John Kasson here 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 were. When the Prussian-born Eugene Sandow, an international vaudeville star and body builder, toured the United States in the 1890s, Florenz Ziegfield cannily presented him as the "Strongest Man in the World," the "Perfect Man," and audiences swooned over his nearly unclothed body; he clearly wanted them to appreciate Sandow as representing both an ancient ideal of manhood and a modern commodity extolling self-development and self-fulfillment. Then, with the advent of Edgar Rice Burroughs's fictional hero Tarzan in 1912, the fantasy of a perfect white Anglo-Saxon male was taken even further, escaping the confines of civilization but reasserting its values, literally beating his chest and bellowing his triumph to the world. The great escape artist Harry Houdini (born Ehrich Weiss) took the dream of escape still further, with his spectacular performances that showed his own body triumphing over every kind of threat to masculine integrity—bondage, imprisonment, insanity, and death.
Kasson's liberally illustrated and persuasively argued study analyzes the thematic links among these figures, and places them in their rich historical and cultural context. The pervasive concern with the white male body—with exhibiting it, and with the perils to it—reached a climax in the First World War, he suggests, and continues with us today.