Egypt Land: Race and Nineteenth-Century American Egyptomania

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Egypt Land is the first comprehensive analysis of the connections between constructions of race and representations of ancient Egypt in nineteenth-century America. Scott Trafton argues that the American mania for Egypt was directly related to anxieties over race and race-based slavery. He shows how the fascination with ancient Egypt among both black and white Americans was manifest in a range of often contradictory ways. Both groups likened the power of the United States to that of the ancient Egyptian empire, yet both also identified with ancient Egypt’s victims. As the land which represented the origins of races and nations, the power and folly of empires, despots holding people in bondage, and the exodus of the saved from the land of slavery, ancient Egypt was a uniquely useful trope for representing America’s own conflicts and anxious aspirations.

Drawing on literary and cultural studies, art and architectural history, political history, religious history, and the histories of archaeology and ethnology, Trafton illuminates anxieties related to race in different manifestations of nineteenth-century American Egyptomania, including the development of American Egyptology, the rise of racialized science, the narrative and literary tradition of the imperialist adventure tale, the cultural politics of the architectural Egyptian Revival, and the dynamics of African American Ethiopianism. He demonstrates how debates over what the United States was and what it could become returned again and again to ancient Egypt. From visions of Cleopatra to the tales of Edgar Allan Poe, from the works of Pauline Hopkins to the construction of the Washington Monument, from the measuring of slaves’ skulls to the singing of slave spirituals—claims about and representations of ancient Egypt served as linchpins for discussions about nineteenth-century American racial and national identity.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

Egypt Land is an exceptional interdisciplinary study of the centrality of Egyptomania to considerations of race and nation in nineteenth-century America.”—Robert S. Levine, author of Martin Delany, Frederick Douglass, and the Politics of Representative Identity

“A magnificent piece of scholarship, Egypt Land does justice to the complexity of the work of nation- and race-making as such work moved circularly along axes of racialized science, ideology, Biblical and political authority, songs, and images, producing social and material effects. In short, the imagining of ancient Egypt was a weapon among an array of agents that both made and resisted, as Scott Trafton puts it, the ‘iconography of empire.’”—Wahneema Lubiano, editor of The House That Race Built

“Now that Scott Trafton has taught us the meaning of Egyptomania, we’ll all be seeing its register everywhere and feeling astonished that we weren’t noticing it before.”—Dana D. Nelson, author of National Manhood: Capitalist Citizenship and the Imagined Fraternity of White Men

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780822333623
  • Publisher: Duke University Press Books
  • Publication date: 11/28/2004
  • Series: New Americanists Series
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Pages: 376
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 8.90 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Scott Trafton is Assistant Professor of English and African American Studies at George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia.

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Read an Excerpt

Egypt land

Race and nineteenth-century American Egyptomania
By Scott Trafton

Duke University Press

ISBN: 0-8223-3362-7

Chapter One

"A Veritable He-Nigger after All"


During the first week of June 1850, a large crowd gathered at the Tremont Temple in Boston, Massachusetts. They had come to see a series of public lectures on many things related to ancient Egypt: its history, its customs, its geography, its monuments, and, in particular, as was the title of the course of the lectures, "The Art of Mummification among the Ancient Egyptians." The lectures took three days, held on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, were attended by a wide range of spectators-scientists, housewives, businessmen, medical doctors, schoolchildren, historians, and dilettantes from many fields-and were dramatically interconnected by a central device. A mummy, recently acquired from Egypt, was to be unwrapped, a little at a time, over the course of the three days, and was to be used as both a centerpiece for the performance and a springboard for the relation of any number of facts and comments about ancient Egypt in general. On Monday, the sarcophagus was opened and its hieroglyphs translated, on Wednesday the outer linen was removed and a lecture given on the material process of mummification, and so forth. "Enquire of these parched and shriveled lips," the lecturer intoned, "what were their owner's vocal articulations....Orask this scorched though gilded hand, to trace in hieroglyphics upon papyrus paper the memoirs of a lady.... The gentle owner of this exquisite foot danced in girlish gladness to the sounds of harps which were struck long ere David sang."

