The Gilded Age Masculine Identity Crisis

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Photo Credit: Men of Progress, Christian Schussele, 1862, oil on canvas, National Portrait Gallery, Washington D. C: ~riley/Wikimedia Commons/PD old 100 expired

The second book of the Waxwood series, False Fathers, is a coming-of-age story about the male protagonist, Jake Alderdice, transitioning from boyhood into manhood in the late 19th century. In doing my research on masculine ideals of the era, I came across an article that takes an interesting view at the subject. You can find the article here.

According to the author, John Robert Van Slyke, the Gilded Age brought about a crisis in the definition of masculinity for men. I have mentioned in my blog post about the Gilded Age how the chaos and the excesses of the era changed the way in which Americans saw themselves, socially and psychologically. We know how this was true for women, as the Victorian idea of the “angel in the house” was breaking down in the face of suffragism and the new American ideal of womanhood represented by the New Woman.

But many changes were going on for men as well. For Van Slyke, this was represented by “a shift from the term ‘manliness’ to ‘masculinity’” (pg. 2). These may seem like the same or similar, in terms of meaning,and perhaps in our modern way of thinking about gender, they are. But for the 19th century, they were very different. Manliness was a Victorian ideal rooted in abstract realities, a “‘honorable, high-minded’” idea that required “sexual restraint, a powerful will, and a strong character” (Van Slyke, pg. 3). Masculinity, however, was a concept emerging into the new century that implied “‘aggressiveness, physical force, and male sexuality” (pg. 3). So while the qualities of what made a man in the Victorian era (looking back from the Gilded Age) were intangible, those qualities of the 20th century (looking ahead) would be required to be more tangible and measurable.

One reason for this was that America was moving into a more “doer” century, where one’s deeds rather than one’s values would be the measure of one’s character. For men, success in the public sphere was imperative in the Gilded Age, and their worth was judged by their achievements. America was becoming bigger, richer, and more powerful on the world stage. Competition was becoming fiercer. Therefore, a more forceful, physical presence was necessary to succeed.

Van Slyke brings in a nice example of this from the business world. Many men in the 19th century began their business success by getting loans and gaining credit from the bank with which to build their companies (much as entrepreneurs do today). In the mid-19th century, a man could get a loan or credit based on his character. If he proved himself to be a reliable, upstanding, dependable citizen, a hard worker and moral man, those were enough. However, by the Gilded Age, this was no longer possible. It was a man’s prospects and his assets that determined whether he would be given a loan or credit.

This crisis of looking back to manly virtue and looking forward to masculine physicality presented problems for young men in the Gilded Age. Success in the public sphere was still the name of the game, but the means with which they achieved it were no longer based on their fathers’ and grandfathers’ manly virtues. They were based more on how aggressive they could be in business, how wily and cunning they were, and how much interest they had in commercial success.

This crisis is one Jake faces in the book. His artistic nature makes him more contemplative and dreamy, the opposite type needed to become a business titan like his grandfather, and this is contrasted by other male characters his age in the novel. One reason why he accepts Harland Stevens, a middle-aged man who befriends him during his summer in Waxwood, as a surrogate father is because Stevens seems to present the balance between Victorian manliness and Gilded Age masculinity. 

To read more about the book, coming out in December, go here. To read more about Jake and Stevens, take a look here. And if you’d like to read an excerpt from False Fathers, you can do so by joining my readers group here.      

Works Cited

Van Slyke, John Robert. “Changing ideal of manhood in late-nineteenth century America” (2001). Graduate Student Thesis, Dissertation, & Professional Papers. Maureen and Mike Mansfield Library, The University of Montana. 

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COVER REVEAL for False Fathers (Waxwood Series: Book 2)

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Photo Credit: Portrait of a Young Man, Ferdinand von Wright, 1860s, portrait, oil on canvas, Finnish National Gallery: BotMultichill/Wikimedia Commons/PD old 100 expired

Yes, it’s cover reveal time! And here’s a little bit of background on the cover for Book 2 of the Waxwood Series, False Fathers.

I talked a little bit about the evolution of the title of the novel here. When I was searching for a way to approach the cover for this book, the first thing that came to my mind was to feature a father and son. Since I love using old paintings and images, I tried looking for something that would fit the time frame of the book (late 19th century), and would feature a paternal figure guiding a younger man. I couldn’t find anything that really suited my taste.

