Houdini, Tarzan, and the Perfect Man: The White Male Body and the Challenge of Modernity in America

Houdini, Tarzan, and the Perfect Man: The White Male Body and the Challenge of Modernity in America

by John F. Kasson

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A remarkable new work from one of our premier historians

In his exciting new book, John F. Kasson examines the signs of crisis in American life a century ago, signs that new forces of modernity were affecting men's sense of who and what they really were.

When the Prussian-born Eugene Sandow, an international vaudeville star and bodybuilder, toured the United States in the 1890s, Florenz Ziegfeld cannily presented him as the "Perfect Man," representing both an ancient ideal of manhood and a modern commodity extolling self-development and self-fulfillment. Then, when Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan swung down a vine into the public eye in 1912, the fantasy of a perfect white Anglo-Saxon male was taken further, escaping the confines of civilization but reasserting its values, beating his chest and bellowing his triumph to the world. With Harry Houdini, the dream of escape was literally embodied in spectacular performances in which he triumphed over every kind of threat to masculine integrity -- bondage, imprisonment, insanity, and death. Kasson's liberally illustrated and persuasively argued study analyzes the themes linking these figures and places them in their rich historical and cultural context. Concern with the white male body -- with exhibiting it and with the perils to it --reached a climax in World War I, he suggests, and continues with us today.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781429930031
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux
Publication date: 07/02/2002
Sold by: Macmillan
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 288
File size: 5 MB

About the Author

John F. Kasson, who teaches history and American studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is the author of Houdini, Tarzan and the Perfect Man, Amusing the Million, Rudeness and Civility, and Civilizing the Machine.

John F. Kasson, who teaches history and American studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is the author of Houdini, Tarzan and the Perfect Man; Amusing the Million; Rudeness and Civility; and Civilizing the Machine.

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Images of male muscular development and bodily perfection have both a distinguished lineage and a troubled history in Western culture. Though securely established in classical Greece and Rome, their position afterward became highly precarious, particularly in the context of a Christian pursuit of spiritual perfection that denied the body. In response, artists from the Renaissance on have been remarkably resourceful in attaching both male and female nudes to classical, biblical, ideal, or exotic subjects. In addition, beginning in the 1840s, the new medium of photography offered an expanding range of images of the nude in more and less acceptable guises: academic studies for artists; records of medical and scientific subjects; ethnographic evidence of exotic peoples; and pornography. Still, even in the late nineteenth century, to display the unclad male figure, let alone the female one, bereft of divine, allegorical, or alien trappings — not as a god, virtue, ruler, hero, exotic figure, or scientific specimen but simply as a person — was to risk falling from the lofty plane of the nude to the shameful one of the merely naked.

Given this context, the emergence of the unclad male body from the realms of high art, science, and low life into the broader culture toward the turn of the twentieth century demands historical investigation. That body did not simply walk free. It faced suspicious inquiries as to its status. And it carried heavy aesthetic and cultural baggage, into which were stuffed a multitude of claims and aspirations, fantasies and anxieties. This baggage bore various tags, sometimes prominently, about manliness, heroism, power, virility, and eroticism. The figure who could lift them all would be regarded as not an ordinary but a perfect man.

Sandow dressed in fig leaf and Roman sandals, 1894. Photograph by Benjamin J. Falk. Library of Congress

This was perhaps the weightiest baggage that accompanied Eugen Sandow when he disembarked from the liner Elbe in New York in June 1893, and it only increased during his appearances across the United States in the next year. Sandow arrived at a key moment: just a month earlier, the stock market had crashed, slowly pulling the economy into a deep depression that profoundly threatened the sense of independence and control once enjoyed by men. Already bankers and businessmen feared ruin; soon millions of workers were unemployed, and tens of thousands of tramps drifted around the country. The depression intensified a widespread sense of gender malaise. To many, manhood seemed no longer a stable condition — absolute and unproblematic — but rather an arduous, even precarious achievement that had to be vigilantly defended. Supposedly a biological category, manhood was also a performance. And Sandow quickly emerged as the most brilliant performer of manhood of the 1890s. In his live appearances at vaudeville theaters, in widely circulated photographs, newspaper and magazine illustrations, and in some of the very first moving pictures, Sandow's unclad body became the most famous in the world and his name a synonym for muscular development. He helped to reshape notions of what male bodily perfection — and masculinity itself — might be in modern industrial society. And for all his active participation in this process, this "perfect man" was not simply a figure waiting to be discovered. In significant respects he was created out of the cultural demands of his time.


An acrobatic strongman on the English music-hall stage, Sandow made his American debut on June 12, 1893, at the Casino Roof Garden at Broadway and Thirty-ninth Street in New York City. He was an unusual attraction for the Casino, whose manager took pride in its being among the most refined variety theaters in the country, offering comic operas and other stylish acts in a theater of fantastic Moorish design. Sandow's six-week run came during the slack season, one made worse by a heat wave that baked the city and by the economy's plunge into depression. After the stock market's collapse in May, credit had tightened like a fist. Businesses failed daily. The Erie Railroad went bankrupt in July, and other railroads rapidly followed. Rich, middle-class, and laboring men alike had reason to feel tense about the future and uncertain about themselves. Depending on their class and political position, they would cast the blame on labor agitators or greedy capitalists, Democrats or Republicans. All were receptive to a man who embodied strength and confidence — as were many women of all classes. The wealthy saw Sandow first, but instantly newspapers and illustrated magazines made him a household name.