This lecturer-star speaker, procurer of the mummy, and notorious showman in his own right-was George Robins Gliddon. Gliddon was British born, a former U.S. vice consul for Cairo, and an avid amateur Egyptologist; he had organized the Tremont event almost single-handedly, as much as a tribute to himself as anything else, and so his place on center stage at the week's culminating moment was not only to be expected but was also intended to confirm his status as America's leading authority in the field of Egyptology. This chapter will have more to say on Gliddon, but for the time being it should be noted that it was only with Gliddon as one half of a dual centerpiece-Gliddon and his mummy-that the Tremont Temple show garnered the rather phenomenal excited attention that it did.

For the early part of the summer preceding the lectures of early June, Boston was gripped by mummy fever: as news of Gliddon's intended performance spread, many different sectors of Boston society built up an enthusiastic riff on the upcoming visit to the city by Gliddon and his "Egyptian Princess." Costume balls were held with Egyptian themes, rapturous poems were written to local newspapers, and the first fashionable topic of the summer had been found. And it was quite specifically a fashion of gender: what was advertised as the mummy of a priestess quickly became for those participating in the fad a princess, and this royal fantasy of the undressing of a Near Eastern princess long dead, before a crowd of two thousand, by her owner and possessor was, behaviorally speaking at least, not at all separate from the intellectualized endorsement that accounted for much of its public acceptance. "It was the dawn of paleopathology," writes Bob Brier of such public unwrappings, but it was also somewhat later in the day for the kind of Orientalist ambivalences on which Gliddon's event was so obviously based.

The unwrapping process was accompanied by the inclusion of several guest speakers, attendees with seats of honor; at appropriate times, scientists from all over the United States would step forward and lecture on their various specialties-religion, anatomy, linguistics, and so on-and so this Boston lecture had a performative dynamic that borrowed from the institutionalized behaviors of professional academics. Given, however, the popularized appeal and the show's bodily centerpiece, the week's events were also highly reminiscent of those that took place in the "lecture rooms" of showmen such as P. T. Barnum. Barnum himself had displayed Egyptian mummies and their sarcophagi as early as the 1830s, but this Boston lecture was funded by all the intellectual capital its star speaker could muster, and as such it was framed as somewhat anxiously separate from the even more popularized displays of exotic artifacts to which it was nevertheless explicitly akin.

Gliddon was capitalizing on the successes of both similar events staged by others in England and Europe as well as earlier, similar lectures of his own, and they had all partaken equally of the combination of scholarly and public endorsement that characterized the Boston event. "The subject of Egyptian Antiquities has excited for some time past, and is still exciting," explained the editor of the published version of Gliddon's lecture for unwrapping, "but in this country, the excitement is pretty much confined within the narrow circle of Egyptian scholars themselves.... Mr. Gliddon's labours, however ... have completely reversed this state of things: the public has been excited to a very unusual degree."

On Friday, though, on the day of the final lecture, with a crowd of two thousand in attendance, with some of the most famous scientists in America looking on, and with members of the press eagerly awaiting the end of their story, as Gliddon removed the final bandages, reached in, and pulled the mummy out of its case for all the hall to see, a sharp gasp went up from the crowd: the mummy was that of a man. The crowd burst into laughter, the press had a field day, and Gliddon was more or less run out of town. Even at the moment, as one newspaper account had it of two of the more famous scientists participating, Jacob Bigelow and Louis Agassiz, "Dr. Bigelow blushed, and Professor Agassiz put his hands in his pockets." Gliddon blamed his embarrassing mistake alternately on the illegibility of the hieroglyphic inscription on the mummy case or the bumbling of the workers at "the mummification establishment" in Egypt, thousands of years prior, who might not have been as attentive to issues of gender identification as he was. Either way, even though his supporters liked to claim that Gliddon's reputation as an Egyptian scholar was undamaged, most of the popularized images of him after the first week of June 1850 were one-sidedly satirical and expectedly merciless.

