The Lineaments of Personality: Esquire and the Problem of the Male Consumer

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By approaching consumption as the expression or by-product of gender identity, historians and other commentators on gender fail to account for consumer culture as an important site where difference is itself constituted through the goods we purchase, the items we desire and the worlds we imagine. To this end, the male consumer becomes problematic when prevailing historiographic models construct him solely as a rational, goal-oriented purchaser of goods or as an amoral libertine who rejects responsibility for fleeting pleasures. Both approaches are untenable since they rely upon a problematic rhetoric of gender essentialism. What I argue for instead is an approach that places consumption within the unsettled discursive practice of gender. In this sense, the problem of the male consumer speaks in part to a larger issue in historiography, namely how we historicize pleasure and desire. My work on Esquire in the period from 1945-1965 attempts to address this gap by examining the role of cultural intermediaries in developing a discourse on socially legitimate forms of consumption.

Against the background of the misogynistic "Masculinity Crisis" rhetoric, the postwar mass culture debates and a nascent counterculture, Esquire transformed itself from a crude men's magazine to one of America's premier periodicals. Between 1956 and 1963, Esquire published work by such distinguished figures as Richard Rovere, Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., Norman Mailer, Saul Bellow, Dwight Macdonald, Paul Goodman, Diana Trilling, Terry Southern, and Nat Hentoff. During this same period, Esquire also ran monthly fashion spreads, service articles on the newest consumer goods, travel advice columns and an annual Christmas gift guide. Through the figure of the "Uncommon Man," the name given to the magazine's imagined reader, and the rhetoric of the "New Sophistication," Esquire attempted to negotiate the tension inherent in its contradictory parts. Drawing on research in cultural and intellectual history, gender theory, material culture studies and the sociology of culture, my dissertation investigates how Esquire opened a discursive space in which men could simultaneously construct themselves within and outside of consumer culture.