Masculinity of the Romantic American Male in Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans and Irving’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow
James Fenimore Cooper’s Last of the Mohicans and Washington Irving’s Legend of Sleepy Hollow are valuable examples of literary heavyweights of the Romantic era, but in addition, can also be used to chart sociological changes within the male gender during pre-Romantic and Romantic years.
But because neither Cooper nor Irving’s works should be distanced from their cultural backdrops when considering the socially reflective nature of their work, exploring basic historical conditions surrounding the changing concepts of masculinity can serve as a useful move.
Masculinity is primarily a social construct, a definition that helps us to understand the inherent complexity of an idea or concept that affects half the population at any given time period (Grace 9). But, making sense of this complexity can be problematic. Labeling and classifying should be approached cautiously for fear that the overcomplicating, generalizing or simplifying of gender may occur (10). Mindful of these caveats, we can view classifying devices as a way to analyze historical, social and cultural changes in notions of masculinity.
The “Agrarian Patriarch Period” began around 1630 and lasted until the 1820s (qtd in Grace 10). Before 1800, according to E. Anthony Rotundo in his book American Manhood, those seeking to learn about New Englanders’ ideas of manhood cannot expect to find many documented cases where words such as “manhood” and “masculinity” are used (Rotundo 10). Gender was not a significant issue before 1800, though as Rotundo notes, gender would gain increasing attention in later years (10). “People recorded their ideas of what it meant to be a good man, and they were influenced by religious texts and by new ideas pouring in from abroad” (10). According to Rotundo, the ideal man was one who ruled as head of his household, believed in “the crucial concept of duty,” and upheld stern Puritan religious of morality and social behavior (as the “pleasant, mild-mannered, devoted man of the community”). This “good man” image seems to coincidentally parallel the English patriarchal gentleman of the seventeenth century.
Social and economic changes around 1820 to 1860 stimulated the “Commercial Period,” which produced two “distinct spheres of influence: the business world of men and the private domestic world of women” (Grace 10). Instead of the home being “a means of production,” industry’s influence was being felt for the first time, and with its arrival, men became connected to the public realm more clearly, and conversely, women to the private realm (10).
But some of the changes also stemmed from politics of the day. At the time of the Revolutionary War, political upheaval pitched American sons against American fathers, and England’s social influence over her angered citizens began to wane...