It would be almost four years before Gliddon regained the popular respect he obviously craved, and, not coincidentally, it would be through a concerted attempt at controlling the epistemological instability that had so embarrassingly attended his Boston performance. His definitional concerns in his later life, though, would be much more specific regarding their anxieties; they would treat gender in a much more occluded and erasable way, as a virtually forgotten and intentionally forgettable footnote in a long history of the production, reproduction, and decline of peoples, nations, and empires. His epistemologies after 1850 would concern themselves almost exclusively with issues of race.

Indeed, Gliddon's interest in utilizing his Egyptological lectures as a platform for discussing issues of race was by no means absent from the days of the Tremont event. "In this man's skull," he had exclaimed over another, less ambivalently male, mummy, during an earlier unrolling, "we behold one of ourselves-a Caucasian, a pure white-man; notwithstanding the bitumen which has blackened the skin." In point of fact, Gliddon's career to this point had in every way been associated with the rise of race science, as it would be for the rest of his life, and his American lectures were as famous for their raciological conclusions as they were for their highly crafted, if at times unintentional, drama. "Are anatomical laws so false," Gliddon would ask while unwrapping his mummies, "that a people with such physiognomical and osteological characteristics-a people whose mighty deeds are still erect in stone ... should not possess a development of head and volume of brain commensurate with the grandeur of their work?" Displaying his Egyptian skulls onstage, he would ask rhetorically: "Could a people gifted with such facial angles, elevation of forehead, smooth hair and aristocratic noses as these, fail to be great men and women?"

Gliddon's Boston event was one in a long line of moments partaking of links between nineteenth-century American Egyptology and the rise of racialized science, and it is with these links that the rest of this chapter will be concerned. Yet it is also crucial to remember that Gliddon's efforts were by no means going unnoticed by the very group he was attempting to analyze out of the history of the Nile Valley. By the end of the month of Gliddon's Boston debacle, the African American abolitionist newspaper The North Star ran this article:


There has been a wonderful fuss over a mummy at Boston lately. It is described as very ancient, and was supposed to be a Princess or Priestess of Thebes, in her glory.-Great parade and ceremony has been made as to the unrolling of the mummy. It has been done with much care in regard to highly excited literary taste in Boston, and in regard to the science of mummy-making, as well as the presumption that jewels, or manuscripts, might be found entombed in this relic of mortality.

Before the unrolling of the antiquated thing, we had many literary strictures and lectures from the learned, in Boston and about, in regard to the genealogy of the Thebans, of whom the mummy was supposed to be a royal relic. One important point was, to make out, that the Thebans, were a different race from the poor black creatures that mope now among the ruins of the city of a hundred gates. Oh! no. It would be bad taste enough to be paying great respect to the corpse of a nigger, if it be royal. We were assured therefore, by the learned doctors, that the Thebans were not Africans, but a nobler race, and had none of the particularities of niggerdom. Although this did not quite agree with Heroditus, and their contemporary historians, nevertheless the learned were sure it must be so.

Well, the poor old mummy, was at length stripped of its swaddling clothes, and disembowled, and furnished evidence of little else than that it was a veritable "he-nigger" after all. A humbling relic enough of Theban royalty, learning, and renown.

"A Fearful Crisis Must Come, Sooner or Later"

In 1854, Gliddon and an Alabama medical doctor named Josiah Clark Nott published in Philadelphia Types of Mankind; or, Ethnological Researches, Based upon the Ancient Monuments, Paintings, Sculptures, and Crania of Races, and upon their Natural, Geographical, Philological, and Biblical History. Over 700 pages long and drawing on the work of dozens of leading scholars, Types of Mankind took developments in the fields of phrenology, craniometry, comparative anatomy, and other biological and natural sciences, presented them in collaboration with developments in the newly burgeoning field of Egyptology, and produced what is still considered the signature work of what would quickly come to be known as the American School of Ethnology. "Ethnology demands to know," wrote Nott, "what was the primitive organic structure of each race?-what such race's moral and physical character?-how far a race may have been, or may become, modified by the combined action of time and moral and physical causes?-and what position in the social scale Providence has assigned to each type of man?" The critical phrase here is organic structure; Types of Mankind and the tradition it represents mark the initial consolidation of an extended appeal to biology in American racialized discourse and the presentation of the notion of biological racial types. Married to the notion of biological racialization was what was an equally strong selling point for many nineteenth-century naturalists and one that was seen as inseparable from its other innovations: the contributions the volume made to the defense of slavery. Offered in support of this project, as both proof and conclusion, were contemporaneous developments coming from the study of ancient Egypt.

