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

John F. Kasson

Hill and Wang



Trade Paperback

288 Pages



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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.


Praise for Houdini, Tarzan, and the Perfect Man

"Kasson examines turn-of-the-century masculine ideals and images and reflects on the ways social and cultural change shaped men's attitudes toward their bodies, fired their imaginations, and inflamed deep-seated anxieties. The result is a fine cultural history of masculinity . . . Kasson offers careful readings . . . in which the performance of masculinity relied on the machinery of mass/popular culture even as it critiqued the prevailing ethos of mass society. Images in the text, taken from magazines, billboards, promotional stills, and newspapers, testify to the role played by vaudeville, pulp fiction, mass-circulation periodicals, and film in projecting those male bodies and exploits onto the imagination of spectators. Kasson's study is not merely about the ideal of manly strength, survival and resistance—it is about the multivalent performance of identity. Houdini, Tarzan, and the Perfect Man, like much of Kasson's work, makes an important scholarly contribution and has great potential for classroom use. He engages an important subject about which most readers know something and peels back layer upon layer of meaning to reveal a complex social world of individuals, dreams, anxieties, and action."—Susan Curtis, Purdue University, Journal of American History

"John Kasson's brilliant book has wise and witty things to say that we—in our age of health clubs and body-building machines—need to understand about the social meanings of strength and the powerful body. In learning about Houdini and Tarzan we learn much about our own world. This is a page-turner of a book, with a surprise worth knowing on every beautifully written page."—Linda K. Kerber, University of Iowa

"Engaging . . . Kasson draws a fascinating picture of the response of an exuberant popular culture at the dawn of the 'American Century.' In addition to the title characters, he introduces a colorful collection of minor figures, including a 'real life' Tarzan and a female impersonator whose magazine instructed women on how to attract men."—Clyde Frazier, The News and Observer

"Offers unique comments on manliness in modern society and on American culture in general. At a time when much of gender studies centers on femininity, this book provides a broader picture of how and why we are the nation in which bodies—male and female—are both models and icons."—Marshall Fishwick, The Roanoke Times

"Kasson explores how audiences in the late 1800s and early 1900s were thrilled and titillated by the performances of Eugen Sandow, known as the 'Perfect Man'; Harry Houdini, the daredevil escape artist and magician; and Edgar Rice Burroughs' creation Tarzan. All three male images effectively used the double-edged sword of sexuality between repression and exhibitionism that existed in society to avoid censors and entice men and women to the theater. Kasson theorizes it was this modernized concept of the white male, someone of European descent, the right class, amazing strength and ingenuity, and a touch exotic, that became a commodity that was displayed and sold to the public. He suggests this modernized ideal was formed and flourished in this period because the white male wanted to re-exert his superiority. It also afforded women and some men the opportunity to view and fanticize about these scantily clad men exhibiting muscles, escaping bondage, and rescuing people in a way society deemed acceptable. Examples of these types of male idols still exist today in the personas of James Bond, the spy in Mission: Impossible, the Terminator, and other films. This excellent, thought-provoking book explains how it all started."—Eileen Hardy, Booklist (starred review)

"Here is an unusual and thought-provoking look at the evolving concept of manhood from the late 19th century through the World War I era, when social, technological, business, and urban changes reshaped many traditional perceptions. Kasson presents a well-researched study focusing upon three figures who underscored the male image in the public eye albeit a dominant, white-male image that remained throughout ensuing decades. Eugene Sandow, a bodybuilder and vaudevillian known as the Perfect Man, set a standard for physical perfection. Harry Houdini performed death-defying magic that emphasized triumph over physical circumstances at a time when technology seemed to threaten individuality. Through his novels, Edgar Rice Burroughs created ideal heroes, particularly in his 'Tarzan' series, who imposed control and values upon wild and dangerous surroundings. Using these popular figures as a basis for discussion, Kasson examines a rich variety of trends, customs, values, and philosophies, offering unique commentary on issues pertaining to manliness in modern society. Numerous illustrations enhance this fluidly written text."—Carol J. Binkowski, Bloomfield, NJ, Library Journal

"The historian John Kasson has over the past thirty years produced work that has always stunned and surprised . . . Kasson provides us in his new book with certainly one of the most satisfying and compelling (and well-written) accounts of the early 20th-century cultural revolution. As all accounts of this great shift must do, Kasson begins with a discussion of the extraordinary Theodore Roosevelt with his oddball, yet decent, advocacy of manic masculine activity as a counter to the rise of the constraints that technology and industrialization wrought. But Kasson aims to go beyond Roosevelt by examining three hugely significant and influential cultural figures who, like the great President, tried to liberate the white male body from the inauthenticity of an urban, industrialized America by literally stripping it naked to its primitive form. Kasson offers us a collective biography of the bodybuilding pioneer Eugene Sandow (1867-1925), the escape artist Harry Houdini (1874-1926), and the author of Tarzan of the Apes, Edgar Rice Burroughs (1875-1950)—each of whom, Kasson claims, 'in the guise of entertaining, reasserted the primacy of the white male body against a host of challenges that might weaken, confine, or tame it.' All three of Kasson's mini-biographies add to our understanding of the changing meaning of manliness."—Kevin White, University of Sussex, Journal of Social History

"'Me Tarzan, You Jane. Me White, Me Better.' That was the subtext not only of Edgar Rice Burroughs's novel Tarzan of the Apes, but also of magician and escape artist Harry Houdini's career, as well as that of vaudeville star and bodybuilder Eugene Sandow, according to this illuminating and engrossing cultural study of modern masculinity. Exploring how public presentations of the white male body, particularly in popular culture, reinforced both gender and racial superiority in the formative years of this century, Kasson (professor of American studies at the University of North Carolina) deftly weds these three major figures into a single narrative. Sandow embodied pure male form and strength in response to women gaining more social power, Kasson says, while Houdini represented the survival of the threatened male body in an age when the state was imposing more control over the individual. Meanwhile, the fictional Ape Man symbolized the inherent mastery of whiteness in an increasingly complex racialized world. Drawing on a wide range of sources including vaudeville programs and photos, newspaper reports, personal letters and autobiographies, as well as medical texts, historical accounts and cultural theory Kasson manages to weave in other (mostly forgotten, but historically important) figures such as Julian Eltinge, the world's most noted female impersonator, and spiritualist Mina Crandon, who was exposed as a fraud by Houdini. Witty and well written, this is a top-notch work of cultural history."—Publishers Weekly

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  • John F. Kasson

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