Saturday, May 06, 2006

Application for an NEH Fellowship

The proposed project is a book-length study of the transition from traditional popular culture to the first forms of industrial culture among the white, male working population of Philadelphia. The primary significance of this project is that it provides a comprehensive alternative to the “new labor history” interpretation of ante-bellum cultural transformation that has dominated for a generation. Where historians like Laurie argued that temperance activism and other cultural innovations of the 1840’s reflected employer and middle-class demands for more self-control, this study contends that key motifs of the new industrial culture were shaped by the failure of traditional popular culture. The “displays of degradation” that became prominent in the struggling popular culture of the 1820’s and 1830’s became the focal point for the organizational and symbolic strategies of the Washingtonian temperance movement, rioting fire companies, and blackface minstrelsy shows that became prominent during the 1840’s. The research is finished, full drafts of three chapters have been completed, and conference papers have been delivered on the other three chapters. If this application is successful, I would spend the next year finishing the final three chapters, an introduction, and conclusion and shaping the manuscript as a whole for publication. “Displays of Degradation” will be the kind of original and vigorous history book that historians like to assign to advanced under-graduate and graduate students and will appeal to interdisciplinary audiences because of its emphasis on the representation of male bodies, the case study of the steamboat project, and the cultural analysis of delirium tremens.

1. Process and Meaning in Traditional Culture
2. John Fitch as a Case Study of Cultural Failure
3. The Workingmen as Citizens and Anti-Citizens
4. Delirium Tremens and the Cultural Nightmare
5. Fire Companies and Cultural Transformation
6. Displays of Degradation: The Washingtonians in Philadelphia
7. Conclusion: Notes on Blackface Minstrelsy

The proposed project contains fresh interpretations of traditional popular culture, the process of cultural transition, and the new types of popular culture that developed during the 1840’s. In relation to traditional popular culture, the most significant finding concerns the relationship between the representation of male bodies and the organization of cultural activity. As Davis and others have argued, the bodies of artisans and other laboring men served as emblems for republican values immediately after the Revolution. The artisan ideal was to portray their trained bodies as sources of the strength and skill that made them independent men. At the same time, archival sources indicate that artisans and laborers symbolized personal difficulties in terms of dismemberment, penetration, drowning, and other assaults on their bodies. As a result, they analogized problems with collecting wages, unemployment, and dealing with scolding wives with being invaded by devils, drowning at sea, being burned alive, and the like. Ditz portrays Philadelphia merchants as employing images of being “unmanned” when facing financial crisis. Because they faced continuing economic difficulties, artisans, especially poor artisans, were burdened by persistent apprehensions of assaults on their bodies. In this context, traditional leisure allowed artisans and other working people to reconstitute their identifications with republican ideals like independence. Activities like work breaks, tavern socializing, and holiday celebrations were organized around competitive performances that allowed men to display their talents, wit, and courage before small companies, volunteer societies, or the community. Because men identified competitors with their apprehensions concerning their everyday difficulties, they could experience themselves as conquering their fears as they outdid their rivals. Working people could also see their individual sense of independence and distinctiveness reflected back to them when they received the applause and huzzas of workplace groups, tavern companies, or holiday revelers. For participants in popular leisure, leisure environments were ritual spaces where they could re-establish an experience of their bodies as safe from the threats associated with economic and family difficulties. Thus, this study portrays male popular culture as being as self-deconstructing as literary critics suggest, but also as having self-correcting mechanisms that allowed men to identify with the dominant values.

The failure of traditional popular culture in Philadelphia was triggered by commercial expansion and early industrialization. Most importantly, traditional popular culture failed because intensified economic difficulties greatly heightened the apprehensions of men concerning assaults on their bodies. Despite increasing their participation in traditional leisure, white workers found it increasingly impossible to either reassert their identification with republican values or maintain a sense of bodily integrity in their daily lives. This study examines cultural failure in three contexts: 1. a case study of the steamboat inventor John Fitch; 2. an analysis of the political and cultural writing of the Workingmen’s movement; and 3. an assessment of the increasing prevalence of delirium tremens in the early 1840’s. As early as the 1780’s, there were scattered examples of entrepreneurial artisans whose businesses were so anxiety-provoking that they could no longer overcome their sense of being under bodily assault. There are especially good archival materials for the steamboat inventor John Fitch. When Fitch’s priority of invention was challenged and he was besieged by creditors and falling into extreme poverty, he accelerated his leisure activity by drinking more, but could not overcome his representations of his environment as analogous to being burned alive, beheaded, or otherwise dismembered. With the beginning of industrialization in the 1820’s, economic conditions deteriorated for a broad spectrum of artisans and factory workers. In this context, the Workingmen developed a double language in which they protested the business “aristocracies” in terms of republican values, but also represented themselves as living in slave-like conditions, swollen with vices, and being swept toward extreme degradation. This was especially the case with the “Night-Hawk” column in the Mechanics’ Free Press which characterized workers as “anti-citizens” in the same way that blacks were portrayed according to Roediger. Likewise, drinking songs, parade images, and almanacs represented men’s bodies as being taken over by mechanical devices, decorated in blackface, cross-dressed as women, possessing inhumanly exaggerated features, and subject to highly stylized brutality. Thus, one of the first cultural effects of industrialization was a shift in traditional popular culture toward “displaying” bodily degradation.

