The Gentlemen of the Woods: Myth, Memory and the American Lumberjack, 1870-1936

Brown, Willa, History - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Varon, Elizabeth, History, University of Virginia

The Gentlemen of the Woods undoes a century of myth-making to reveal the working lives, gender ideals and racial identities of the men who carried out one of the largest environmental endeavors in American history: the logging of the Northwoods of Michigan, Minnesota, and Wisconsin. Across thirty years, tens of thousands of men worked in the Northwoods, first in small family-run lumbering camps. As the lumber industry grew, camps grew in size and management consolidated in the hands of a few timber barons, creating a permanent working class of lumberjacks. As this class formed, their identity was obscured by two myths: the first, of the bad lumberjack, presented jacks as a social disease whose homeless tramping, violence and thirst for alcohol made them unacceptable as members of society and racial degenerates; the second, of the good jack or the “gentleman of the woods,” painted lumberjacks as classless, heroic white workers, in touch with the land and happy in their jobs. This dissertation explains how these myths, invented by corporate advertisers and coastal journalists, came to both be embraced by Northwoods residents, and how the “gentleman of the woods” eventually came to dominate historical memory. It argues that it is only by untangling the complex layers of mythology and memory that we can understand the culture that these itinerant, largely illiterate workers created. It uses songs, diaries, and oral histories to demonstrate that lumberjacks identified neither with working class “rough masculinity” nor with middle class respectability, but defined their manhood in the tension between the two. In following their peripatetic movements and analyzing their culture, this dissertation reveals a culture whose methods of resistance, understandings of gender and race, and ideas about themselves have long been obscured by the creation of the mythic lumberjack.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
Masculinity, Labor history , Memory , 19th Century
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