The Showman and the Slave: Race, Death, and Memory in Barnum's America

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Overview

In this compelling story about one of the nineteenth century's most famous Americans, Benjamin Reiss uses P. T. Barnum's Joice Heth hoax to examine the contours of race relations in the antebellum North. Barnum's first exhibit as a showman, Heth was an elderly enslaved woman who was said to be the 161-year-old former nurse of the infant George Washington. Seizing upon the novelty, the newly emerging commercial press turned her act--and especially her death--into one of the first media spectacles in American history.

In piecing together the fragmentary and conflicting evidence of the event, Reiss paints a picture of people looking at history, at the human body, at social class, at slavery, at performance, at death, and always--if obliquely--at themselves. At the same time, he reveals how deeply an obsession with race penetrated different facets of American life, from public memory to private fantasy. Concluding the book is a piece of historical detective work in which Reiss attempts to solve the puzzle of Heth's real identity before she met Barnum. His search yields a tantalizing connection between early mass culture and a slave's subtle mockery of her master.

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Editorial Reviews

Choice

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

Journal of American History

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

Reviews in 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

The New England Quarterly

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

American Historical Review

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

Ethnic and Racial Studies

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

Washington Post

[An] intriguing and thoughtful book...[a] remarkable and disturbing story.
— Gary Gerstle

Rhetoric and Public Affairs

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

American Literature

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

Theatre Journal

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

Ronald G. Walters
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.
Bryan J. Wolf
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.
Choice - W. K. McNeil
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.
Journal of American History - Gary Cross
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.
Reviews in American History - Edward Balleisen
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.
The New England Quarterly - Richard S. Newman
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.
American Historical Review - Paul Reddin
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.
Ethnic and Racial Studies - Bluford Adams
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.
Washington Post - Gary Gerstle
[An] intriguing and thoughtful book...[a] remarkable and disturbing story.
Rhetoric and Public Affairs - Stephen John Hartnett
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.
American Literature - Eden Osucha
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.
Theatre Journal - Elizabeth Reitz Mullenix
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.
Washington Post
[An] intriguing and thoughtful book...[a] remarkable and disturbing story.
— Gary Gerstle
Choice
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
American Literature
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 Historical Review
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
Rhetoric and Public Affairs
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
Journal of American History
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
Theatre Journal
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
Reviews in 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
The New England Quarterly
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
Ethnic and Racial Studies
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
McNeil
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.
Choice
Publishers Weekly
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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780674055643
  • Publisher: Harvard University Press
  • Publication date: 3/15/2010
  • Pages: 288
  • Sales rank: 1,041,141
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Benjamin Reiss is Professor of English, Emory University.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Introduction: The Dark Subject 1

I Death and Dying

1 Possession 13

2 The Celebrated Curiosity 28

3 Private Acts, Public Memories 52

4 Sacred and Profane 71

5 Culture Wars 90

6 Love, Automata, and India Rubber 106

7 Spectacle 126

II Resurrection

8 Authenticity and Commodity 143

9 Exposure and Mastery 159

10 Erasure 183

III Life

11 A Speculative Biography 211

Note to the 2010 Printing 225

Notes 227

Index 261

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