Sandow went onstage immediately after a performance of William Gill's musical spoof Adonis, one of the most popular American plays of the time. In retrospect, we can see the two acts not simply as diverting offerings on a single variety bill but as contending performances of masculinity, the first of a series of such contrasts that Sandow's American tour entailed. To appreciate the effect of Sandow's performance, we need to watch the previous act closely.

The title role of Adonis, the perfection of male beauty, was taken by a handsome, trim matinee idol named Henry Dixey. Adonis, first produced in 1884, when he was twenty-five, had made his career. Dixey was a "master of pantomime," in the words of one critic, and had made "his body ... a thoroughly trained instrument of expression, of which he has perfect and complete control." He was so successful at embodying this popular theatrical ideal of physical perfection that he was virtually trapped in the role, performing it more than seven hundred times in New York alone, in addition to tours around the country and an acclaimed run in London.

Adonis was a late-Victorian burlesque lampooning the conventions of melodrama, society plays, and gender roles as it presented women in aggressive competition for and pursuit of an irresistibly beautiful man. Gill's play turned inside out the Greek myth of Pygmalion and Galatea, in which a sculptor falls in love with his female creation, whom Aphrodite brings to life. (The Pygmalion story was being freshly popularized at the time both in comic treatments, including a play by W. S. Gilbert performed in New York in 1881, and in paintings by the British artists G. F. Watts and Edward Burne-Jones and the Frenchman Jean-Léon Gérôme.) In Gill's play a sculptress has created in her statue of Adonis a "perfect figure." Indeed, he is so beautiful and alluring that she cannot bear to sell him as promised to a wealthy duchess. Seeing Adonis, the duchess, together with her four daughters, is instantly and passionately smitten as well. The daughters try to conceal their ardor as each offers a refined observation about the figure's artistic merits: "Isn't it lovely." "What grace in that nostril." "What symmetry in that eyebrow." "What indications of strength in those biceps." Until the fourth sighs, "And what lovely calves."

To resolve the question of ownership, an obliging goddess brings the statue to life. Theatrical photographs suggest how Dixey comically achieved this metamorphosis. The determinedly absurd plot combined the spirit of Gilbert and Sullivan's Iolanthe (in which Dixey had earlier played) and a college farce. The pursuit of Adonis rapidly becomes entangled with three figures who are burlesques of stock characters of melodrama: the Marquis de Baccarat, a quintessential "polished villain"; Rosetta, a self-declared simple and poor "village beauty ... pursued by all the lordly vilyuns for miles around"; and Rosetta's rustic father, Bunion Turke, who, doubting his daughter's virtue, repeatedly declaims the necessity of shutting against her his "poor but honest door" and "poor but honest heart"— even as he attempts to steal Adonis's lunch. To heighten the absurdity (and the gender inversion), Adonis ludicrously assumes the disguise of a village maid and is briefly courted by the Marquis. For her part, Rosetta, who promptly falls in love with Adonis and who boasts that she weighs 120 pounds, was played by the hefty Amelia Summerville. (In an earlier production she had been played by the 300-pound George K. Fortesque in drag.) Ultimately, Adonis is cornered by all his female pursuers, who demand that he choose among them. Instead, he beseeches the goddess who gave him life, "Oh take me away and petrify me — place me on my old familiar pedestal — and hang a placard round my neck: — 'HANDS OFF.'" Thus, exhausted by his stint as a flesh-and-blood object of desire, Dixey as Adonis reassumed the pose of a perfect work of art as the curtain fell.

Adonis pointed to a new set of attitudes governing gender relations and bodily display, in which genteel women were assuming some of the prerogatives that earlier in the century had been reserved for men. That a man might be the construction and possession of women, valued solely for his beauty, his body openly admired and aggressively pursued by them (as well as courted by his own sex) — such was the stuff of both male fantasies and male anxieties. In its farcical way, Adonis played with the meaning of gender in modern life and with the question of whether anatomy indeed determined destiny or merely offered a pretext for roles and disguises. Still, if at the end of the play anyone in the audience were asked who best portrayed the perfect man, the answer would undoubtedly have been Henry Dixey.

Then it was Sandow's turn. When the curtain rose again, Sandow, clad only in a loincloth and Roman sandals, had assumed the statue's pose in Dixey's stead — and the contrast made the audience gasp. One observer wrote, "New York has come to look upon Dixey as a fairly well-made young man. When New York has seen Sandow after Dixey, however, New York will realize what a wretched, scrawny creature the usual well-built young gentleman is compared with the perfect man." Slowly, this new statue came to life as Sandow struck classical poses and moved his "forest of muscles" at will. For almost a decade, Dixey had successfully played the part of a beautiful classical statue come to life, but Sandow took on the dual roles of sculptor and masterpiece. He instantly eclipsed Dixey. In the words of one journalist at the time of his debut: "It was hard for the spectators ... to believe that it was indeed flesh and blood that they beheld. Such knots and bunches and layers of muscle they had never before seen off the statue of an Achilles, a Discobolus, or a fighting gladiator." Another reporter marveled: "He postures so as to bring the muscles more prominently before the audience, and he appears to be able to make them rise and fall just as easily as he can open and shut his eyes."

