Date of Award

2009

Level of Access

Campus-Only Dissertation

Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Department

History

Advisor

William J. Baker

Second Committee Member

Richard W. Judd

Third Committee Member

Elizabeth McKillen

Abstract

Mat Game is the story of wrestling as it develops from earliest times to its peak in the first decade of the twentieth century. Prior to 1900, wrestling was an important martial art, practiced in various styles around the world. As it developed in America, its participants occupied a unique position as representatives of local and national communities. An examination of primary sources shows a link between wrestling, cultural and religious images of manhood, the press, and the development of "men's" literature. The intersection of these seemingly disparate things led to the creation of an "ideal" American hero - and brought wrestling to its pinnacle at the turn of the twentieth century. This dissertation has two primary goals. First, it documents important events in early wrestling, connecting its participants to the larger culture of which they were part. Second, it illustrates the role of wrestling and wrestlers in the formation of images of manhood from colonial America to the early 1900s. Wrestling held a lofty position among early Americans, both natives and, ironically, Puritans. Wrestling helped these early Americans prepare physically and mentally for war. In addition, it helped define a man's worthiness to lead, whether as a native Chief or an American President. A look at literature throughout this period and into the early 1900s connects the image of a wrestler's strength and physical "beauty" to changing ideas of health, national vigor, and morality as exemplified by "muscular Christianity." By the turn of the century, wrestling and wrestlers brought the characters and ideals of realism, naturalism and pulp literature to life. Though limited in scope, this cultural and historical look at wrestling will contribute to our understanding of the everyday lives of eighteenth and nineteenth century American men. The study of wrestling has been largely ignored in academia, and this dissertation aims to lay a foundation upon which future research can be conducted.

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