cover image Swole: The Making of Men and the Meaning of Muscle

Swole: The Making of Men and the Meaning of Muscle

Michael Andor Brodeur. Beacon, $27.95 (256p) ISBN 978-0-8070-5936-4

Brodeur, a classical music critic for the Washington Post, debuts with a winsome and insightful blend of cultural history and memoir that tracks the idealized beefcake body from ancient Greece to today and chronicles his own queer coming-of-age transformation from “wispy, waify string bean of a boy” to “meathead.” The historical segments shed particular light on contemporary fitness culture’s development, explaining how it first emerged in early 19th-century Germany in deep entanglement with nationalist principles, and was brought to the U.S. by failed 1848 revolutionaries. Throughout, Brodeur maintains a sharp focus on the way Western culture’s perceived mind-body divide has shaped ideas about masculinity (during what he calls American men’s “first identity crisis” in the mid-19th century, the Atlantic Monthly lamented that “a race of shopkeepers, brokers and lawyers could live without bodies”). This ideological undercurrent also surfaces in the autobiographical sections. Of his teenage years, Brodeur writes: “I longed to forget I even had a body. I started thinking of myself as my thoughts.” He builds up to an intriguing hypothesis concerning today’s extremist online culture of men seeking to reclaim a lost masculinity characterized by physical fitness and misogyny. Its catalyst, according to Brodeur, was the internet itself, which, by chipping away at real-life interaction, has set in motion another identity crisis over the separation between mind and body. Punchy, entertaining, and perceptive, this delivers. (May)