In the second part of his act Sandow demonstrated his strength and dexterity. With a crisp, military manner and to piano accompaniment, he performed a series of feats with two fifty-six-pound dumbbells, repeatedly exceeding what the audience thought possible. Holding a dumbbell in each hand, he turned a back flip; he did the same feat with his ankles tied together and his eyes blindfolded. Then, with a great show of exertion, eight men brought onstage a huge barbell with a basket holding a man at each end. Using only one hand, Sandow lifted the two men over his head, stopping momentarily to hold the barbell straight out from his shoulder as a further proof of his strength. In still another feat displaying his powerful abdominal and dorsal muscles, he had his knees fastened to a Roman column and then bent backward to lift two men over his head.

The finale of Sandow's half-hour performance was the human bridge. Making his body into an arch with his chest upraised and his hands and feet on the floor in the "Tomb of Hercules" position, he supported a wooden platform on his shoulders, chest, and knees. Then three trained horses (actually ponies), with an advertised combined weight of twenty-six hundred pounds, stepped onto the platform and stayed there for about five seconds supported by Sandow, whose "every muscle ... stood out like whipcord."

From the moment of his New York debut, Sandow was seen not simply as a remarkable figure of strength and showmanship but also as a new ideal of the male body which brought to the fore a host of personal and cultural issues. At the height of his career, from 1893 to 1906, he repeatedly toured the United States (the total duration of his visits amounted to nearly seven years, far more time than he spent in his adopted home of England or anywhere else), but already by the end of his second American tour, in 1894, his presence had dramatically altered the discussion. His appearance shattered the prevailing image of the strongman: the thickset, barrel-chested performer in circuses, dime museums, and beer halls who might be mistaken for a blacksmith but never for a gentleman, let alone an Adonis. Sandow brilliantly succeeded in winning the applause of elite theatergoers even before he gained the attention of the broader middle and working classes. To them all, he represented a new standard of male fitness, beauty, strength, and potency. Starkly exposed and thoroughly publicized as he was, he became an icon of the hypermasculine who with his extraordinary muscular development literally embodied characteristics that many men and women believed were threatened by modern life.

Spectators viewed Sandow's body as both an attraction and a challenge, a model of strength and an object of desire, an inspiration, a rebuke, and a seduction. He simultaneously incited superlatives and stirred disquieting controversies and ambiguities. He was touted as the "strongest man in the world" and the "perfect man," yet he was pursued by challengers, imitators, and impostors who claimed they could duplicate or better his feats. He was celebrated as a monument not only of strength but also of classical beauty, yet his body was criticized as abnormal, even decadent. He cultivated prestige in both medical science and sport, yet he was supremely a creature of the vaudeville stage, the newspaper interview, and the photographer's studio. He presented himself as a modern gladiator with a heroic aura, yet he aroused charges of fabrication and deception. He was ostensibly an apostle of asexual health and strength, yet he implicitly promised to restore lost virility. He never acknowledged himself as an object of erotic interest, yet he enlarged the boundaries of the display of the male nude in live exhibitions and in photographs that elicited intense interest from women and especially from men at a time when the categories of heterosexuality and homosexuality did not squeeze so tightly as to inhibit a man's frank admiration of another man's body. He claimed to embody an ancient heroic ideal of manhood that had been lost in the modern world, yet he turned his body into a commercial spectacle and a commodity whose image was widely reproduced and sold.


Superlatives and ambiguities began with Sandow's accounts of his upbringing and training. At the outset of his American tour, he concocted an autobiography that emphasized his eminently respectable origins and heroic achievements, and he reiterated it throughout his career in interviews, articles, and amply padded books (beginning with Sandow on Physical Training, a compendium of physical instruction, biography, press clippings, photographs, and line drawings. In the process he changed his name from Friedrich Wilhelm Müller to a version of his mother's maiden name, Sandov (frequently Anglicizing his new given name of Eugen to Eugene as well). He preserved his background in Prussia, where he was born on April 2, 1867, but elevated his father from a fruit and vegetable seller in the markets of Königsberg to a successful jeweler and merchant. At the same time he shrewdly insisted his strength was not a gift of nature but an attainment strenuously earned. Indeed, the more he retold the story, the more his health as a youth declined. In some of his earlier newspaper interviews during his first American tour, as well as in his first book, he was "healthy," though less strong than his fellows; in later accounts he grew "very slight and sickly" as a child, and "my parents, as well as the physician, had serious doubts as to whether I would live."


Excerpted from "Houdini, Tarzan, and the Perfect Man"
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Copyright © 2001 John F. Kasson.
Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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