Culture  /  Retrieval

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.

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.