Wednesday, May 20, 2009

John G. McCurdy's "Citizen Bachelors"

John G. McCurdy is Assistant Professor of History at Eastern Michigan University.

He applied the “Page 99 Test”--is Ford Madox Ford's contention, "Open the book to page ninety-nine and read, and the quality of the whole will be revealed to you," accurate?--to his new book, Citizen Bachelors: Manhood and the Creation of the United States--and reported the following:
On page 99 of my book Citizen Bachelors, I discuss the identity of Mr. Spectator and Isaac Bickerstaff, two of the most famous—yet fictional—single men of the eighteenth century. I am fascinated with these two because they are representative of the complexities of what it was to be a bachelor in early America. They were simultaneously proud to be free of a wife and children—yet they discussed courtship and marriage nonstop. They were asexual characters who passed little judgment on their libertine companions—yet they insisted that they had once loved and lost so that no one would think they were homosexuals. They challenged the need for a law to punish men for being single—yet they heaped scorn and rebuke on those that followed in their footsteps.

Such contradictions are emblematic of the larger themes in my book. For too long, historians have assumed that bachelors in colonial America were the objects of ridicule and scorn. My research reveals that this interpretation was only part of the story. Instead, early Americans had a contradictory view of single men. They admired their independence, but feared they were idle drunks; they were jealous of their sexual agency, but worried about all the bastard children they were fathering. I believe that this contradiction remains with us today—we simultaneously ogle People magazine’s “Fifty Hottest Bachelors” while fretting over fatherless families.

More importantly, my book argues that in the contest between admirers and critics of the bachelor, it was the former who actually won the battle and this has had a lasting impact on American society, especially our ideas of citizenship. When Bickerstaff pondered bachelor laws, he was reflecting on actual events. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, ten colonies and England maintained a special tax on single men. Yet by the American Revolution, many asked why the bachelor should be treated differently than any other man. Accordingly, when the United States was formed, nearly all of the states revised their legal codes to ensure equal treatment of their citizens regardless of marital status. This set the model for notions of equality before the law which later brought women and African Americans into the political process.

So my answer to the original question is “yes.”
Read more about Citizen Bachelors at the Cornell University Press website.

Learn more about the author and his scholarship at John G. McCurdy's faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue