History 248 Reading Guide

New Ideals and Realities:  Womanhood and Manhood

  • Anya Jabour, “Masculinity and Adolescence in Antebellum America:  Robert Wirt at West Point, 1820-1821,” Journal of Family History 23.4 (1998), 393-416.  SAGE Premier or (e-reserve)
  • Patricia Kelleher, “Class and Catholic Irish Masculinity in Antebellum America: Young Men on the Make in Chicago,” Journal of American Ethnic History 28.4 (2009), 7-42.  JSTOR

Further reading:

  • Linda Kerber, “Separate Spheres, Female Worlds, Women’s Place:  The Rhetoric of Women’s History,” Journal of American History 75.1 (1988), 9-39.  JSTOR
  • E. Anthony Rotundo, “Body and Soul:  Changing Ideals of American Middle-Class Manhood, 1770-1920,” Journal of Social History 16.4 (1983), 23-38.   JSTOR


  • Jabour offers a case study of a young man’s “turbulent adolescence” at a time when white Protestant middle class ideals of masculinity were in transition.  That transition compounded the difficulties for youth who sought to “mark” their attainment of manhood and independence.  
  • How does Jabour describe the childrearing methods (and the goals that they envisioned) that William and Elizabeth Wirt followed during Robert’s childhood? 
    At what point in his youth did their guidance and expectations become contradictory and conflicting for their son? Why?
  • What were the focal points of the tension between Wirt and his parents once he entered West Point in 1820?  How did Wirt, with the support of the male peer subculture of West Point, attempt to resolve that tension?
  • According to Jabour, what were the implications for young men such as Wirt of the new ideals of manhood that were emerging in the early 1820s?
  • Kelleher examines the lives of two Catholic Irish young men in antebellum Chicago to explore how class and ethnicity influenced ideas of masculinity, and how those ideas and that background affected the opportunities for social and economic mobility.
  • How does she define her goal in this study?  What is her thesis?
  • How does Kelleher describe the particular class, cultural and urban context in which Mulligan and Onahan developed their “middle class personas”?  How would that context shape their efforts to achieve the middle-class aspirations that they sought?  What barriers did it create?
  • On what sources did middle class Irish Catholic young men draw for their ideals of masculinity?  How did they attempt to combine and balance their cultural heritage with emerging “American” middle class values? 
    How were their choices shaped by their ambition and optimism that they could succeed?  How does Kelleher describe and explain the choices that they made in their “gambit” to develop a "style of high status masculinity"?
  • What opportunities and barriers did they encounter?  How did they respond, and either reaffirm or alter their goals?

Questions for the further reading:

  • Rotundo describes a “dramatic shift of masculine ideals” in nineteenth-century America.  How does he characterize the changing standards of manhood?  What periodization does he offer for the shift?
  • How did those changing masculine ideals respond to and reflect changes that were occurring in American society from 1770 to 1920?
  • What were the consequences for men of new internalized standards that emerged especially during the mid- to late-nineteenth century?