Strenuous Life

Emerging out of the historical context of western expansion in the 1840s, the ideal of a “strenuous life” was initially articulated in opposition to the humanitarian idealism of antebellum reform movements. In the aftermath of the Civil War, this ideal—emphasizing duty, military valor, and perseverance in overcoming obstacles—came to shape middle-class masculinity in U.S. society. By the late nineteenth century, contemporaries agreed on key masculine virtues, though they tended to disagree on the exact form and outlets that the strenuous life should take.

The concept had its origin in the social thought of the historian and naturalist Francis Parkman. A scion of Boston's upper class, Parkman and others of his class resented what seemed an erosion of status barriers and an increase in social and political ...

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