Types of Mankind is infamous today for being the representative text of the American School and thus for many the best example of racist science the Western tradition has to offer. It was a watershed event in the history of American culture; it was the signature text of the American School, and Nott and Gliddon were its self-appointed messiahs. "Here we see the white and black races together," Nott had written two years before the publication of Types of Mankind, "under circumstances which cannot last always. A fearful crisis must come, sooner or later." Like Gliddon, Nott had lectured and published actively on the issue of biological racialization before 1854, but the appearance of Types of Mankind was widely recognized as the fulfillment of a promise repeatedly made by the field of ethnology since its inception: a particularly American reply to a particularly American question. "The time must come," Nott prophesied, "when the blacks will be worse than useless to us. What then?" Answering himself with a voice as urgent as it was self-assured, Nott foretold destruction, and the American School thundered its biological politics: "Emancipation must follow, which, from the lights before us, is but another name for extermination." The argument was straightforward: "The numberless attempts by the Caucasian race, during several thousand years, to bring the Mongol, Malay, Indian, and Negro, under the same religion, laws, manners, customs, etc., have failed, and must continue to fail, unless the science of Ethnography can strike out some new and more practical plan of operation. So utterly fruitless have been the attempts of the philanthropist, that we might well pause and ask whether we are not warring against the immutable laws of Nature, by endeavoring to elevate the intellectual condition of the dark, to that of the fair races." Nott and Gliddon were key figures in the establishment of an objectivist racialized discourse whose most explicit agenda was the stabilization of theories that could provide the conceptual support for institutionalized American slavery. Types of Mankind was at times both cause and effect of that agenda.

What ethnology owed to prewar institutionalized slavery was a system of control that was as attentive to epistemology as it was. The very same contingencies that the American slave system had to negotiate every day -"lazy, shiftless Negroes," biblical controversies over the justifications for slavery, and children of slave mothers who could pass as white-were the basis for the interests of ethnological science, and of this branch of natural history in general. The American School was the high-water mark for racialized naturalism in America: as widely influential-and as widely controversial-as any science before or since, it occupies a foundational moment for conceptions of human biological diversity, drawing on developing notions of scientific objectivity, secular knowledge, and factual impartiality even as it declared its relevance from a place of social upheaval, political controversy, and public implications. Its members were as fiercely committed to its application as a social solution as they were to the demands of its intellectual labors, and the particular strategy of staging social arguments through claims of objective observations that made the American School so famous would be as important to its effects as any single truth claim that emerged from its ranks.

The interdisciplinary structure of Types of Mankind was as responsible for its success as its authors, and in its collaborative logic can be seen the alliances of proslavery science; as the product of a violently racist medical doctor and a popularizer of Egyptology, Types did more in the half century it was in print to promote theories of both biological racialization and racialized Egyptology than any other single text in either of its fields. Nott and Gliddon were explicitly proslavery race theorists, and to the American School belongs the dubious honor of the simultaneous introduction of a systematic biologization of human cultural diversity and the pointedly political application of that system. Only rarely, however, if ever, is note taken of the centrality of contemporaneous discoveries in the Nile Valley for both the shape of the ethnological argument in general and the structure of Types of Mankind in particular. The text is structured primarily through a discussion of ancient Egyptians.


Excerpted from Egypt land by Scott Trafton Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

Preface : an inspired frenzy or madness
Introduction : this Egypt of the West : making race and nation along the American Nile 1
Ch. 1 A veritable he-nigger after all : Egypt, ethnology, and the crises of history 41
Ch. 2 The Egyptian moment : racial ruptures and the archaeological imaginary 85
Ch. 3 The curse of the mummy : race, reanimation, and the Egyptian revival 121
Ch. 4 Undressing Cleopatra : race, sex, and bodily interiority in nineteenth-century American Egyptomania 165
Ch. 5 Egypt land : slavery, uprising, and signifying the double 222
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