“The Baritone with Muscles in his Throat”: Vaughn Monroe and Masculine Sentimentality during the Second World War

Document Type


Publication Date

Summer 7-22-2018


sentimentality, World War II, ballad, Tin Pan Alley, Vaughn Monroe

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)



During the Second World War sentimentality reclaimed the mainstream of American popular music. Ballad recordings—slow, romantic love songs—increasingly pushed aside the hot jazz sounds of the era’s dance bands. The singers of these songs were an assortment of old and new faces—Bing Crosby, Dick Haymes, Vaughn Monroe, and Frank Sinatra. Their hit songs, recordings such as “I’ll Be Seeing You,” “Together,” “My Devotion,” and “There Are Such Things,” exchanged cynicism and irony for optimistic expressions of love, faithfulness, and devotion. These popular ballads shared in a broader wave of sentimentality that suffused the era’s mass culture—Hollywood film, commercial popular music, and radio programming.1940s sentimentality, although responding to new social conditions produced by the war, was modeled on and nourished by a historical tradition of sentimental culture stretching back into the mid-nineteenth century. Even while borrowing many of the tropes of this earlier sentimentality, such as true love, religious piety, and self-sacrifice, World War II-era sentimentality took on its own distinctive cast, shaped by the specificities of the historical moment, particularly the destabilizing effects of war mobilization on gender norms. 1940s sentimentality demonstrated a special concern with the behaviors, thoughts, and feelings of white men.

Vaughn Monroe (1911–73) was emblematic of this new sentimentality and its focus on masculinity. Famous first as a ballad singer on recordings and radio, he would eventually move into film acting. Although Monroe lacked the sexual charisma of the young Frank Sinatra (at that time part of the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra) or the genial familiarity of Bing Crosby, he was a commanding presence on the bandstand and on the Hollywood screen. Tall, with a deep, strong voice, Monroe modeled a wartime masculinity that mixed together sentimental and hard-boiled traits. He performed a mid-twentieth-century version of the eighteenth-century “man of feeling”—sensitive and receptive to all kinds of softer “feminine” feelings: love, romance, and wistful dreaming. But this openness to feeling was combined with a contradictory “masculine” hard-boiled attitude, a behavioral mode suspicious of all feeling and emotional display. Making this combination work involved resolving contradictions inherent in the idea of what Leonard Cassuto, in his study of detective fiction, calls “hard-boiled sentimentality.” How could a public figure navigate these gendered behavioral models to express both authentic emotion and cynical detachment?

Citation / Publisher Attribution

Modernism/Modernity, v. 3, issue 2

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