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The Showman and the Slave


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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments Introduction: The Dark Subject Death and Dying 1. Possession 2. The Celebrated Curiosity 3. Private Acts, Public Memories 4. Sacred and Profane 5. Culture Wars 6. Love, Automata, and India Rubber 7. Spectacle Resurrection 8. Authenticity and Commodity 9. Exposure and Mastery 10. Erasure Life 11. A Speculative Biography Notes Index

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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

About the Author

Benjamin Reiss is Professor of English, Emory University.


P.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. (Oct. 5) Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.

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 *
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 *
Charts[s] new theoretical territory...Combining incisive media analysis with careful historiography and literary critical readings... Reiss's study reveals how Barnum's representation of Heth and its public reception indexed emerging canons of taste and notions of class propriety; conflicting views about the body, sexuality, and gender; as well as anxieties and fantasies about technology and empire. Reiss forcefully argues that these various glimpses of "Barnum's America" must be understood within the context of shifting social attitudes about race and slavery in the antebellum North...Heth's story provides a salient marker for the centrality of the freak show to the national culture. -- Eden Osucha * American Literature *
In his rich study about Joice Heth and her exhibitor, Reiss shows us a Barnum as complex as he is transparent, and no less mysterious in his chicanery than the "dark subject" who launched his career. Reiss, through an expert use of thick description, recovers and retells the story of Barnum and Heth from "a Babel" of primary sources that includes newspaper accounts, court records, letters, drawings, pamphlets, diaries, and Barnum's own autobiographies. In this fascinating narrative and cultural analysis of Barnum's maiden humbug (this book is a page turner despite/ because of its great erudition), Reiss outlines Heth's experiences with Barnum in three parts that chronicle her exhibition, her death and reemergence in culture and her "speculative biography" Reiss does an excellent job in chronicling and changing ideas about racial identity in America as they relate to Barnum's relationship with Heth, before and after her death It is not simply Barnum's personal opinions toward race that Reiss scrutinizes, but antebellum societal discourse as well, phrenology and all [The Showman and the Slave is a] wonderful, readable, smart book. -- Elizabeth Reitz Mullenix * Theatre Journal *

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