Groupe de Recherches Anglo-Américaines de Tours

Editor-in-chief Trevor Harris

(Literature, Civilization, Cultural Studies, Gender Studies, Linguistics)
GRAAT: Pronounce [greit]
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GRAAT: Getting to the bone
A peer-reviewed journal of Anglophone Studies


James Penner, Pinks, Pansies, and Punks: The Rhetoric of Masculinity in American Literary Culture (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2011). $24.95, 318 pages, ISBN 978-0-253-22251-0—Georges-Claude Guilbert, Université François Rabelais, Tours.

James Penner teaches in the English Department at the University of Puerto Rico, Rio Piedras (San Juan). His work has appeared in various drama and gender studies journals. I hear that he is currently writing about the intersection of drug culture and literary culture in the 1960s and 1970s, which after the present book makes perfect sense. He will discuss Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs, R. D. Laing, the Living Theatre Company, the Cockettes, among other topics, some already touched upon in Pinks, Pansies, and Punks: The Rhetoric of Masculinity in American Literary Culture, which seems to have happily stemmed from his PhD dissertation.

After an Introduction reminding the reader of some of the stakes of “macho criticism,” Pinks, Pansies, and Punks: The Rhetoric of Masculinity in American Literary Culture is divided into five parts, entitled:
1. "Healthy Nerves and Sturdy Physiques": Remaking the Male Body of Literary Culture in the 1930s.
2. Doughfaces, Eggheads, and Softies: Gendered Epithets and American Literary Culture in the 1940s.
3. Highbrows and Lowbrows: Squares, Beats, Hipsters, White Negroes, New Critics, and American Literary Culture in the 1950s.
4. Reforming the Hard Body: The Old Left, the Counterculture, and the Masculine Kulturkampf of the 1960s.
5. The Gender Upheavals of the Late 1960s and Early 1970s: The Black Panthers, Gay Liberation, and Radical Feminism.

As the titles of these chapters indicate, Penner belongs to what is sometimes called “literary gender studies.” He is in equal parts a literary critic and a gender studies scholar (plus a cultural critic), bringing the best of both worlds to the page.
With a literary fluid style and a pleasant wit, Penner steers the reader through five decades of fluctuating visions of masculinity, not only in novels and criticism, but also in various artistic endeavors and in “cultured society” as a whole. He is so well-read that he shows, albeit humbly, that beyond (or prior to) his reading of all the writers he examines, he has devoted hours to reading those who have influenced them, notably psychoanalysts—particularly Sigmund Freud and Wilhelm Reich. I was frequently reminded as I read this book of my own close reading of 1950s and 1960s criticism of authors like Carson McCullers or Tennessee Williams; I had not come across people like Irving Howe in a while. Leslie Fiedler, though, remains a constant presence, obviously, but Penner splendidly recontextualizes his prose.

Penner is best at exemplifying the intersections of class and gender, as linked to more or less Marxist criticism, either of the “Old Left” or of the “New Left”—both being prehistoric now, of course. When tackling Michael Gold, he states that “much of Gold’s criticism rests on the premise that one’s social class is necessarily reflected in one’s masculine identity.” [2] He also looks at race, unavoidably, especially when it is useful to remind us of some racist clichés that persisted for decades, such as the view of Jewish males as inherently feminine, or the connection between racial myths and gender myths when it comes to African American cultural concerns [39]. Throughout the book Penner observes dichotomies at work or play: hard vs. soft, Apollonian vs. Dionysian, masculine vs. feminine. Which is not to say he necessarily sees them as binary himself, evidently, especially not the homo / hetero or effeminate / non effeminate divides. He convincingly argues against the use of “masculinity in crisis” (oops, I plead guilty), showing that what is happening (at various periods in history) is really “opposing types of masculinity that coexist in the same historical moment.” [15]
In terms of influences, he freely acknowledges those of people like Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, and one can find in the useful index mentions of the likes of Michel Foucault, Alan Sinfield, Judith Halberstam, Susan Jeffords, but curiously no mention of Judith Butler; this is a rare occurrence in gender studies works of the past two decades, which points to a determined choice, clearly, rather than an omission—as if Penner had wanted to demonstrate that one could, as blasphemous as this may sound, survive without her.

