Houdini, Tarzan, and the Perfect Man by John F. Kasson
The White Male Body and the Challenge of Modernity in America

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A remarkable new work from one of our premier historians

In his exciting new book, John F. Kasson examines the signs of crisis in American life a century ago, signs that new forces of modernity were affecting men's sense of who and what they really were.

When the Prussian-born Eugene Sandow, an international vaudeville star and bodybuilder, toured the United States in the 1890s, Florenz Ziegfeld cannily presented him as the "Perfect Man," representing both an ancient ideal of manhood and a modern commodity extolling self-development and self-fulfillment. Then, when Edgar Rice Burroughs's Tarzan swung down a vine into the public eye in 1912, the fantasy of a perfect white Anglo-Saxon male was taken further, escaping the confines of civilization but reasserting its values, beating his chest and bellowing his triumph to the world. With Harry Houdini, the dream of escape was literally embodied in spectacular performances in which he triumphed over every kind of threat to masculine integrity -- bondage, imprisonment, insanity, and death. Kasson's liberally illustrated and persuasively argued study analyzes the themes linking these figures and places them in their rich historical and cultural context. Concern with the white male body -- with exhibiting it and with the perils to it --reached a climax in World War I, he suggests, and continues with us today.


About John F. Kasson

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John F. Kasson, who teaches history and American studies at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, is the author of Houdini, Tarzan and the Perfect Man, Amusing the Million, Rudeness and Civility, and Civilizing the Machine.
Published July 2, 2002 by Hill and Wang. 288 pages
Genres: History, Political & Social Sciences. Non-fiction

Unrated Critic Reviews for Houdini, Tarzan, and the Perfect Man

Kirkus Reviews

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A broader array of semi-clad men—and a sharper focus—would have done Kasson and the reader a world of good.

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Kirkus Reviews

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Eugen Sandow and a New Standard for America,” “The Manly Art of Escape: The Metamorphoses of Ehrich Weiss,” and “ ‘Still a Wild Beast at Heart’: Edgar Rice Burroughs and the Dream of ‘Tarzan’ ”), Kasson interprets these men as bellwethers of their time and place, exemplars of a particular vision ...

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The New York Times

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But he offers no evidence that Houdini's audiences perceived his escapes as a ''spectacle of the naked male body on trial.'' Spectators surely were less likely to come away cheering Houdini's pecs than wondering how he did it.

Aug 12 2001 | Read Full Review of Houdini, Tarzan, and the Perf...

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