Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Out of the Archive: The Dangers of Seeing a Dancer

Fanny Elssler in the shadow dance. N. Currier, 1846. 
I just got back from the Berkshire Conference on the History of Women in Toronto, Canada (fabulous city, fun and stimulating conference) where I presented some of my work on the European dancers who toured America from the late-1820s through the 1840s, particularly the Viennese dancer and star of the Paris Opera, Fanny Elssler. From 1840-1842, Americans crowded theaters in cities throughout the country for the chance to see Elssler’s twirls and kicks. Elssler performed in Romantic ballets like La Sylphide but was also famous for her interpretations of European folk dances. Her tremendously popular La Cachucha dance was based on the Spanish bolero. American critics fixated on whether Elssler’s dancing was immoral spectacle – those diaphanous white skirts revealing her (clad) legs! – or “poetry of motion.” Some have argued that the use of such idealized terms to describe Elssler ("divine Fanny") and her dancing worked to manage the “erotic overload” of the performance.  (See for example Maureen Costonis’ 1990 essay, “The Personification of Desire: Fanny Elssler and American Audiences” in Dance Chronicle.) 

In my work, I’m interested in how these celebrities also intersected and informed struggles over American cultural identity and over the presence of different groups in public space. These struggles were of course connected to changing ideas about gender and battles over public sexuality -- for example see Mr. Southworth Goes to the Theater. Elssler was of great interest to “respectable” middle-class white women, which shocked moral reformers who felt that this was not a respectable spectacle. One of my favorite sources illustrating this is an 1847 didactic novel by Timothy Shay Arthur, The Maiden: A Story for My Countrywomen

Monday, May 19, 2014

Mapping Slavery

Here is the latest gadget making the rounds of the historian-net: a time-lapse map of the spread of American slavery using US Census data.  You can use the map to follow the spread of slavery, but also overall population, free population, and free African American population. And make sure you read Mullen's essay, which I found very helpful in showing me ways to read the various imaging possibilities:
A striking way to see the importance of slavery is to look at a map of the total free population: a photo negative, if you will, of slavery. When looking at the density of the population that was free, large swathes of the South appear virtually depopulated. (Perhaps this is what a history book looks like that fails to take includes slaves?)

Check it out! http://lincolnmullen.com/blog/the-spread-of-american-slavery/

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Student Exhibits About Slavery

In my Race and Slavery class this term, I decided to try something new for their final projects. Rather than asking them write yet another paper (they did plenty of that), I tasked them with producing some kind of public exhibit about the history of slavery. They had to think about their audience and the goal of the exhibit. It had to combine textual and visual elements and incorporate different kinds of primary sources.

As anyone who has had to make a compelling Powerpoint for a lecture or talk knows, communicating historical content in a visually appealing way requires a deft balancing act. As a class exercise, I gave them 30 minutes to create an 3-5 panel exhibit about Thomas Jefferson and slavery based on a set of 6 primary sources. They discovered it was harder than it seemed.

The final project also built from conversations in the final weeks of the semester about representations of slavery today. We talked about slavery in film, at museums and historic sites, and in contemporary public life (for example, the recent Donald Sterling incident). I asked them to think about how you would want to communicate some of what you learned this semester to someone who might never take this type of class. 

Friday, May 9, 2014

When Witchcraft was Real

A TV show about Salem?  Fabulous? Or a disaster?

I had to take a break from grading to share the following review of the Salem series over at Books & Culture.  Here's a taste:

The end goal of television is to have viewers watch commercials, so we historians don't expect to learn our history there. However, we can learn what viewers want to learn about history. After watching the first episode of the new TV series Salem, it is obvious that viewers today want to turn The Crucible upside down and hear the witches' side of the story. ... The most startling aspect of Salem is that it oddly vindicates Cotton Mather. TV viewers are apparently ready to watch him ferret out the truth about demonic plans to up-end the social order.

And they, the witches, fight back.  Interesting.  I like the premise of the show. Starting a show with the premise that witchcraft IS real seemed to me to be a great way to probe what is for me the central fascination of the Salem episode: for early Americans, witchcraft WAS real.

Saturday, May 3, 2014

Thoughts on Rape and Racial Violence in Cinema

It's gradepocalypse 2014 here in (finally, again, after a week of gray drizzle) sunny South Dakota.  Or as my students think of it, FINALS!  While they -- you -- are feverishly reading, writing, studying, we are frantically grading your work.  Keep the coffee, water, vitamins, and whole grains flowing, folks, and we'll make it through to the summer!

I probably won't get back to substantive posting until the grading frenzy abates.  In the mean time here is some food for thought from NYT critic David Itskoff -- for all you Game of Thrones fans in my classes.  We've talked about GoT periodically over the semester, particularly around the question of nudity and violence in TV, and more recently, Jaime Lannister's rape of his sister Cersei.  (For those of you who don't know the score, the article will give you the background on the characters and the controversy.)  As Itskoff explains, critics and viewers are increasingly concerned that rape has become "almost background noise: a routine and unshocking occurrence" on the show, and increasingly, the predominant signal of the violence and brutality of George R. R. Martin's fantasy world: