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The Genuine Article: Race, Mass Culture, and American Literary Manhood

The Genuine Article: Race, Mass Culture, and American Literary Manhood

by Paul Gilmore, Donald E. Pease

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In The Genuine Article Paul Gilmore examines the interdependence of literary and mass culture at a crucial moment in U. S. history. Demonstrating from a new perspective the centrality of race to the construction of white manhood across class lines, Gilmore argues that in the years before the Civil War, as literature increasingly became another commodity in the


In The Genuine Article Paul Gilmore examines the interdependence of literary and mass culture at a crucial moment in U. S. history. Demonstrating from a new perspective the centrality of race to the construction of white manhood across class lines, Gilmore argues that in the years before the Civil War, as literature increasingly became another commodity in the capitalist cultural marketplace, American authors appropriated middle-brow and racially loaded cultural forms to bolster their masculinity.
From characters in Indian melodramas and minstrel shows to exhibits in popular museums and daguerrotype galleries, primitive racialized figures circulated as “the genuine article” of manliness in the antebellum United States. Gilmore argues that these figures were manipulated, translated, and adopted not only by canonical authors such as Hawthorne, Thoreau, Cooper, and Melville but also by African American and Native American writers like William Wells Brown and Okah Tubbee. By examining how these cultural notions of race played out in literary texts and helped to construct authorship as a masculine profession, Gilmore makes a unique contribution to theories of class formation in nineteenth-century America.
The Genuine Article will enrich students and scholars of American studies, gender studies, literature, history, sociology, anthropology, popular culture, and race.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“A brilliantly conceived, carefully built, nuanced, and important study of the ongoing consolidation of white middle-class manhood in the antebellum United States.”—Dana Nelson, author of National Manhood: Capitalist Citizenship and the Imagined Fraternity of White Men

“Richly informative and conceptually sophisticated, Paul Gilmore’s book argues that antebellum white male writers appropriated racialized body images from mass culture to market their antimarket manhood. Gilmore shows how unstable images of raced authenticity helped to stabilize literary manhood’s ‘impossible ideal,’ to be in and above market culture.”—David Leverenz, University of Florida

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Duke University Press
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New Americanists
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The Genuine Article

Race, Mass Culture, and American Literary Manhood
By Paul Gilmore

Duke University Press

Copyright © 2001 Duke University Press
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-8223-2764-6

Chapter One

"De Genewine Artekil"

William Wells Brown, Blackface Minstrelsy, and Abolitionism

In 1856, in addition to continuing to deliver lectures, former slave and "professional fugitive" William Wells Brown began to read dramatic pieces of his own composition at antislavery meetings. His first play-the first play known to have been written by an African American-was titled either The Dough Face (a common epithet for "Yankees") or Experience, or, How to Give a Northern Man a Backbone and provided a satirical reply to Boston clergyman Nehemiah Adams's proslavery A South-Side View of Slavery (1854). There is no extant text of this play, but two years later Brown published The Escape; or, A Leap for Freedom, another dramatic piece he often delivered to antislavery audiences. One of the central characters of this play is Cato, a slave characterized in the first two acts as a comic buffoon who toadies to his master and spies on his fellow slaves. In the second scene of the first act, Brown dramatizes Cato in an incident that he claimed was autobiographical and that he had already used in his novel Clotel (1853): When Catoattends to slaves in the place of his doctor-owner, in a bit of slapstick humor he accidentally pulls out the wrong tooth of a fellow slave. In the third act, however, Brown reveals a different side of Cato when he is left alone: "Now, ef I could only jess run away from ole massa, an' get to Canada wid Hannah, den I'd show 'em who I was." At this point in his dramatic readings, the light-skinned and eloquent Brown would, after a soliloquy full of malapropisms and dialect, break into an antislavery song set to the minstrel standard "Dandy Jim"-Cato's "moriginal hyme"-which Brown had already published as part of his Anti-Slavery Harp (1848):

Come all ye bondmen far and near, Let's put a song in massa's ear, It is a song for our poor race, Who're whipped and trampled with disgrace.