If the title sounds familiar, it is because it is a quote, as Penner acknowledges: “Credit for the phrase ‘pinks, pansies, and punks’ goes to Senator McCarthy. He used it in an attempt to discredit Adlai Stevenson’s campaign staff in 1952, and thus it conveys the American right wing’s discomfort with bohemians, homosexuals, progressives, and a particular sector of the American leisure class that gravitated toward left-wing politics in the 1940s and 1950s (‘pinks’).” [24] among other things, Penner reminds us of the frequent association (if not conflation) in the minds of many in the past of idleness and homosexuality. Male homosexuality is the one that worries people, specifically effeminate male homosexuality, since, as Halberstam and Penner know, “our society is far more concerned about effeminate males and tends to treat examples of female masculinity with widespread indifference” [46], whereas male “homosexuality is virtually synonymous with decadent leisure culture.” [54] Style, of course, matters most, and throughout the twentieth century there has been among the phallocrats or the homophobes as well as among a certain type of working-class hero or advocate a distrust of excessive style, or even simply of excessively good English. “In a column in the New Masses, Gold even goes so far as to associate ‘perfect English with effeminacy.’” [27] Penner points out tremendous paradoxes in the matter, for example, about the same Gold, that “the irony of Gold, the classic homophobe, adoring Whitman is familiar in macho criticism.” [28] For indeed, not only do paradigms shift, left and right and back and forth, from the 1930s to the 1970s, but things are not always so simple when it comes to the sexual orientations and literary choices of authors and critics. “Thus, in 1930 some critics could be anti-effeminate without being homophobic, but this distinction would become increasingly blurred as the 1930s progressed.” [36]

Penner looks at Clifford Odets’s plays and the novels of James T. Farrell and James M. Cain and other examples of tough-guy fiction, with femmes fatales and hard-boiled pursuits. He looks at WW2 butch marines and then at the Cold War and how America feared the penetration of Soviet spies. He mentions on the same pages, and rightly so, Gore Vidal’s The City and the Pillar, Truman Capote’s Other Voices, Other Rooms, and Alfred Kinsey’s Sexual Behavior of the Human Male, which all came out in 1948. That is really my only qualm with this book: I myself would have made much more of this, the visions of masculinity and homosexuality conveyed to the American public by those three books are so interestingly different. Of course, 1948 is also the year Leslie Fiedler published the oh-so-famous “Come Back to the Raft Ag’in, Huck Honey” in the Partisan Review [81]. Even though Penner and others now speak of Fiedler’s “misreadings,” he did deeply mark American literary criticism with this essay.

Then Penner studies the impact of some readings of Freud, in connection with the writings of Arthur Miller or Tennessee Williams, he speaks of “sex role theory and the problem of the soft male in the 1950s” [111], of mothers and sons and of James Dean and Rebel Without a Cause [114], and of Norman Mailer and “white negroes” and hipsters. He has closely read the Beats and shares some precious insights. The chapter on the 1960s and the counterculture is equally enlightening, notably when it comes to his assessment of the Living Theater, totally devoid of the sort of romantic nostalgia one sometimes encounters in descriptions of their more or less sexual antics. I particularly recommend his pages on Timothy Leary [181-193] and on Susan Sontag and ‘camp’ [163, 171-175].

As a conclusion, Penner does not wish his reader to imagine that the US is now wonderfully free of hurtful conceptions of masculinity; although his object of study is the 1930s to 1970s decades, he sees that “any serious cultural critic must also concede that the narrative of hardness—both as a physical ideal and as a cultural myth—continues to have tremendous popularity in the culture at large.” [248] All in all, Pinks, Pansies, and Punks: The Rhetoric of Masculinity in American Literary Culture is an invaluable book.

© 2011 Georges-Claude Guilbert & GRAAT









Senior sub-editor: Hélène Tison