American Masculinities

Module code: AM3044

Module co-ordinator: Dr Catherine Morley

  • 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?
  • How did they deal with people who did not fit into this mould, from women and African Americans to Jews and immigrants? 

In this module we will closely examine some of the key texts from the last hundred years or so to investigate American notions of gender and manliness. 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 start with a consideration of theoretical work on masculinity, before moving onto 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: F Scott Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, Ernest Hemingway's The Sun Also Rises and Willa Cather's less celebrated but no less accomplished The Professor's House.

The course moves into black writing next, looking at James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man and Richard Wright's Native Son. Adter that, we 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. We will consider the construction and deconstruction of military masculinity in Tim O'Brien's postmodern novel Going After Cacciato before concluding Percival Everett's exploration of African-American masculinity in Erasure.


  • 10 two-hour seminars


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