My old massa tells me, Oh, This is a land of freedom, Oh; Let's look about and see if it's so, Just as massa tells me, Oh.

As one contemporary reviewer put it, at such moments "you lose sight of the speaker" and in place of the educated Brown see the caricatured Cato. This moment epitomizes Brown's performance of blackness-essentially a putting on of blackface-and is emblematic of how black abolitionists like Brown were necessarily engaged with blackface minstrelsy, the most popular entertainment form of the time. Whether in narratives, lectures, or fiction, professional fugitives were called upon to prove their authenticity by providing, as Frederick Douglass recalled his white supporters putting it, "a little plantation manner of speech." At the same time, however, black abolitionists were expected to mirror the ideal traits of middle-class, white manhood -intelligence, eloquence, self-restraint, and, above all, literacy-in order to exemplify black capacity for freedom. The professional fugitive was, in essence, required to embody the social meanings of blackness and whiteness simultaneously, to be both the illiterate plantation slave of the minstrel stage and an eloquent defender of his race.

In this chapter, I will use this episode from The Escape as a starting point for reading Brown's Clotel-the first novel by an African American-as a reworking of the ways both the minstrel show and the anti-slavery movement constructed strict racial definitions through the display of race as a matter of masquerade. As in Cato's scene from The Escape, Brown "blacks up" in Clotel by invoking minstrel show stereotypes when fictionalizing incidents from his own life through dark black male characters. Through multiple blackfaced characters, Brown links antislavery and minstrelsy, highlighting the antislavery possibilities in minstrelsy. Brown defended his appropriation of such theatrical effects on the grounds of gaining financial and popular support-"People will pay to hear the Drama that would not give a cent in an antislavery meeting." He did not, however, turn to the minstrel show simply because of its popularity, but because in the early 1850s it provided perhaps the best forum through which to construct a viable representative black manhood. For Brown, the minstrel show offered particularly expansive representational possibilities because its commercialized images foregrounded the slippage between performative and essential notions of blackness and manliness.

In both abolitionism and the minstrel show, the production of race as a sort of mask depended upon the simultaneous construction of ideas about gender. The minstrel show was obsessed with the black male body, producing it as the embodiment of both a hypermasculine bestiality and a sentimental, effeminate childishness; antislavery rhetoric consistently circulated around either the proposition that slavery's chief crime was the destruction of true gender relations based in the domestic family unit or the idea that the effeminate, more spiritual African race should be saved from the masculine, aggressively materialistic Anglo-Saxon one. In the strictest terms, despite important political and iconic differences, the economies of race and gender at play in the minstrel show and the most prominent antislavery forms similarly equated manhood with whiteness. In this way, both forums attempted to use gender distinctions to anchor the slipperiness of race. Through Brown's redeployment of minstrel tropes, he reveals how the markers of manliness and whiteness were dependent on and constantly in play with those of blackness and femininity, so that gender and racial traits were at once strictly defined and, to a limited extent, transmutable. In writing the first African American novel, Brown turns to fiction not to escape the problematic of stereotyped black representability, but to negotiate the objectification and commodification of the black image by revealing its instability. Combining the minstrel show with the sentimental novel, Brown highlights the dependence of middle-class manhood on images of blackness, thus opening the possibility of creating a blackfaced version of literary manhood.

"The Public's Itching Ears"

