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Messy, messy masculinity: The politics of eccentric men in the early United States

For every weirdo one finds while researching the past’s forgotten personalities, there are probably two or three more just a stone’s throw away whom time did not preserve. At least that is the realization I had while researching and writing Feeling Singular: Queer Masculinities in the Early United States, a monograph which looks at the cultural detritus that never cohered into more stable or now canonical figures.

When creatives have set their work in the early United States, they’ve turned to Ron Chernow to imagine Hamilton or David McCullough to produce John Adams, but those stories buttress popular and well-trod fantasies about so-called great men to make mythic something that was far messier. Take, for instance, the eccentric and self-declared “Lord” Timothy Dexter who commissioned wooden statues of himself, and others, and placed them in his front yard in Newburyport, MA. He even faked his death to witness how his family would mourn him at his own funeral. Dexter’s excessiveness tells us something about the way masculinity sometimes manufactures messes for attention.

The impulse to be remembered as significant has a much longer history than our current moment of immediacy might suggest.

Building upon this impulse toward a queered grandiosity (queer in the sense that it actively messes with norms and expectations), in Feeling Singular I assemble a collection of once neglected but now deeply curious stories that offer the underside to more popular narratives about the founding of the U.S. These are the stories of individuals, who didn’t have people in their contemporaneous moment consider them singular enough to be written about, archived, or remembered by history. To John Fitch, workaday mechanic and earnest steamboat inventor; Timothy Dexter, dealer in bedpans and whalebone corsets; Jonathan Plummer, itinerant peddler and preacher; and William “Amos” Wilson—“the Pennsylvania Hermit”—reclusive stonecutter, I give their fifteen minutes of fame, as it were, and then wonder over the alternative shapes that this era’s cultural shadows could cast were these makeshift monuments more momentous.

Today, anyone can rise into prominence using the tools of digital media and viral circulation to become an overnight sensation or a household name. This was not the case in the formative years of the U.S. when individuals desiring of notoriety but without having the conventional accoutrements for expecting such achievement, inevitably met with constraint, aspersion, and outright neglect. The impulse to be remembered as significant—and the desire to emerge into something of a builder and shaper of the cultural tapestry—has a much longer history than our current moment of immediacy might suggest.

When we see how people in the first decades of the United States desired the type of cultural significance that today seems to tempt everyone’s cameras and fingertips, we might perceive the history of America’s self-narrated exceptionalism in a more complicated backdrop. What about Dexter, Fitch, and Plummer and all those who saw the ballooning celebrity of Benjamin Franklin or George Washington and thereby felt themselves equal to the task to become placed firmly in that emerging constellation? Through actively building narratives from the stories that reside in the recesses of culture, might we learn more about the stakes of failure in a society that worships success?

…we might see how disruptive forms of contemporary American masculinities bear striking resemblance to the outcasts and eccentrics who aspired to be significant social actors in the early United States.

It is a given today that masculinity names a type of aggressiveness that demands an audience. The figure of the showoff is often gendered male, signifying masculinity as a type of dress one wears for attention. I argue in the book that masculinity, as a form of cultural aesthetics—something akin to a genre or a social convention—allows individuals to seek entrance into publicness with others and is often the ticket for expecting an audience. Considering Trish Loughran’s work on the incoherence and fraught nature of social networks and public infrastructures in the early decades of the republic, I find within the inchoate mess of the early United States that certain individuals aspired to a type of recognition that they never ended up fully achieving: call it the aspirational social media influencer without the cell phone. What this fraught masculinity descries is the shape of an eccentricity that pushes individuals beyond the orbit of the conventional, queering the expectations that would otherwise safeguard who gets authorized to enter the public imaginary.

The Most noble Lord Timothy Dexter,” engraving by James Akin (1806). Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

By juxtaposing the early United States with the twenty-first century world of media saturation, we might see how disruptive forms of contemporary American masculinities bear striking resemblance to the outcasts and eccentrics who aspired to be significant social actors in the early United States. These repressed stories tell us a great deal about how the norms of masculinity are shaped by specific interactions between hierarchies of power and fantasies of exclusion. What emerges through this juxtaposition between the past and the present is an examination of the politics of appearing disgruntled in the public sphere, and what that disgruntled-ness—often coded as mess—does to trouble a series of social norms and protocols.

Masculinity in the U.S. context today often names an allowance for being messy, being disruptive. But that wasn’t always the case. Instead, those who were perceived as desiring attention were considered strange, weird, or queer—queer in the sense that they troubled the norms of their social worlds. The men I examine tried to emerge into singularity but did not have access to the forms that would permit their circulation and self-representation. If the desire to rise into a form of masculine singularity (which today seems baked into the cultural forms of American political celebrity) were nonnormative, what might that realization tell us about today’s shifting social mores?

When one listens through the megaphone of another’s own trumpeted singularity, the more disruptive forces may be evident, highlighting the earlier period’s corrosively queer elements and putting in relief our own.

Featured image: Close up on the political celebrity statues surrounding Timothy Dexter’s yard. Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

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