Performing across Borders: Representations of Race, Class, and Gender in the United States, 1880–1925

AHA Session 89
Society for Historians of the Gilded Age and Progressive Era 2
Friday, January 7, 2011: 2:30 PM-4:30 PM
Dartmouth Room (Marriott Boston Copley Place)
Amy Louise Wood, Illinois State University
The Audience

Session Abstract

The proposed panel focuses on the ways that race, class and gender were represented to the American public in performance, narrative and visual culture between 1880 and 1925. All four papers share a focus and a methodology. They all position popular representations within the context of transnationalism, American expansion and/or empire. Each also explicitly addresses the challenges facing historians as they attempt to integrate popular representations and performances into their work, and demonstrates the rich possibilities offered by this kind of contextualization within a historical framework.

Jeremy Rich focuses on a New York socialite who invoked contemporary readings of gender and race in her popular narrative about her travels in Ghana, only to have unscrupulous Broadway producers plagiarize her story; this allows him to frame public performances of race and gender in a shifting transnational context that includes not only the production of narrative, but the struggle for control of interpretation after its entrance into the realm of popular culture. Bonnie Miller centers her talk on visual culture during the Spanish-American War, tracing the evolution of images of masculinity in editorial cartoons as popular understandings of the war changed.  By placing these images into context within the war’s shifting political frameworks, she complicates current historical readings of a one-note “imperial masculinity,” offering instead a far more complex and multivalent set of meanings. Tara Kelly juxtaposes popular narratives of American big-game hunting in East Africa with the experience of native Africans hired as labor on those safaris; this allows her to add a new social and economic dimension to current understandings of the safari, while exploring the methodological challenges facing historians as they try to read events “on the ground” through narrative. Finally, Christine Bold explores Owen Wister’s odd fixation on an African-American ranchhand he met in Texas, and then examines the re-presentation of that relationship in The Virginian, in which Wister transformed the ranchhand into a white man. Drawing on little-known archival materials, she contrasts Wister’s actual experience of race in the Western borderlands to his textual preoccupations with racial purity and exclusivity, arguing for a new understanding of the two as inextricably linked for both the author and his readers.           

This panel should appeal to a wide audience, including historians engaged with questions of race, class and gender, with the popular media, and with transnationalism and empire. At the same time, the panel reflects a growing trend in which the events of history and the popular texts through which they were interpreted are placed into conversation with one another. Amy Louise Wood’s recent book on Lynching and Spectacle has been widely recognized as an outstanding example of this type of historical enquiry, and its audience has reached far beyond those historians studying the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. By serving as chair, she signals to a wide-ranging audience that this panel could be engaging and useful to historians pursuing such readings, regardless of the time period in which they specialize.

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