So instead, I went with the idea of being consistent with the cover for The Specter, Book 1 of the series. If you recall, that cover featured a woman in a pink dress holding a pink handkerchief with lovely auburn hair and pale features. As I mention in this blog post, the intent was to provide an inspirational portrait for Vivian Alderdice, the protagonist of that novel, and also allude to the other main character in that book, her grandmother Penelope Alderdice. So I went with the same concept here.

Portraits of a young man in the 19th century weren’t hard to find, since, at that time, photography was a rare and complicated thing, especially in the early part of the century. So having a painter do a portrait was quite common. It was a matter of finding the right young man who would inspire the character of Jake Alderdice. He had to fit not only Jake’s age (since Jake’s coming-of-age is paramount to the story), but also his personality and social status.

After quite a lot of searching, I came upon the image that you see above. I liked the clean-cut countenance on the young man with his smooth blond hair and the clean-shaven face that makes him look almost boyish. I also liked his aristocratic manner and the dark suit that accentuates his poise. But what struck me most were the eyes. It’s not only that they are blue, which fits the eye color of the Alderdice family, but they are also intensely gazing right at the onlooker. The mouth, also, is very serious and contemplating. This fits Jake’s personality perfectly.

The book will be out on December 28, 2019. If you want to know more about it, you can go here. You can also find out more about the first book in the series here and the series itself here. And if  you’d like to read an excerpt from False Fathers, you can do so if you join my readers group.    

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An Excerpt from Tales of Actaeon

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Photo Credit: Diana and Actaeon, Titian, 1556-1569, oil on canvas, National Galleries of Scotland: DcoetzeeBot/Wikimedia Commons/PD Art (PD old 100)

If you’re a member of my reader’s group, or you’ve been tuning into my live Facebook posts every week in both that group and on my author page, you know I’ve been promising for weeks to post a readers group exclusive excerpt from my upcoming book, Tales of Actaeon, which is the second book of the Waxwood Series. After much contemplation and rewriting and revising, I’ve chosen the excerpt and wanted to talk a little bit about it.

Last week, I wrote about secret societies in the 19th century. I mentioned how they played a big role in the Gilded Age and into the turn of the 20th century, giving men in particular a psychological space to practice the sort of masculine virtues that many felt were becoming skewed in the rapid progress and commercialized era of the late 19th century.

Tales of Actaeon is about a member of the Alderdice family that doesn’t get much attention in Book 1 of the series, The Specter. He is Jake Alderdice, the new patriarch and heir to the Alderdice Shipping empire. In the book, he turns twenty-one, and the story follows his trials and revelations as he comes of age in the last few years of the 19th century, a time of chaos and massive shifts in morals and standards in American life.

The excerpt I’ve chosen to give my readers group is about Jake’s introduction to a secret society by an older man and father figure named Stevens. The Order of Actaeon is a fictional fraternity that emphasizes the need for instructing young men who are maturing into the new century by their elders and is built upon many of the virtues Theodore Roosevelt, a dominant public figure at the time, emphasized and modeled, including aggression, honor, and success.

I’ve written here in detail about the evolution of the Waxwood Series from a novel in three different voices that I wrote in 2004 to the series as it stands today. As I mention in that blog post, the story of Jake was the only one of the three separate stories in the novel that I transferred to the series. The Order of Actaeon members or, as they refer to themselves, the Actaeons, existed in quite a different form in that novel, which was set in contemporary times. In that novel, the scene where Stevens introduces Jake to the Order is very brief and somewhat cryptic. They have made permanent residence in the woods and live the sort of life we would consider primitive, complete with grubby clothes and long beards. Their virtual silence in the midst of a stranger (Jake) reveals their misanthropic ideals and their contempt for modern society and its shallowness and corruptibility. Their aim is to live a pure life isolated from modern society, to subsist like primitive men on what they can hunt, gather, and make. 

As the novel evolved into the series, I realized that, in the context of Gilded Age masculinity, one of the themes of the book, the Actaeons needed to be recontexutalized, fleshed out, and less ambiguous. The excerpt I posted in my readers group is, then, a revised version of that meeting.

As you will read, the Actaeons are much more amiable, though still cautious, as any such society would be. They lead separate, successful lives outside their activities with the Order. The oaths they lay out to Jake present a less misanthropic vision but still adhere to their belief that the modern age is moving into a chaotic state and that a firm establishing of manly values is necessary for the younger generation to adjust and flourish in the new era. 

You can read the excerpt if you join my readers group, Tam’s Dreamers, here. To read more about Tales of Actaeon, you can check out this page. And if you’d like to learn more about the series, here’s a page that will tell you all about it.      

