- Paperback: 288 pages
- Publisher: Harvard University Press; 1 edition (March 15, 2010)
- Language: English
- ISBN-10: 0674055640
- ISBN-13: 978-0674055643
- Product Dimensions: 6.2 x 0.8 x 9 inches
- Shipping Weight: 15.5 ounces
- Average Customer Review: 3 customer reviews
- Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #433,187 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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The Showman and the Slave: Race, Death, and Memory in Barnum’s America 1st Edition
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From Publishers Weekly
.T. Barnum's first triumph as a showman was passing off Joice Heth, an elderly slave, as the 161-year-old ex-wet nurse of George Washington. A consummate spin doctor, Barnum squeezed profit even from Heth's death: tickets to her autopsy cost 50 cents, "the equivalent of a good seat at the opera." Reiss, an assistant English professor at Tulane, examines the cultural meanings of the Heth hoax for insight into racial attitudes in antebellum America. This wholehearted postmodernist explores the ascendance of newspapers and autopsies, our fascination with cannibalism and other phenomena. More attention to literature on contemporaneous freak shows (e.g., Bondeson's 2001 The Feejee Mermaid) might have added depth. Dollops of lingo (Heth as a "deeply ambiguous somatic symbol" of "struggles over cultural propriety and social hierarchy") lard every chapter, but patient readers will be rewarded. The last chapters treat head-on the two lead characters in the story, Barnum and Heth, and their respective roles in the hoax. While digressions can be interesting (a few paragraphs on abolitionist and ex-slave Harriet Jacobs are welcome), some of the relevance claims can be annoying (e.g., the scrap of the NY Herald Jacobs sent to her former master to make it seem she was living in New York may or may not have had an article about Heth). Reiss undercuts his strong concluding argument for Heth's cleverness by speculating that she may have suffered from dementia. 12 illus.
Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information, Inc.--This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
A good and engaging read. A mystery story, an attempt to sort through conflicting, often fragmentary, evidence to give the most plausible account of a bizarre, perhaps transformative, moment in American popular culture. (Ronald G. Walters, Johns Hopkins University)
This book shares in a long and distinguished tradition of social and cultural histories that transform 'ordinary' events in the past into extraordinary windows onto their worlds. (Bryan J. Wolf, Yale University)
Reiss...uses P.T. Barnum's first hoax, the exhibiting of Joice Heth...to look at race relations in the antebellum North. This was one of the first media spectacles in US history; as such it provides a mirror of mid-19th-century society...Her exhibition and its aftermath brought into prominence several facets of antebellum cultural history, including the role of medical science, the importance of memories of revolutionary unity, attitudes toward death and religion, the role of women in public life, class competition, the effects of urbanization on culture, and the emergence of the mass media. Above all, exhibiting Heth provided ample opportunity for discussion of race and slavery...and for supplying evidence of northern psychological and material involvement in southern slavery. This should become a classic study of antebellum history. (W. K. McNeil Choice 2002-05-01)
Worth reading...Reiss does a fine job in presenting the fascinating story of Barnum's acquisition and display of an old slave woman who claimed to be George Washington's 161-year-old nurse and nanny. Reiss takes us through Heth's tour between the summer of 1835 and her death in February 1836, when a shameless Barnum arranged for a public autopsy (at fifty cents admission) to determine her true age (found to be 76-80 years). Like a detective, Reiss shows how Barnum...skillfully exploited shifting and complex appeals (disgust and condescension toward Heth's race and distorted physical appearance as well as admiration for her linkage with the Founding Father, her humor, family loyalty, and love of religious music)...Reiss also contextualizes each episode, drawing on cultural theorists...but also skillfully using a rich historical literature. Reiss shows how Barnum borrowed from the penny paper and minstrel show to display Heth as a racial 'other,' but he also reveals how Barnum appealed to the very specific patriotic and religious sensibilities of the 1830s to present Heth as a living and highly personal witness to America's founder and as a model Christian overcoming her 'brutish' origins...[Does] what all academic history must, make[s] meanings and sense out of [its] material. (Gary Cross Journal of American History)
Compelling...cogent...provocative...revealing...Reiss uses out-of-the-ordinary events and atypical historical actors to explore cultural norms and social tensions....He effectively probes the exhibition [of Joice Heth] as an indicator of northern racism's depth and complexities...As such, his book enriches a now familiar story laid out by historians like Leon Litwack, Winthrop Jordan, and Reginald Horsman, elucidating, through Geertzian thick description, some of the most innovative means in antebellum America for reproducing and disseminating racist ideas...Reiss has given historians an enticing vantage point from which to pursue the integration of social and cultural history. (Edward Balleisen Reviews in American History)
Benjamin Reiss's study of the legendary P.T. Barnum illuminates the significance of race's cultural capital beyond the plantation. Barnum's is a name familiar to most Americans. But how many people know that the great showman got his start in the 1830s promoting a racial curiosity: Joice Heth, a supposedly 161-year-old black woman and slave who, Barnum claimed, had once cared for an infant George Washington? Barnum publicized this so-called 'curiosity' in 1835 just as American popular entertainment exploded with the penny press and blackface comedy. The Showman and the Slave expertly elucidates the multiple meanings of Barnum's first successful venture...The result is a book that is not merely intriguing history but a good read. (Richard S. Newman The New England Quarterly)
Superb...Benjamin Reiss [writes] the history of entertainment exactly as it should be written: as a sophisticated interaction between presenters and observers that reveals much about the values of the age...Required reading for those interested in the broad sweep of nineteenth-century social history, as well as the history of entertainment, the popular press, science, race relations, slavery, abolitionism, business, gender studies, and historical memory. (Paul Reddin American Historical Review)
This is a painful story of violence, white supremacy, and the exploitation of women. It must be passed on with great sensitivity and self-scrutiny on the part of the teller. Benjamin Reiss is that sort of teller. With The Showman and the Slave, he has made a significant contribution to our understanding of antebellum history and culture. (Bluford Adams Ethnic and Racial Studies)
[An] intriguing and thoughtful book...[a] remarkable and disturbing story. (Gary Gerstle Washington Post)
Benjamin Reiss's The Showman and the Slave is...[a] wonderful piece of scholarship that demonstrates how mining the intricacies of a moment may in turn shed new light on an entire age...As wonderful as this book is in terms of its cultural acumen and playful sleuthing through the murky history of popular culture, it is equally impressive as a demonstration of historiographical method...I cannot recommend this book highly enough, particularly to young scholars wondering how to weave multiple scholarly threads into a coherent and compelling narrative of the highest quality. (Stephen John Hartnett Rhetoric and Public Affairs)
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As an elderly black woman whose body was deformed by age and malnutrition, Heth simultaneously inspired disgust, doubt, admiration and erotic fascination in her audiences, particularly in the white newspaper reporters who were either obsessively profiling her or sneeringly debunking her. Reiss shows how Barnum fed the flames of her celebrity, keeping alive all manner of stories and skepticism about Heth.
Reiss is an impressive prose stylist; he knows how to pace a historic narrative to maximum effect. And rather than doggedly pursue any single thesis, he spins out a lot of possible interpretations of the Barnum-Heath duo, while acknowledging that there's much about Heth's private life that we'll never know.
Barnum and Heth are unforgettable characters, but their story is also a prism revealing many facets of American life in the 19th century: the significance of George Washington's memory in the early republic, public entertainment, race, urban life, the growth of penny newspapers, the status of the working class and, of course, the meaning of slavery in the American North and South.