Embodying white men in American literature, 1850--1890

Caroline Suzanne Miles

Abstract

Recently, scholars across disciplines have renewed their interest in the body. They have done so especially in the context of western culture's gendered investment in the Cartesian separation of mind and body. While in fact Descartes had very little to say explicitly about women's bodies, other thinkers since the seventeenth century have infused his thinking with connotations of gender and have used it to subordinate women and their bodies to a disembodied masculine mind/soul. In an effort to disrupt this gendered hierarchy of mind and body, recent explorations of nineteenth-century manhood(s) have worked to demystify and denaturalize the process of converting white male bodies work, by looking at literary representations of white men in different regional and class contexts who reject or who are excluded from the process of white male disembodiment and who remain visibly embodied. If studies of white male disembodiment have documented the process of constructing a white male identity that reflects white middle-class northern men, the presence of other regionalized and classed bodies makes the construction of such an identity a precarious one. Uncontained white male corporeality represented in the literature of the nineteenth century indicates that white manhood defined by self-discipline and the regulated contained body found itself in continuous conflict with numerous other manifestations of the white male body across regional and class lines. These other manifestations of the white body as unregulated, excessive, and visible, make evident the clashes and inequalities both between different regional definitions of white manhood as well as between different class experiences of white men within regions. While the opposition between white male disembodiment and female/black embodiment has obscured many of the subtle complexities that characterize white manhood, an emphasis on sites of white male embodiment reveals a fragmented and incoherent picture of white manhood that explodes the monolithic construction of white male hegemony. Sites where this opposition between white male disembodiment and the black/female body breaks down indicate both the subversive force of visible white male bodies and the violence inherent in containing their disruptive presence in order to secure a mythic commonality among white men.