Creating the College Man: American Mass Magazines and Middle-Class Manhood, 1890–1915

Creating the College Man: American Mass Magazines and Middle-Class Manhood, 1890-1915 (Studies in American Thought and Culture) BY Daniel A. Clark. University of Wisconsin Press. Paperback, 256 pages. $26.

The cover of Creating the College Man: American Mass Magazines and Middle-Class Manhood, 1890-1915 (Studies in American Thought and Culture)

Magazines were the first national news medium. They arrived before the radio and newsreels, backed by techniques and technologies (mass advertising, photo engraving, the rotary press) that spread a sensational brand of reporting that challenged governments, put pressure on trusts, and stimulated reform. Daniel A. Clark takes up an aspect of this story in Creating the College Man, an engaging contribution to the history of the mass media that provides evidence of the power of magazines to shape our mental lives. His close reading of Munsey’s, Collier’s Weekly, Cosmopolitan, and the Saturday Evening Post focuses on the importance of such publications in constructing a myth of self-improvement for the increasingly anxious American male. Periodicals spread across America just before the turn of the twentieth century, as mergers gave rise to modern capitalism. The corporate life was high-powered and fast-paced for the man at the top, but it relied on the mind-numbing work performed by the man at the bottom. In the 1890s, when magazines ran nervous stories about clerks committing suicide, the message was clear: Office work was deadening.

Stymied and stultified by the modern corporation, native-born Anglo-Saxon men also faced economic threats from women entering the workplace and from working-class immigrants who pushed the boundaries of whiteness. In response to this crisis of confidence, magazines posed the answer of college—a place where the middle-class white man could gain technical expertise, acquire cultural brio, and assemble that intangible mixture of elegance and mettle known as “character.” And he could do it all while taking part in football games, campus pranks, and drinking rituals that confirmed him as a virile sort, even as he joined in the effete club life that announced his social superiority. The college man who starred in the Saturday Evening Post’s football fiction or posed smartly in pinstripes and bowler in the ads of Harvard Clothes (“They possess exclusively a snap, dignity and correctness that is best described by the phrase ‘well-groomed’”) could be, Clark writes, “genteel yet . . . rowdy, cultured yet manly, polished yet professional.”

Clark shows that while university presidents like Harvard’s Charles Eliot made college more relevant to the future businessman by adding science to the liberal-arts curriculum, magazine fiction writers also took college mainstream by turning the campus into a destination in American popular culture. It was George Fitch, a Knox College grad, who created a long-lived form of collegiate comedy, enwrapping the quadrangle in a golden mist of bell-clapper high jinks through his stories of life at Ol’ Siwash, a fictional college where a group of sophomores bent on “applied deviltry” snuck a “foulmouthed parrot into the chapel organ pipes.” Another popular series in the Post, “Letters to a Kid Brother at College,” featured a bear in a bathtub; it could provide reams of material for Old School: Grandparents’ Edition.

The applied devils among us will see a direct line from such mass-market fiction to panty raids, Animal House, and—one small step for man later—the kid rapper Asher Roth, who hit the trifecta with his simple line “I love college, and I love drinking, I love women.” Colorful, vividly written, and held aloft by modern advertising, mass magazines for a time were sibyls of self-realization. Even today, their inheritors—bromance films, beer-pong players, and crack-up websites—tweet the enchanting strands of an initiation ritual that generations of upwardly mobile Americans have joined in since.