Review of Elaine Frantz Parsons, Manhood Lost: Fallen Drunkards and Redeeming Women in the Nineteenth-Century United States
If the saloon represented the space where nineteenth-century rural American men negotiated their manhood, that male realm had been lost by century's end. Through court transcripts, novels, and plays, Elaine Frantz Parsons skillfully and engagingly enters the world of the temperance debate to reveal meaning beyond the limits of alcohol. Parsons argues that alcohol was not of central importance to the people engaged in the temperance debate. Rather, the driving forces behind temperance concerns were questions regarding the self in the midst of accelerated nineteenth-century change and new scientific revelations. In this environment of rapid development, Parsons carefully articulates the negotiation of boundaries around, one, gender and, two, agency.
The understanding of manhood in nineteenth-century rural America centered on heads of households' ability to assume authoritative roles and their power to take responsibility for their own actions. According to the oft-told "drunkard narrative"— stories in which alcohol ruined a man by incapacitating his power to pursue respectful manly pursuits—Parsons argues that the logic of manhood shifted. The saloon once provided a place of meaning for the men who frequented them. In antebellum America, these homosocial spaces were not second-rate options but vibrant worlds of meaning. Clifford Putney (2001) has demonstrated that American men in urban and mostly northeastern regions of the country worked out industrial-era anxieties about manhood in such spaces as the YMCA. Ted Ownby (1990) has shown how explicitly anti-domestic pastimes such as fighting, shooting guns, and swearing functioned to provide a meaningful male domain of recreational competition in the postbellum South. Parsons focuses on manhood in yet another region of the country: the rural frontier. As such scholars as Ownby (1990) and Elliott Gorn (1993) have shown—and as Parsons illuminates in her discussion of "minding your own business"—men were not voluntarily leaving the their male space "where men could make visible, define, and seek to enlarge the boundaries of their 'business'" (p. 65). However, Parsons demonstrates that manhood is not a static essence that is handed down from one generation to the next. Instead, manhood is vulnerable, unstable, and is, as she contends, destabilized and rebuilt. Here, Parsons adds a deeper level of nuance to her understanding of gender by including women's involvement in her framework.
As Parsons notes, discourse of female drunkards unfolded differently and "with much less sympathy." For example, women drunkards were framed as completely "beyond the pale" of seduction (p. 119); the "drunkard narrative" applied specifically to men. However, women figure prominently in Parsons' narrative. Parsons describes the shift in understanding from alcohol as seduction to alcohol as [page 33] invasion, from individual volition to middle-class discursive construction in the decision to "take a glassful of his environment into his body" (p. 183). Juxtaposed to the metaphor of alcohol invading the male body, Parsons argues that women had to invade the male space of the saloon to save men from themselves. As the logic of the cultural narratives became more and more pervasive, alcohol rendered the male gender "lacking as a man" (p. 3). Drunkenness diverted responsibility of men for their families' economic wellbeing and responsibility for their actions away from the drunkards and, through civil damage law, onto saloonkeepers. The loss of such gendered authority and responsibility rendered men impotent in the public sphere, and participation in the male world of the saloon transformed them into something fundamentally different, into drunkards. The intensions of female temperance reformers, Parsons argues, were not to achieve, as scholars such as Barbara Epstein (1981) maintained, a stepping-stone to women's suffrage but instead to return to "sweet and docile" domesticity (p. 153). By invading the public sphere, female temperance reformers intended to restore the patriarch to his "pristine state" (p. 156). In contrast to men's power, therefore, women's power was expressed through coercion. But once women entered the male sphere, their presence was not neatly reversible. As temperance reformers like Carry Nation entered the "corrupt" realm of men, they opened a "wedge of a new system of gender relations" (p. 184). Here, Parsons offers a new argument about the emergence of the women's suffrage, which she calls "the narrative of female invasion." This narrative "described how women could briefly and dramatically enter and transform dangerous male spaces like the saloon, then return to their domestic sphere unharmed" (p. 13).
Not only did the drunkard narrative contribute to modified understandings of manhood in the gendered sense, it also called into question manhood in the sense of personhood. Parsons notes the "slippage" in the nineteenth-century use of the word manhood, and she intends the term's dual nature. Alcohol could cause men to lose control of their own interiority and prevent them from pulling themselves up by their own bootstraps. Alcoholics served as case studies of extreme situations with which to debate the degree of free will that an individual may or may not possess. And as Parsons demonstrates, this free-will debate had tremendous implications for the U.S. political system. At stake was no less than "the American tradition of freedom" (p. 43). The "drink debate" would eventually construct enfranchised men "as mere parts or a social organism" (p. 21) and thereby open up suffrage for women." Americans from all walks of life contributed to a series of slow but massive cultural changes that would culminate, above all, in a generally weakened belief in individual volition and in the fuller participation of women in public life" (p. 4).
At stake for those involved in the debate were the boundaries of the self, which also concerns Parsons who argues that "individual idiosyncrasy" can be found in the "slippage" of individuals between the two poles of the discursive model. While Parsons contends that "all problems are constructed" (p. 183), not all people fell neatly into either one or the other of the two discursive camps. Instead, people occupied any number of positions in between the extremes of temperance reformers and saloon supporters. As Parsons emphasizes the power of discursive construction, she also demonstrates that individual idiosyncrasy moved the discursive process in the persons of six individuals: Charles M. Sheldon, Jack London, [page 34] Howe, Louisa May Alcott, Elizabeth Avery Meriwether, and Carry A. Nation, whom she features in vignettes in each of her six chapters.
While religious people and movements are the central actors in Parsons' narration of the temperance debate, scholars of American religion will note the absence of women who participated from the outset of the republic in other reform movements such as education and antislavery. Unclear are the roles of these earlier reform movements—as well as empowering revivals such as Methodist camp meetings—in the formation of, for example, the Women's Christian Temperance Union. Scholars of American religion might ask how female religious innovators such as Shaker Mother Ann Lee, Quakers Angela and Sarah Grimké, founder of Mount Holyoke Female Seminary Mary Lyon, and Restorationist itinerant preacher Nancy Towle—among others who did not understand their public roles as temporary—complicate Parsons' narration of female invasion. Nevertheless, Parsons offers a valuable contribution to scholarship on American manhood that continues to shape the conversation of gender in America.
Epstein, B. (1981). The politics of domesticity: Women, evangelism and temperance in nineteenth-century America. Middleton, CT: Wesleyan University Press.
Gorn, E. & Goldstein, W. (1993). A brief history of American sports. New York: Hill and Wang.
Ownby, T. (1990). Subduing Satan: Religion, recreation and manhood in the rural south, 1865-1920. Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press.
Putney, C. (2001). Muscular Christianity: Manhood and sports in Protestant America, 1880-1920. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.