Reforming America and its men: Radical social reform and the ethics of antebellum manhood

Date of Award




Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)



First Committee Member

Joseph Alkana - Committee Chair


During the decades preceding the American Civil War, certain abolitionists and women's rights activists, radical social reformers perhaps best represented by William Lloyd Garrison, sought not limited reform of certain flawed aspects of American life but momentous change of an underlying patriarchal identity they believed the source of America's ethical problems. By including a critique of white masculinity along with their attack on national patriarchy, radical reformers identified hegemonic manhood as both a symptom of patriarchy and a force perpetuating it. Ethical reform of America's white men thus was a necessary step in the comprehensive reconceptualization of America itself. Their means of addressing America's ethical problems---admitting others as equal citizens and reshaping white male identity---challenged the cultural norms upon which American identity was based. This project explores how radical reform rhetoric shaped the contemporary discourses on gender and race, informing the work of certain antebellum authors. Nathaniel Hawthorne's early fiction reveals a commitment to the patriarchal construction of community and its corollary form of manhood, but his later works, including The Scarlet Letter and The Blithedale Romance, engage radical reform rhetoric and reveal his growing concerns about patriarchy's destructive nature. Harriet Beecher Stowe, in works such as Uncle Tom's Cabin, Dred, and The Minister's Wooing, displays a similar concern about national and masculine ethics. She initially rejects the gender and racial prescriptions of radical reform while advancing a vision of traditional white manhood rooted in mythic American origins, but she later incorporates more fluid notions of gender into her work. In Clotel, William Wells Brown scathingly critiques American origins and the nation and forms of white manhood those origins had produced, but he also endorses the ideology of separate spheres, departing from his radical reform colleagues. In subsequent works, he attempts to construct an African-American masculinity largely along conventional lines of masculine achievement. A century later, James Baldwin's exploration of racial and gender identity provides insight into how the matters informing antebellum reform continued to shape American culture well into the twentieth century.


Literature, American

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