Manly Arts

Masculinity and Nation in Early American Cinema

Manly Arts

Book Pages: 336 Illustrations: 49 b&w photos Published: March 2006

American Studies, Gender and Sexuality, Media Studies > Film

In this innovative analysis of the interconnections between nation and aesthetics in the United States during the late nineteenth century and the early twentieth, David A. Gerstner reveals the crucial role of early cinema in consolidating a masculine ideal under American capitalism. Gerstner describes how cinema came to be considered the art form of the New World and how its experimental qualities infused other artistic traditions (many associated with Europe—painting, literature, and even photography) with new life: brash, virile, American life. He argues that early filmmakers were as concerned with establishing cinema’s standing in relation to other art forms as they were with storytelling. Focusing on the formal dimensions of early-twentieth-century films, he describes how filmmakers drew on European and American theater, literature, and painting to forge a national aesthetic that equated democracy with masculinity.

Gerstner provides in-depth readings of several early American films, illuminating their connections to a wide range of artistic traditions and cultural developments, including dance, poetry, cubism, realism, romanticism, and urbanization. He shows how J. Stuart Blackton and Theodore Roosevelt developed The Battle Cry of Peace (1915) to disclose cinema’s nationalist possibilities during the era of the new twentieth-century urban frontier; how Paul Strand and Charles Sheeler positioned a national avant-garde through the fusion of “American Cubism” and industrialization in their film, Manhatta (1921); and how Oscar Micheaux drew on slave narratives and other African American artistic traditions as he grappled with the ideological terms of African American and white American manhood in his movie Within Our Gates (1920). Turning to Vincente Minnelli’s Cabin in the Sky (1943), Gerstner points to the emergence of an aesthetic of cultural excess that brought together white and African American cultural producers—many of them queer—and troubled the equation of national arts with masculinity.


“David A. Gerstner’s Manly Arts: Masculinity and Nation in Early American Cinema should earn itself a place as required reading for all those interested in gender studies and the cinema. . . . The interdisciplinary approach of the work is undoubtedly its major strength. Gerstner masterfully weaves elements of disparate cultural media, historical events and personages together to form a rigorous, holistic image of American culture’s predication on exclusively masculine ideals, and the role that art plays in reinforcing these ideals. . . . [S]uch is the rigour and scope of scholarship on show in this work, that its usefulness and appeal ought to extend into many facets of the humanities as well as the creative industries.” — Huw Walmsley-Evans, M/C Reviews

“David Gerstner’s ambitious, subtle and erudite study, which deals with relatively few films, has a striking breadth of contextual material, the product of formidable research that brings together a range of diverse and scattered sources. . . . [Gerstner] moves the history of early American cinema away from its conventional focus on the formation of Hollywood as an institutionalised mode of production with a particular system of narrative. Manly Arts is a distinctive and important contribution to the cultural history of the arts in America and to gender studies.” — Andrew Spicer, Screening the Past

“Gerstner makes his examples fascinating, but they do not re-order the wider culture in which they must have participated. They remain tantalizing, suggestive, but incomplete. It is a book that deserves a sequel.” — Lisabeth During and Lisa Trahair, Year's Work in Critical and Cultural Theory

“Gerstner’s book works well as an overview of the ideas and images informing American national identity from the mid-19th century on.” — Jesse Constantino, Historical Journal of Film, Radio and Television

“Not for the theoretically faint of heart, this intellectually challenging tome alternately provokes and fascinates . . . . Gerstner’s examination of the complicated interaction between queer and African American artistry is the next wave of cinema studies where a multiplicity of discursive practices intersect . . . . Highly recommended” — G. R. Butters Jr., Choice

“This new book from David A. Gerstner takes up a vital area of study only beginning to open itself up to queer inquiry: early cinema. . . . There is much to admire in Gerstner’s study.” — Peter Coviello, GLQ

Manly Arts is a fascinating, meticulously researched exploration of how ideas of masculinity and aesthetics from the late nineteenth century to the 1940s produced a particularly corporealized and male ‘American’ modern art and ‘artist.’ David A. Gerstner brings movements in theater, art, literature, photography, and dance to bear on a variety of cinematic works. His canvas is broad, illuminating, and exciting in its theoretical premises and unexpected historical juxtapositions. A provocative—and major—contribution to multidisciplinary studies in the humanities and arts.” — Vivian Sobchack, author of Carnal Thoughts: Embodiment and Moving Image Culture

“Through a consideration of such seemingly disparate figures as Edwin Forrest, Theodore Roosevelt, Oscar Micheaux, Paul Strand, and Vincente Minnelli, David A. Gerstner subtly and cogently outlines the complex ways that literature, theater, cinema, and other arts created a fragile definition of nation: one predicated on white, working-class, masculine norms but also inflected by African American masculinities and queer subjectivities. Original and innovative, Manly Arts is sure to be a significant and lasting contribution to the fields of gender studies, film studies, and American arts and aesthetics.” — Paula J. Massood, author of Black City Cinema: African American Urban Experiences in Film


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Author/Editor Bios Back to Top

David A. Gerstner is Associate Professor of Cinema Studies at the City University of New York, College of Staten Island.

Table of Contents Back to Top
Preface ix

Acknowledgments xv

1. Nineteenth-Century Formulations of Masculinity and Realism: The Body of Edwin Forrest 1

2. The Battle Cry of Peace and the Spectacle of Realism 51

3. African American Realism: Oscar Micheaux, Autobiography, and the Ambiguity of Black Male Desire 83

4. Manhatta: A National Self-Portrait 119

5. The Queer Frontier: Vincente Minnelli’s Cabin in the Sky 165

Epilogue 212

Notes 215

Bibliography 281

Index 305
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Additional InformationBack to Top
Paper ISBN: 978-0-8223-3763-8 / Cloth ISBN: 978-0-8223-3775-1
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