The Industrial Man: American Leisure and the Strenuous Life

At five o’clock on any given weekday morning you are likely to find dozens of dazed looking men and women walking down the avenue carrying lunch pales and quietly conversing amongst themselves, dressed probably in the same grease-stained clothes they wore the day before. A distant whistle blows and the sound reverberates off the brick walls in the alleys nearby…and in their minds. Approaching the factory, they intersect with the workers whose shift just ended – a seemingly endless parade of slouched and exhausted individuals dragging their feet in the dust. As the fresh hands enter the factory lines and the whistle blows yet again signaling the start of a new shift, their minds are set on one thing and one thing only: In ten hours’ time, they will be free again. And they have made plans.

This is the urban American life at the turn of the twentieth century. Millions of Americans from coast to coast were put to work in factories and other industrial establishments propelling the country through a new revolution. Even more, with the system of turns set in place unlike the old sun-up-to-sun-down schedule many rural migrants were accustomed to, they had some time to spare. In selections from Elliot J. Gorn’s commentary The Manly Art: Bare Knuckle Prize Fighting in America, the author illustrates for us just how eager this American working class was to utilize this relatively new idea of leisure. With more and more Americans finding time in their days with which to recreate and participate, a new dawn of activity and pastime, indeed a new aspect of the American identity was born. For this modern working class, leisure to a degree became a matter of selecting, purchasing, and consuming goods and services; commercialized amusements filled more and more free time.

At this time in American history, especially in the urban-developed and metropolitan industrial areas of the country, we saw an increase in dance halls, concert venues, bars and casinos, parks and piers, and sporting complexes. Baseball became a national pastime, and men could root for their home team and establish a community with the thousands of male spectators who filled up newly constructed ballparks. Communities were created as a result of these activities. People dedicated themselves to many new pursuits and hobbies, but in The Manly Art the author focusses primarily on that of men’s interest and involvement in athletic sport – specifically bare knuckle prize fighting and boxing and its impact on the manly psyche. Though the content of the book is widely related to and has emphasis on the nature and sport of these fights as well as the men that engaged in them, prize fighting was only but a small part of a much more profound cultural reformation in the lives of many urban-industrialist men. Truly it was a time in history when men needed to define themselves by more than being lowly wage earning bodies at a factory. The emasculated culture, referring principally to the absence of manly outlets and other responsibilities known by generations prior, had taken a toll on the general male populace, and it was time they made some changes. The new venue was the boxing gym. Their first item of business? Their bodies.

By the last decade of the nineteenth century, power obsessed many American males…They now viewed physical strength as an emblem of force and energy in the larger social world. Not only athleticism but upbeat music, imperialist adventures, realistic literature, the allure of the wilderness…all manifested the desire to break through genteel constraints, in Theodore Roosevelt’s words, “the strenuous life.” This new quest for vigor arose partly out of deep spiritual longings, because a thoroughly corporate, bureaucratized society was also a dull and soulless one. Countless men of means sought rugged action to compensate for their sage and overstuffed lives.  It is important to note that the author’s main argument in the chapter outlined in this essay is that the prize fighting and boxing culture established at that time represented not just the act of sport for entertainment and exercise, but additionally acted as a symbol of man’s new discovery of those primitive virile attributes from which, over time, he had become so disenfranchised. Once fortunes were amassed, corporations built, and frontiers closed, individuals were tempted to cease driving themselves and to lapse into slothful consumption of life’s fruits. Violent sports and rugged stress seeking, however, allowed men…to have it both ways, to enjoy their legacy of material comfort while denying that they had lost any of the masculine selflessness of pioneers and soldiers.

The new idea of American leisure being introduced in conjunction with industrialization dramatically altered the tradition of how people lived and how society progressed, especially for men of the time. Men were able to work, thrive, and ultimately uncover once again that rich, balanced life through their leisurely pursuits of manliness. Unbeknownst to them at the time, industrial-era Americans were establishing the new American identity. It is inarguable that these innovations in lifestyle, time, and activity as mentioned by Gorn in his book have greatly influenced the way in which we as men work, live, and use leisure even today in the new millennium.

Along with what Elliott Gorn tastefully outlined in his work The Manly Art, disposable time dedicated to athletic sport and other manly developments was as good for society as a whole as it was for the American man. Leisure, in its best form, truly provided a change in pace for the public that allowed society to expand and progress in nearly every respect. In many ways, our modern culture too has become quite emasculated as the definition of virility and manhood has evolved with the times. Maybe today it would do us all some good to once again revisit and reinvent the gentleman barbarian within us all and fight again. Yes, even adopt and live what so many men of the industrial-era American workforce so longingly strived for, the strenuous life.

*      *      *

Elliot J. Gorn, The Manly Art: Bare Knuckle Prize Fighting in America, (1986).
Nancy Hewitt and Steven Lawson, Exploring American Histories, Vol. 2, (2017).


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