American Masculinities

Module code: EN3150

Module co-ordinator: Dr Catherine Morley

From rugged frontiersmen to fearless cowboys, male heroes have occupied a central place in American writing ever since the first colonists set foot in the New World. In this module you will explore how American writers in the 19th and 20th centuries have constructed and deconstructed myths of manly heroism and masculinity. 

  • Why have American writers been so fascinated by the male quest and heroic narrator? 
  • What were the major influences on their ideas of manhood, and how did they subvert them? 
  • Were their models distinctly American, or were they the product of transatlantic cultural exchange? 
  • How did their notions of masculinity change over time? 
  • And how did they deal with people who did not fit into this mould, from women and African Americans to Jews and immigrants?

By closely examining some of the key texts from the last hundred years or so, we will investigate American notions of gender and manliness. And by focusing on the issue of masculine identity, we will also trace broader trends, looking at form, style, genre, race and gender in the journey from modernism to postmodernism in American literature.

Although we begin with three 19th century texts, most of this course concentrates on 20th century American writing. We will look at each text in its historical and cultural context, but we will also explore theories of gender and race that inevitably underpin a course of this kind.

Topics covered

We will start with a consideration of theoretical work on masculinity, before moving on to Ralph Waldo Emerson's vision of American manhood and Henry James's portrait of a divided realist self in his novel The American.

We will then concentrate on three very different treatments of masculinity written at roughly the same point in the 1920s: Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises and Willa Cather's less celebrated but no less accomplished The Professor's House.

Next we will look at black writing: James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man and Richard Wright's Native Son. 

We will consider John Updike's exploration of suburban masculinity in Rabbit, Run, before focusing on the issue of Jewish-American masculinity as explored in Philip Roth's My Life as a Man. 

Tim O'Brien's postmodern novel Going After Cacciato will allow us to consider the construction and deconstruction of military masculinity before finishing with Percival Everett's exploration of African-American masculinity in Erasure.




  • 2 essays, 2,500 words each (50% + 50%)