The parallel courses of the minstrel show and abolitionism begin in the early 1830s. White actors had appeared in blackface on the American stage as early as a 1769 production of the play The Padlock, but the minstrel craze did not begin in earnest until T. D. Rice "jumped Jim Crow," first in the old northwest (perhaps Cincinnati, Pittsburgh, or Louisville), sometime between 1829 and 1831, and then on the New York stage in 1832. At essentially the same time that Rice was first performing Jim Crow, the immediate emancipation movement emerged onto the political scene, inaugurated by William Lloyd Garrison's founding of The Liberator in 1831 and following on the heels of David Walker's Appeal (1829) and Nat Turner's revolt (1831). By the late 1830s, the demand for "black" male bodies had increased significantly-in the slave markets of the old southwest as laborers, in theaters and other entertainment sites as blackface performers, and in the abolitionist movement as antislavery lecturers. What these sites had in common was a focus on the black male body in slavery, on its status as a valuable economic article. Both the abolitionist platform and the minstrel stage attempted to evoke the reality of the Southern plantation by capturing and reproducing the truth of black life in the slave South. Neither minstrel shows nor abolitionism, however, exclusively focused on blacks in the South. Minstrel shows combined representations of the plantation slave Jim Crow with those of the Northern dandy Zip Coon; abolitionists demonstrated the connection between slavery in the South and racial prejudice in the North. Yet when defending their claims to authenticity by citing experience as the basis for their testimony or representations, both abolitionism and the minstrel show consistently set that experience either in the South or in some border region that granted access to the South.

In attempting to reveal "American Slavery As It Is," both the minstrel show and the antislavery movement produced and exploited what one abolitionist called "the public['s] ... itching ears to hear a colored man speak, and particularly a slave." As antislavery groups began to employ black men to give authentic testimony about slavery in the late 1830s and early 1840s, minstrel performers began to claim that they gave a true picture of African American life through skits, songs, and dances. In 1842 and 1843, western New York witnessed both the beginning of William Wells Brown's career as an antislavery agent and what Edwin Christy claimed was the first complete minstrel show. While Brown and other fugitive slaves tried to represent black manhood to white Northern audiences through their experiences in the slave South, ads and reviews proclaimed that white performers like Christy, Rice, and Dan Emmett were "the negro, par excellence," "the best representative of our American negro," "the perfect representative of the Southern Negro Character." The minstrel show spectacularized black bodies for commercial purposes; antislavery groups put former slaves on display-"curiosit[ies] from the South," "specimen[s] of the fruits of the infernal system of slavery"-primarily for political ends. Yet both forums staged black bodies precisely because they did draw. The minstrel show has most often been characterized as an extremely racist caricature of blacks and black lifeways that served to legitimate slavery and racial prejudice, but as scholars like Eric Lott and Robert Toll have argued, despite its racist content, the minstrel show was a complicated production in which various, at times contradictory, racial and political logics came into play. In fact, as Toll has pointed out, the minstrel show, at least prior to 1850 or so, "presented virtually every argument abolitionists used." The emergence of these arguments in the minstrel show points toward a deeper connection between the minstrel show and abolitionism, specifically, the way in which in commodifying the black body both the minstrel show and antislavery rhetoric linked the construction of racial and gender distinctions to racial and gender confusion.

It was these representational limitations and possibilities that Brown faced in writing the first African American novel. Inspired by the phenomenal success of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), Brown wrote Clotel in 1853 while living in England as an exile from the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850. Rather than being a coherent narrative consistently centered on Clotel, the president's daughter (as the title implies), Brown's novel is a fragmented, episodic overview of slavery from Virginia to New Orleans to Mississippi. Part of its patchwork quality derives from Brown's incorporation of stories from his Original Panoramic Views of slavery (1850) and his travel book, Three Years in Europe (1852), incidents from his slave narrative (1847), and whole sections lifted verbatim from Lydia Maria Child's "The Quadroons" (1842). The book begins with an introductory, third-person "Narrative of the Life and Escape of William Wells Brown." Written by Brown, and often quoting Brown's previously published first-person slave narrative and travel narrative, this introduction has regularly been read as marking the transition from autobiography to fiction in early African American literature. By taking the place of the authenticating letters of white abolitionists usually found preceding slave narratives, Brown's introduction, as a number of critics have shown, authorizes Brown as a writer of fiction.

