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Odd Men In
Review of Howard P. Chudahoff's
The Age of the Bachelor, Creating an American
by Walt Wadas

"Dad, what was it like to be a blonde?" is a question I never thought I would hear. Not even in my wildest imagining. That was before 2000. The new decade? Probably! Once upon a time, men fell in love and got married. Nowadays that seems like an old-fashioned family value. Wow! Who would have thought that gay men would be fighting that rear-guard fight? The realm where manhood is both threatened and proved is sexuality. Because it depends on social cohesion, manhood coalesces in professional societies, business associations, teams, colleges, and even political parties. But sex is the nexus for making and unmaking men. Stated more fully, a constructed view of masculinity goes like this: Male behavior, especially public behavior, is crucial for establishing a masculine self.

Centered on formerly exclusively all-male work and play, a code of honor forms a system of recognition and hierarchy. In order to further bourgeois, Christian, patriarchal values, men have a public domain - work - and a private domain - sex - which require self and group discipline and control.

Men who do not, or will not, observe these values and thus fulfill their responsibilities, particularly responsibilities of marriage and family, declare themselves deviants. Although they may in fact be heterosexual bachelors, never-married men are queers. In an essential way, bachelors are more sinister than homosexuals, because homosexuals may be relegated away as sick, defective, obscene; while heterosexual bachelors are selfish and un-Christian. They are willfully perverse for not giving primacy to the general good, the higher calling of country, society, Nature. By refusing to use their sperm productively, so to speak, bachelors disrupt the straight sexual hegemony, undermine manliness, and soften the national character. Being a straight bachelor might be even worse than being an unmarried gay man. Recall the legacy of the nineties: everybody wants to be a victim.

Howard P. Chudahoff, of Brown University, defines "bachelor" using Margaret Meade's dictum that fatherhood is the natural inclination of men, of males. Thus he formulates bachelor as a stigmatized, deviant status which defines its social identity by means of characteristics, mostly negative, attributed to bachelors by the population at large. This is akin to the paradigm by which pre-Stonewall homosexuals modeled their behavior and also the petard which post-Stonewall clones and other gay men hoisted.

Citing demographic, economic and social theories, Chudahoff explains why there are so many bachelors in the United States. He writes chiefly about the decades from 1880 through 1930, which are the reigning years of The Age of the Bachelor.

The late nineteenth century in America was a perfervid time. In 1882, Oscar Wilde made his lecture tour of America. He visited more than 100 cities, including not only Boston and San Francisco, but also Madison and Dubuque. Inversion, or homosexulaity, was then an emerging concept. In the aftermath of the bloody, divisive Civil War, the new compulsive masculinity had not been forged. Wilde arrived at a moment of ready fecundity. Gender boundaries were being exploded by industrialization, urbanization, and social reforms, not the least of which was women's suffrage. The nation had celebrated itself at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition of 1876 by exalting peace. The populace was enthralled of arts and architecture.

On tour, Wilde was treated as someone and something genuinely important. His talks on aesthetics had liberating power that led away from stifling Calvinist conformity. Wilde brought the sexuality of the individual to daily discourse. Yet to come were his disgrace and conviction for gross indecency in 1895. Wilde proclaimed estheticism as a philosophy of manners and life as well as decoration. Wilde and his views were easily mocked and simplemindedly spoofed as effete, as dandy-ism.

Wilde lived sexuality as a legal, medical and psychological category. Making manhood a subject of public perusal, he presented himself as his ideas. When they met on January 18, 1882, in Camden, New Jersey, and kissed on the lips, Oscar Wilde and Walt Whitman were news. Frank, erotic interaction left the pure sentiments of same-sex intimacy behind.

In The Coast of Bohemia, published in 1893, novelist William Dean Howells summed and closed the previous two decades. Howells collapsed gender reversal, forbidden sexuality, and cultural subversion under the weight of social anxiety. By 1895, Teddy Roosevelt was rising, ready in 1898 for the Spanish-American War. The painful, psychologically dangerous, sexist and putatively Christian masculinity that afflicts American men, American society, even today, was forged.

Professor Chudahoff points out the contradiction of listing and choosing "single" as a "marital status." The subversive dynamics of bachelor are tamed. The hegemony of the married triumphs. Probably there is not, and never was, an age of the bachelor. Nevertheless, The Age of the Bachelor is well-researched and anecdotally-rich. The book pays particular attention to life in Boston, Chicago and San Francisco, but its broad sweep is inclusive. Chudahoff's book is readable, informative, and worthwhile.