p) ISBN 978-0-8090-8862-1

"Me Tarzan, You Jane. Me White, Me Better." That was the subtext not only of Edgar Rice Burroughs's novel Tarzan of the Apes, but also of magician and escape artist Harry Houdini's career, as well as that of vaudeville star and bodybuilder Eugene Sandow, according to this illuminating and engrossing cultural study of modern masculinity. Exploring how public presentations of the white male body, particularly in popular culture, reinforced both gender and racial superiority in the formative years of this century, Kasson (professor of American studies at the University of North Carolina) deftly weds these three major figures into a single narrative. Sandow embodied pure male form and strength in response to women gaining more social power, Kasson says, while Houdini represented the survival of the threatened male body in an age when the state was imposing more control over the individual. Meanwhile, the fictional Ape Man symbolized the inherent mastery of whiteness in an increasingly complex racialized world. Drawing on a wide range of sources—including vaudeville programs and photos, newspaper reports, personal letters and autobiographies, as well as medical texts, historical accounts and cultural theory—Kasson manages to weave in other (mostly forgotten, but historically important) figures such as Julian Eltinge, the world's most noted female impersonator, and spiritualist Mina Crandon, who was exposed as a fraud by Houdini. Witty and well written, this is a top-notch work of cultural history that can be read with great enjoyment by general readers and social historians alike. (July)

Reviewed on: 06/11/2001
Release date: 08/01/2001
Genre: Nonfiction
Paperback - 288 pages - 978-0-8090-5547-0
Open Ebook - 288 pages - 978-1-4299-3003-1
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