Most important for my argument, this narrative places Brown in a position of literary authority-of literary manhood-by focusing on his acquisition of the traits of middle-class manhood-specifically, literacy and economic success-through his ability to put on multiple masks. Brown stresses the importance of economic independence by arguing that, unlike other fugitive slaves who have come to England on "begging missions," he has "maintained himself and family by his own exertions-by his literary labours, and the honourable profession of a public lecturer." It is through his literary endeavors that he has proven himself in the middle-class male role of family provider. In describing his first literary endeavor, his learning how to write, Brown narrates how he acted as though he could write in order to get young boys to teach him. By performing literacy, he, in fact, became literate. The next episode he relates emphasizes the market value of creating one's self as an authority, further linking his story of acquiring literacy to economic success and the construction of a male identity. Soon after escaping from slavery, Brown becomes a barber in Michigan, falsely advertising himself as a "Fashionable Hair-dresser from New York, Emperor of the West". By taking on a popular and fashionable role, Brown is able to establish himself financially.

Building upon this success, Brown then sets up a wildcat bank, issuing printed bank notes, "Shinplasters," on the basis of the capital he already earned. After taking great care in printing the notes-"studying how I should keep the public from counterfeiting them"-and worrying about having enough hard money to back his notes, Brown realizes that he need not bother with having hard money at all, because he "can keep cashing [his] own Shinplasters." Rather than actually needing to be solvent, Brown learns that he must act as if he is. By "putting in circulation the notes which [he] had just redeemed", by keeping his shinplasters, his "printed" goods, in circulation, he becomes solvent. When he comments in the next paragraph about his concern "for the redemption of his race from personal slavery", Brown links the redemption of his race to the redemption of "worthless paper". Through his introduction, Brown suggests that it is through acting as though one fit middle-class images of manhood and by invoking popular images and keeping them in circulation that he, as a former slave, can both maintain his own family and redeem his race from slavery, that he can pursue his goals as a producer of printed goods.

"The Blacking Process"

Brown's descriptions of his acquisition of literacy and his successes as a barber and a banker establish his central strategy for dealing with images of blackness and slavery in his novel. As a banker, he is at first concerned about backing up his notes with hard money, with the real thing, but then realizes that the way to stay afloat is simply to continue redeeming printed images with more images. In the novel itself, he keeps in circulation two of the era's most prominent images of blackness-the tragic mulatta of sentimental fiction and the male plantation slave of the minstrel stage-producing multiple examples of the same character types. While Brown ostensibly focuses on the histories of Currer, her daughters by Thomas Jefferson, Clotel and Althesa, and her granddaughters-all beautiful mulattas who, with one exception, come to tragic ends-he does so through a series of often disconnected (or only slightly connected) scenes reminiscent of the segmented program of a minstrel show. In these episodes, Brown not only recalls the minstrel show's formal aspects, but also introduces a number of minstrel-like male characters who form a second thematic line parallel to the tragic mulatta stories. While the impact of slavery on the "fairer" sex-and, in this novel, they always are fairer-provides Brown's starting point, he doubles the racial confusion caused by his apparently white but really black heroines through a number of black male characters who, by invoking and reworking the minstrel show, similarly reveal the markers of their blackness as constructed. Brown combines the standard sentimental abolitionist account of tragic mulattas, a form often directed specifically at white women, with the more masculine form of the minstrel show. Doing so, he foregrounds the performative nature of race and gender in both abolitionism and minstrelsy, thus creating a space from which to articulate a black male literary voice.


Excerpted from The Genuine Article by Paul Gilmore Copyright © 2001 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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What People are Saying About This

David Leverenz
Richly informative and conceptually sophisticated, Paul Gilmore's book argues that antebellum white male writers appropriated racialized body images from mass culture to market their antimarket manhood. Gilmore shows how unstable images of raced authenticity helped to stabilize literary manhood's impossible ideal, to be in and above market culture.
— David Leverenz, University of Florida
Dana Nelson
A brilliantly conceived, carefully built, nuanced, and important study of the ongoing consolidation of white middle-class manhood in the antebellum United States.
— Dana Nelson, author of National Manhood: Capitalist Citizenship and the Imagined Fraternity of White Men

Meet the Author

Paul Gilmore is Assistant Professor of English at Bucknell University.

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