Monday, August 11, 2008
"WHITE MALE BODY"
A "white male body" properly clothed and equipped. This is my father.
This quiet internet-supported life in a village surprises me sometimes with the synchronicity it can pull in. I’ve been preoccupied with issues of preparation for the end of my life -- not in a morbid way, but in the practical consideration for dealing with all these books and papers I’ve hoarded “for retirement.” If I don’t do something with them, they’ll eventually just be chucked into the dumpster but it’s hard to know how many coherent years I have left. There’s no one else willing to take them on, mostly because people with the same interests have their own piles of books and papers to address. And they aren't particularly significant in the big picture.
Luckily, part of the technological revolution is that I can aggregate parts of the material into blogs and then blooks, which will at least be orderly whether or not they’re valuable. Clearing out my so-called bunkhouse for a visit from my niece and her mother, I spotted the history of Unitarianism in Montana stuff I’d been saving and brought it inside for a bit of sorting and review. (These poor guests may end up making their own beds! But at least I got the roof tarped so they won’t get soaked if it rains.) Among the papers was a xerox of a book: “Confessions of an Agnostic Clergyman” by E. Stanton Hodgin, who was the minister of the Helena Unitarian congregation when it still owned the building it built and where I was ordained (now the Grand Street Theatre). It is his wife to whom the memorial Tiffany stained glass window in the theatre was dedicated. He left after her death and served Minneapolis, LA and New Bedford, Massachusetts -- all with honor for many years in each place. Raised a Quaker, he was not a pacifist and thought that WWI had to be fought, but was devastated that afterwards Teddy Roosevelt would not support the League of Nations, which Hodgin saw as the key to peace. I read the book yesterday. You can buy it on Alibris.com for about forty bucks.
Another outstanding character is Lewis J. Duncan, a socialist, the Unitarian minister in Butte as well as the Mayor of Butte, and then the Governor of Montana. Alan Deale used to advise me to get a handle on him. So I googled and one of the references was to Duncan’s consoling letter to the widow of Victor Berger. This led me to a Master’s Thesis by Dustin A. Abnet called “Radical Union: Gender, Personality, and Politics in the Marriage of Meta and Victor Berger.” It's online, so I downloaded and read it this morning with considerable profit, because it explicated some matters I didn’t know about in gender politics, since I always resist them. I tend to deny there ARE gender differences. You know, Annie Oakley’s theme song: “Anything you can do, I can do better!” and then the line in “Kiss Me, Kate!”: “He may have hair upon his chest, but, sister, so has Lassieeeeee!” As it turns out, “White Male Body” is not a porn classic, but a “term of art” among the gender politics people.
Abnet’s thesis is that Victor Berger was caught in the surf between two strong definitions of masculinity in contention at the turn of the 19th century. Of German Jewish origin, he was a strong believer in a man’s right to own property and get ahead through his own efforts and virtues. But as a defender of the working classes, he could see that they were easily victimized by those moguls of the Gilded Age and that they needed protection through the socializing of the means of production: the raw materials and the big industries. He trod a fine line between communism (which means everyone owns everything with the practical outcome being a dictatorship of those who get hold of the power to make decisions) and capitalism, when those who have access to money can oppress the others and impoverish them further. Very relevant right now. Maybe I should send this thesis to the presidential candidates!
But Abnet’s analysis is not about economics, but rather how Victor Berger’s confused sense of himself affected his marriage to Meta, a genteel gentile who met Victor when she was nine years old and he, fourteen years older, stepped in to protect her family after her father had died. The two paradigms of masculinity, what a “ white male body” should be like and what entitlements that meant, were partly “Father Knows Best” (dominating, possibly violent, erratic and self-centered, expecting total obedience from family) and partly Professor Baer from “Little Women,” (kind, protective, wise and nurturing). Partly privilege and partly obligation. Physically the ideal man was supposed to be like Teddy Roosevelt, robust and well-exercised, an outdoorsman of bravery like Ernest Hemingway; but on the other hand refined, graceful, and capable of enjoying the high art of opera and so on.
Victor himself was a big beefy man with a red face, who could not stay on a diet. Friends seemed to find him rather like Santa Claus, rosy and comfortable. Those who felt his anger might have thought him simply choleric. He was a little scary and confessed that he had the potential to commit a murder, though he mostly deflected actual violence. Acquaintances would not have found him “unmanly” in the sense of being a sissy, but rather in the sense of not having left off being a boy. Lesser classes (like non-whites or poor people) were more identified with children than women. (One sees this is the rhetoric about American Indians, who are considered proper “boy” subjects. Childish. Not feminine. Thus the association with scouting.)
Abnet is astute in describing how Victor controls Meta, who is after all, much younger -- and equally astute at identifying the role of Victor’s dominating matriarchal mother who tells him what to require of Meta. He sees that Victor’s willingness to put Meta down, to mock her and control her, comes from his very real fear of his overwhelming mother. (Hey, do I recognize this!) And Meta fought back by slamming doors, etc. (Oh, yeah!) Once Victor criticized her lousy dressmaking (she made it for a daughter who was actually wearing it at the moment). Despite the presence of company, Meta stripped the dress off the child and threw it into the fireplace! (One wonders about the poor kid!)
Victor also demands sexual access in spite of being gone a great deal and having other lovers (once taking a little twirl with the family maid!). He rails against contraception and never quite figures out that Meta is using a diaphragm. (Her pregnancies made her miserably ill, which some researchers claim is the result of a rich female hormone supply!) She had two daughters, both of whom knew about that diaphragm. (No information about their own marriages or children is provided.)
More than anything else, Victor insisted that Meta share and support his political life, just as Bob used to expect me to do that for his sculpture career. Victor harassed, pressed, demanded and provoked Meta into standing up to him, and then claimed he did it on purpose for her own good. Both men created monsters. We used what we learned to strike out on our own. But Meta never left the marriage and Victor never quite cut her off. When it was time for retirement and the challenge of learning to live together again, Victor fell in traffic and was fatally run over. Meta was able to manage widowhood competently and was well provided for, though Victor (mostly because of his mother) had never felt he made enough money, but he did (mostly because of his mother nagging him to get into insurance).
Other people’s lives are never quite as fascinating as our own, but they are certainly explanatory. Maybe John Edwards could profit from reading this thesis. (Or maybe his wife!) Maybe I should read more historical gender politics. Might there be a potential companion book: “white female body?”
Part of being a white male body in a certain era is having to scrape one's face every day.