Nevertheless, deteriorating economic situations ultimately heightened the sense of bodily vulnerability beyond traditional culture’s coping capacity. During the depression of 1837-1843, there was a sharp increase in the number of male cases of delirium tremens in Philadelphia to over 1800 per year, particularly among working-class and poor men. In the analysis of delirium tremens cases, it is argued that the function of hallucinations was to provide men with a visible representation of the extreme dangers they perceived in their environments so that they could physically oppose these threats. In other words, the growing number of delirium tremens patients retreated from the failing mechanisms for coping with perceived threats within traditional popular culture to physical self-defense. Traditional popular culture had failed because it could no longer bear the weight of bodily anxiety imposed by early industrialization.

The transition to the first forms of industrial culture occurred when activities organized as “displays of degradation” became a launching pad for new orientations toward individuality, group life, and cultural organization. The final two chapters and conclusion examine the Washingtonian temperance movement, rioting fire companies, and blackface minstrelsy as examples of cultural transition. Contrary to the theme of self-control emphasized by Laurie and the early temperance movement, the primary rituals of the Washingtonian temperance societies, the “experience speech,” focused on a drunkard’s confession of their inability to control their drinking or the subsequent decline into poverty, monstrous abuses of their families, or severe health problems. The reformed drunkard’s narratives also reinterpreted values like independence, masculinity, and virtue in terms of an ethic of self-sacrifice, mutual help, and identification with the temperance movement as a whole. In this context, some of the leading symbols of masculinity among the Washingtonians were female figures such as Hannah Hawkins. Indeed, in many ways members of the Washingtonian societies assumed the figure of a woman as a central element in masculinity itself.

Emphasizing the importance of experience speeches makes it possible to understand the considerable overlap between the Washingtonians and the rioting fire companies. Contrary to Laurie’s portrayal of the rioting volunteer fire companies as part of traditional popular culture, this study interprets the ethics of fire-company rioting as being similar to that of the Washingtonians in being focused on the exposure of the self to harm and degradation. By facing the weapons of rival companies and defeating them, members of the rioting fire companies demonstrated the company’s collective character as a courageous body. More than fighting fires, rioting built up the prestige of volunteer fire companies, a prestige that the companies then represented to the public through parades, charity contests, and annual balls. Following up on Amy Greenberg’s analysis of “chaste engines” in Cause for Alarm, I also argue that the volunteer firemen represented male virtues in terms of female images in their banners and engine decorations. The emphasis on the importance of the “public exposure of self” to both the Washingtonians and the rioting fire companies is reinforced by the fact that many of the rioting fire companies were active in the Washingtonian movement and that the Washingtonian societies held a highly successful series of fire company lectures and concerts in late 1842 and 1843. Given that the Washingtonians had begun to fade by late 1843 while the volunteer fire companies were highly popular until after the Civil War, I also suggest that the fire companies lasted longer because they were highly successful in representing themselves as groups while the only one of the local Washingtonian societies that had a strong group identity was the Jefferson Society.

In the conclusion, I examine blackface minstrel entertainments as an example of the evolution of the new cultural forms toward the representation of degradation at more of a social distance. Like the Sons of Temperance and other secret societies, the minstrel shows emphasized the identification of individuals with the group by mounting “displays of degradation” as entertainment spectacles. Because performers like T. D. Rice wore blackface and sang in dialect, members of the audience were able to draw a firm symbolic line between their “selves” as white people and the humiliations, tortures, and bodily distortions being represented on the stage as occurring to black people. This interpretation continues the effort of Eric Lott and others to examine minstrelsy in a larger cultural context by emphasizing the continuity between blackface minstrelsy and other forms of white popular culture during the 1830’s and 1840’s. Images of degrading the male body had been an integral part of Philadelphia popular culture since the 1820’s and blackface minstrelsy was like the Washingtonians and rioting fire companies in experiencing these displays as reinforcing group identities (here whiteness). With the mass popularity of blackface minstrelsy in the late 1840’s, the transition from traditional popular culture to the first forms of industrial popular culture was largely complete and industrial popular culture was beginning its own process of development and change.


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