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Secret Societies and Fraternities in the Late 19th Century

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As mentioned below, the Freemasons boasted of some pretty important people among its members. In the photo above, Prince Albert and King George VI are among the Grand Masters of this Freemason lodge in Scotland.

Photo Credit: Photo with, among others, Prince Albert and Duke of York, who later was to become King George VI from Lodge Glamis No. 99 in Forfarshire, Scotland. Photo taken by Peter Ellis on 2nd June 1936. Masonic Centre, Queanbeyan, New South Wales: Scribedia/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY SA 4.0

Sometimes things come up in novels that you never thought you’d find yourself dealing with. The entire writing and rewriting process of Tales of Actaeon has been like that for me. As I mention here, much of my fiction is about women. My historical fiction is loaded with ideas about women’s place in the 19th and early 20th centuries, their isolation and limitations within the separate spheres. Most of my protagonists are women.

But for Tales, I chose to write the story of Jake Alderdice. Jake is the younger brother of Vivian Alderdice the unofficial protagonist of the series. As a young man coming of age in the last years of the 19th century, I was interested in definitions of masculinity in the Gilded Age, this transitional time between Victorian and modern (ergo, 20th century) values. In his story, then, the idea of secret societies and fraternities came up.

Although such societies were nothing new in the 19th century (the Freemasons established a foothold in America as the granddaddy of all secret societies in the 18th century and boasted of such members as George Washington, Paul Revere, and Benjamin Franklin), their heyday occurred in the late 19th century. In fact, editor Alfred C. Stevens wrote a book in 1899 called The Cyclopaedia of Fraternities that claims to document more than 600 of these societies active in America at the time. 

Why did secret societies and, I should add, specifically male fraternities, flourish in the Gilded Age? There were practical reasons, of course (such as secret societies based on business interests where members could make valuable connections) but I’m talking here of the more psychological reasons. I didn’t find much in my research about this, but I have a few ideas of my own. As I mention in my blog post, this was a time in America for great change and innovation. The nation was shifting from Victorian to modern very fast, and, in the eyes of many, not necessarily for the better. Excess, commercialism, and corruption abound. The life many people once knew was rapidly being hurled toward the new century. In this chaotic atmosphere, secret societies offered a sanctuary. Many based their ideals on “old-fashioned” values and established rules, rites, and rituals that remained static amidst the armageddon of the changing world. They also offered a stable identity for many of their members (for example, the Knights of Pythias was organized in the mid-19th century based on the ethic of brotherly love). They gave Gilded Age men a sense of identity, belonging and protection, the feeling that someone “had their backs”. They also gave men (predominantly white, Protestant, and middle class) the feeling of superiority. The assurance of these men of their domination had been theirs for much of the 19th century but was starting to crumble with the advert of labor unions, immigration, and women’s rights. Even the sometimes bizarre and frightening initiation for new members was a sort of badge of courage for members to wear after they became members. 

Unfortunately, many of these secret societies have a bad reputation. Popular media has portrayed many of them either as silly and junior-highish or dangerous. One great example is in a film I talked about on my old blog called Smile. Make in 1975 at the height of the women’s movement, the film is a social satire of the worship of beauty in America in the form of beauty pageants. One of the film’s subplots involves a male fraternity with a rather disgusting and humiliating initiation that involves kissing a rather unsavory part of a raw chicken. The enthusiasm and excitement that “Big” Bob (Bruce Dern), already a member, shows toward this ritual as he explains it to his friend, Andy (Nicholas Pryor), who is about to be initiated, makes a mockery of the more serious initiation rights of many secret societies and, in the context of the film, serves to show male ideas of fun and fulfillment (like the beauty pageant itself) as absurd and immature.

In Tales, Jake is introduced to a secret society of men called The Order of Actaeon. Their philosophies are based on Theodore Roosevelt’s ideas of combining manly virtue and honor with masculine aggression and cunning. However, many of these philosophies become twisted into a definition of modern masculinity that lead to tragedy at the end of the novel.

To learn more about Tales of Actaeon, due to come out in December, please see this page. To find out more about the Waxwood Series, please go here. And if you’d like to read an excerpt from Tales that involves the secret society in the book, you can do so if you join my readers group in Facebook, Tam’s Dreamers.   

