Communing with the gods: body building, masculinity, and U.S. imperialism, 1875-1900



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During the last quarter of the nineteenth century, the United States reenvisioned its identity according to new popular conceptions of expansionism and strength. As the image of a larger, more powerful United States developed, parallel developments in other cultural arenas reinforced this impetus. Professional sports, college athletics, anthropological disciplines, medicine, historiography, military organizations, immigration, a messianic sense of the nation’s mission, and the mass media were constituting their own arguments for U.S. entitlement to unrestricted growth. These discourses located the apotheosis of civilization on a specific cultural point: the white male body. Communing with the Gods argues that the powerful, physically assertive white male body became a metaphor that stood for national identity and military might and helped to direct the course of U.S. international policy. The dissertation focuses on images of male bodies in the illustrated periodical press when visually explicit physical fitness became the new standard for white masculinity. It addresses emergent obsessions with gender, physical vitality, competition, athletics, strength training, and bodybuilding as well as how images of white male muscularity impressed on public consciousness the various discourses of worldwide “Anglo-Saxon” supremacy. It discusses the role of the popular press in distributing nationalistic imperatives via sports coverage, images of muscular white men, and illustrations of military display and weaponry. The dissertation contributes to discussions of the power of visual metaphor in the transmission of culture, of national and global gender politics, of United States history and in particular to forces which impelled the course of international relations, and to the interplay of image-making and ideology. Other studies have focused on verbal communication, gender politics, and national policies with respect to relations with various peoples. Communing with the Gods examines visual rhetoric of the physically powerful white male as it directed and responded to historical events in the late nineteenth century. Because the power of images to reinforce gender and racial identities reaches so deeply into the psyche, metaphors of hegemonic masculinity were crucial to the construction of international policy and to the rise of the United States as an international force and eventually as a world power.