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Brutes in Suits

, 424 pages

24 halftones

June 2007



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Brutes in Suits

Male Sensibility in America, 1890–1920

Are men truly predisposed to violence and aggression? Is it the biological fate of males to struggle for domination over women and vie against one another endlessly?

These and related queries have long vexed philosophers, social scientists, and other students of human behavior. In Brutes in Suits, historian John Pettegrew examines theoretical writings and cultural traditions in the United States to find that, Darwinian arguments to the contrary, masculine aggression can be interpreted as a modern strategy for taking power. Drawing ideas from varied and at times seemingly contradictory sources, Pettegrew argues that traditionally held beliefs about masculinity developed largely through language and cultural habit—and that these same tools can be employed to break through the myth that brutishness is an inherently male trait.

A major re-synthesis of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century manhood, Brutes in Suits develops ambitious lines of research into the social science of sexual difference and professional history’s celebration of rugged individualism; the hunting-and-killing genre of popular men’s literature; that master text of hypermasculinity: college football; military culture, war making, and finding pleasure in killing; and patriarchy, sexual jealousy, and the law. This timely assessment of the evolution of masculine culture will be welcomed and debated by social and intellectual historians for years to come.

John Pettegrew is an associate professor of history and director of the American Studies Program at Lehigh University and coeditor of the three-volume Public Women, Public Words: A Documentary History of American Feminism.

"Pettegrew... casts a challenge against conventionally accepted Darwinian notions of brutishness as an essential and natural male trait. He argues that male dominance and aggression are not predestined by instinct, but culturally and ideologically constructed, desired, and performed through time... This book contributes to intellectual and cultural history on gender and manhood."

"Pettegrew's book remains rigorous and passionate in its narration of the historic appeal as well as the immediate dangers of de-evolutionary masculinity."

"Ambitious study... valuable in exploring the vast cultural production of masculine instinct as a fact of life."

"To Pettegrew's great credit, his study looks both forward and back: at the way masculinity was naturalized as aggressive in turn-of-the-century society; and, perhaps more importantly, at the extent to which modern-day historians, scientists, and ordinary citizens deploy discourses of evolutionary psychology, sociobiology, and psychology in a misplaced effort to read gender as the offspring of biology and society."

"Will be of interest to scholars of cultures of violence and middle-American masculinity. He offers a solid history of the naturalizing revelry of men in the violence they do."

"It will spark debate within the field for its bold explanation of why modern men feel as though violence is both their burden and right."

"[A] vivid, massively researched history of 'hyper-masculine' sensibility at the turn of the twentieth century... An instructive and provocative view of men’s dark side."

"This fascinating and ambitious study explores how an aggressive 'de-evolutionary' model of masculinity was woven into a broad range of American institutions... Pettegrew brings together feminist theory, 'an anthropological ironist perspective' and a wealth of gender studies scholarship to investigate the development of a pervasive mindset of brutish masculinity within a rich selection of archival and popular cultural materials... This well-researched and engaging volume will certainly enrich the ever-growing field of men's studies."

"This lively, well-written exploration of the 'de-evolutionary' turn in the dominant model of masculinity in the United States since the mid-nineteenth century is smart, compelling, and often tartly funny."

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