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. This module allows students to explore how American writers in the nineteenth and twentieth 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 nineteenth-century texts, most of this course concentrates on twentieth-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.

We start with a consideration of theoretical work on masculinity, before moving in Week 2 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. The course moves into black writing in Week 6, looking at James Weldon Johnson's The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man and Richard Wright's Native Son. In week 7 we consider John Updike's exploration of suburban masculinity in Rabbit, Run, before focusing on the issue of Jewish-American masculinity in Week 8, as explored in Philip Roth's My Life as a Man. In Week 9, Tim O'Brien's postmodern novel Going After Cacciato allows us to consider the construction and deconstruction of military masculinity. The course ends in Week 10 with Percival Everett's exploration of African-American masculinity in Erasure.


This module is taught in weekly seminars. By discussing and debating the ideas presented in the set texts, you will develop your analytical and evaluative skills. Questions that will help guide your reading will be distributed before each seminar and additional resources will be made available on Blackboard.

By the end of the module, you will have...

  • Acquired a sense of the distinctive features of American literature through the close examination of texts from the nineteenth and twentieth centuries
  • Considered the form and content of the set texts individually and in contrast/comparison to the other set texts
  • Gained the ability to situate texts within the specific cultural and historical contexts of their production and reception
  • Learned how to connect features of form and content with cultural and historical contexts 
  • Developed an understanding of the theoretical issues raised by the set texts
  • Communicated your ideas effectively and persuasively through written argument and seminar participation
  • Improved your ability to reflect critically on primary texts and interpret them through a wide range of secondary sources


Students will submit two pieces of written work:

  • An essay of 2,500 words focusing on two or more of the set texts (50%)
  • Another essay of 2,500 words focusing on two or more of the set texts (50%)