Performing Capacity and Gender: Randolph Bourne and Disabled Masculinity in Roosevelt’s America

Saturday, January 5, 2019: 1:30 PM
Williford B (Hilton Chicago)
Elizabeth M. McFayden, University of Illinois at Chicago
The United States in the late 19th and early 20th century emerged as one of the leading modern nations on the global stage. Vitally important to this debut was the appearance of a strong American manhood which had its foundation in the healthiest, most strenuous race: the white, able-bodied American male, epitomized in the figure of Theodore Roosevelt. To be anything less was to be deficient and, as the U.S. took more of a major role in world affairs, it was imperative for the nation to perform masculinity with the upmost confidence, especially with the onset of war in Europe. For men who were not able to live up to the hypermasculinity that Roosevelt represented, it was a more difficult time, especially for disabled men like essayist and cultural critic Randolph Bourne because gender and ability were linked to questions of normative capacity, determined and defined by the hegemonic state. Already set apart from manly endeavors prior to the start of the Great War, Bourne found himself even further removed from masculinity’s benchmarks once the U.S. started discussing its entrance into the war. Yet WWI pushed Bourne to give the greatest performance of his short life, demonstrating his own capacity by speaking out against the war and trying to find a part of American conscience that would allow people of all types their roles in society. For Bourne, embracing the feminine and balancing it against the masculine allowed more room for difference, wherein different capacities would find a home, and not be held to impossibly rigid and normative standards. As he could not be the man America demanded he be, his masculinity was best demonstrated only when it was combined with his feminine side, producing a creative and embracing man who fought battles armed only with a pen.
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