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The Struggle for The Vote: Women’s Suffragism in America

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Photo Credit: Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, the godmothers of the women’s suffragist movement, in the Gilded Age, 1891, Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division: Taterian/Wikimedia Commons/PD US expired

Last week, on August 18, to be exact, was the 99th anniversary of the day that the 19th amendment (giving women the right to vote) was ratified in America. I have written many times in my blog posts about the fact that women’s social and psychological position in history is of paramount interest to me and plays a role often in my fiction. This is true of The Specter, the first book of my Waxwood Series. I talk more about that in my blog post about why I write women’s fiction.

So in honor of the day, I thought I’d look into women’s suffragism in America in the 19th and early 20th centuries, before the amendment was ratified, which was in 1920. First, we must distinguish between women’s suffragism and women’s rights, because they are actually not the same thing. The former refers only to the political right for women to vote. The latter, on the other hand, is a broader term that encompasses more specific political, social, economical, and psychological aspects of women’s freedom to act and be. Once women got the right to vote, women’s suffragism was no longer necessary, but the fight for other rights for women was and still is.

Why were women so concerned about getting the right to vote in the 19th century? Actually, they weren’t — no at the beginning, that is. By the “beginning”, I mean the 1840’s when the idea of women’s suffrage was first formed. The Seneca Falls Convention is generally considered the birth of the women’s suffragist movement and for good reason. It was the first time women organized to discuss their rights and make decisions as to what they wanted to accomplish in their efforts to ensure women were seen and treated as free and equal beings. The convention participants made eleven resolutions to this effect, all of which you can read fully here. What is interesting to me is that these resolutions keep within the framework of the separate spheres. Women were expected to remain in the private sphere, that is in the home and church, perceived as “angels in the house” — virtuous, morally superior to men, and too fragile to handle the dog-eat-dog world of the public sphere. The majority of resolutions don’t challenge this perception and in fact ask for equal and respectful treatment of women in their own sphere. There is one exception — Resolution #9, which declares the right of women to vote. Not surprisingly, this was the only resolution to stirred up controversy and was not voted unanimously by the participants. It may have been that the idea of women having a voice in the public sphere was too revolutionary to consider at that time.

However, in the Gilded Age, the idea of women having the vote started to become feasible in the minds of many women suffragists. Women’s political organizations began to form in the 1870’s specifically geared toward pushing government to pass an amendment allowing women to vote. Several women, including Susan B. Anthony, one of the godmothers of the Seneca Falls Convention, boldly went to the polls to vote and were turned away. Anthony succeeded in voting and was arrested for doing so. Women filed lawsuits but the Supreme Court ruled in 1875 to reject women’s suffragism as a right, claiming that the constitution does not grant suffragism to any group, including women. 

Women suffragism had many detractors, both male and female, and caricatures abounded in the papers. Here’s one where the supposed horrific consequences of giving women the vote is depicted, with women lining up to vote for the “Celebrated Man Tamer” while the harassed-looking man at the end of the line has a baby thrust in his arms to allow his wife to vote.

Photo Credit: The age of brass. Or the triumphs of women’s rights, Currier & Ives, 1869, lithograph, New York: Churchh/Wikimedia Commons/PD US

After this failure, women suffragist groups took a different tactic, one that is distinctly American. They figured that if they could lobby individual state legislators so that laws were passed granting women the vote in individual states, the federal government would soon follow. They were right, though it took about forty years. But by 1920, when the 19th amendment was ratified, according to the U.S map here, about three-quarters of the states had either granted full voting rights to women or partial voting rights. 

Many of us have heard of the guerrilla tactics used by women suffragists in Great Britain which were dramatized in the 2015 film Suffragette. Interestingly, American suffragists used less militant tactics to reach their goal. They mainly lobbied, petitioned, and picketed. This is not to say some didn’t experience their fair share of violence, though. One infamous example is the 1917 Night of Terror, where women’s picketing the White House led to torture and violence when they were jailed. However, a year later, the courts ruled that jailing suffragists was unconstitutional, and, two years later, women in all states in the nation gained full voting rights.

Women suffragism doesn’t play a big role in terms of the political stage in the Waxwood Series, though there are certainly stirrings of it. A minor character in the series, a wealthy widow named Marvina Moore, befriends Vivian and becomes a supporter of suffragism, educating Vivian as the series progresses. In my upcoming historical mystery series, The Paper Chase Mysteries, women’s suffragism plays a more active role in Adele’s character, especially her views on the more militant aspects of the movement. 

To learn more about The Specter and order a copy, go here. To learn more about the Waxwood Series, you can take a look at this page on my website. If you like mysteries and are interested in finding out more about The Paper Chase Mysteries, you can do so here.   

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