Conversations with Historians:

John Kasson: Intro

In the first of our series, John F. Kasson, Bank of America Honors Professor of American history at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, was interviewed about his latest book, Houdini, Tarzan and the Perfect Man: The White Male Body and the Challenge of Modernity in America. Michael O’Malley conducted the interview in August 2001

  Could you describe the book’s thesis?

  What drew you to the subject?

  How did depictions of the male body change at this time? What is new about the ways men are displayed?

The book focuses on three main characters: Eugen Sandow, often called the first body builder; Harry Houdini, the great magician, and Edgar Rice Burroughs, the author of the Tarzan series.

Sandow the Magnificent

  How were depictions of Sandow, often described as the first bodybuilder, different from depictions of other popular symbols of masculinity—say, for example, the boxer John L. Sullivan?

  Why was Sandow so popular?

  The “cult of self making” was so powerful at the time—the mythic idea of the “self made man.” What relation does Sandow’s career bear to the idea of “self making?”

  Didn’t Sandow also pose as a kind of “natural” superman?

  But at the same time, it seems as if Sandow appealed to, or was part of , the increasing standardization of everyday life. Is that right?

  What else worked to make Sandow so popular?

  How much did Sandow appeal to homoerotic desire?

  to see Edison’s very early film of Sandow posing

Click here for more on Eugen Sandow.

Next: Harry Houdini

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