Cultural and Social History Term Paper

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Illusion is central to both Abselon's description of the "pantomime of gentility," and Cook's description of what he calls "artful deception." As described by Abselon and Cook, what role does illusion play in Barnum's museum exhibits and in late 19th century department stores? Does illusion operate similarly or differently in these two contexts? Why is illusion so compelling to nineteenth-century, middle -class audience. For this question use the following two texts: Cook, Arts of Deception) and Abselon, When Ladies Go -- A Thieving

Both Elaine S. Abselon and James Cook focus in their respective texts upon the intersection of race, gender, and class that occurred in the twin modern temples of illusion, the department store and the circus, of the 19th century middle class. For Abelson, the popularity of the newly-created department store enabled merchants to display the supposed bounty of the middle class' new largess, combined with the illusion that everyone could purchase the consumer trappings of gentility, if they only worked hard enough to do so. However, although women were part of the rising middle class in the second half of the nineteenth century unlike their male counterparts, they were not permitted to work. (Abselon 1)

Many women who were taken in by the illusion of ready access to gentility, but without means resorted to stealing. Because 19th century moral stereotypes could not admit the moral folly of women and the department store managers were "loath to accuse" their middle-class customers, as these consumers represented the very group that they were trying to encourage to look and buy. (Abselon 149) Instead, to conceal this shady side of the ideology of consumerism that propped up Victorian capitalism, women of the middle class, but not those of the working class, were allowed to shoplift and plead an incapacitating mental illness, kleptomania. This fiction allowed the illusion of society to continue.

James W. Cook presents the example of P.T. Barnum, the "Prince of Humbug," as doing the opposite of the detectives and owners of the department stores -- rather than to hide crimes through the use of medicinal terms, Barnum made medical follies and his own crimes a spectacle. Barnum took individuals with medical maladies, such as dwarves or bearded ladies and made them into spectacles of 'them.' In the circus, ordinary individuals who were different to the eyes of the middle class audiences, or as in the case of Joice Heath, by race, became entertainment. By making these different individuals freaks rather than ordinary people, the supposedly 'normal' middle class position was reaffirmed, through making so-called freaks conspicuous rather than hiding them with medical terms.

One false entertainment was a 161-year-old former slave of George Washington's father. Even when Heath's death resulted in fiction being uncovered, Barnum made money by charging admission to the man's public autopsy. Again, this division, where the spectacle of a Black man was not allowed middle class privacy even in death, affirmed the break between 'us' of the middle class, and 'them' in the spectacle, just as treating middle class women as 'sick' covered up the crimes that the working class were prosecuted for, so that the illusion and societal spectacle of consumption could continue.

Question 2

Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl is an abolitionist work, but to what extent is Harriet Jacobs arguing for racial equality? And, to the extent that she is, what is the basis of her argument? Your answer should draw specific examples from the text. For this question use the following text: Jacobs, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

Despite the abolitionist nature of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, the author Harriet Jacobs does not argue for racial equality in modern terms. Jacobs, after all, was writing to a white, Northern, abolitionist audience and using her life's narrative as political propaganda as well as laying her heart bare. Thus she does not demonize white people, nor attempt to alienate them. Jacobs describes her first white mistress as kind. Slavery is shown as corrupting the moral nature of whites, as in the sexual behavior of Dr. Flint towards her, as well as blacks, in addition to curtailing human freedom.

Jacobs argues for the moral integrity of all human beings in a way that her audience would likely respond to as middle-class Christians rather than as fellow and equal sufferers with Black slaves. She affirms the middle-class ideology of the necessity of young individuals to live with two parents, and for spouses in a moral fashion, not in sin with an owner. Jacobs does not write about this moral equality in social or intellectual terms. Significantly, Jacobs hides in a garret in her grandmother's home, returning to her family abode.

Jacobs is also helped by whites, and finally set free by the efforts of a white mentor, Mrs. Bruce. The text of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl claims of its white audience the moral authority of Jacob's suffering, but it is also written a cry for help and compassion from a woman who is presenting herself as oppressed, despite her incredible fortitude in weathering her circumstances. To live in an attic and to escape slavery is hardly an accomplishment to be 'sneezed' at, and one in which few of her white readers would have been able to match. To call upon the compassion of her readers, however, Jacobs narrates her tale along the lines of a story of a Christian forced into sin, forced to suffer things no human being should have to suffer, who was saved by Mrs. Bruce's sense of injustice. Jacobs thus creates her construction of equality in moral terms, rather than in terms of her not inconsiderable accomplishments.

Question 3

Imagine you are Thomas Jefferson reading George Thompson's, City Crimes. Is City Crimes compatible with the ideals of Jeffersonian Republicanism? Would Jefferson see the book as poisonous to republican virtue? Or, would he see it as a useful social critique that contributed to creating a more democratic and egalitarian society? For this question use the following text: George Thompson's, City Crimes

Thomas Jefferson upheld the ideal of agrarian democracy, whereby wealthy and intelligent landholders took time off from their busy farming lives to administer a generally hands-off government that governed best by governing least. However, by the 19th century, urban rather than rural locations formed the nexus of American life. Jeffersonian Republicanism belonged not only to another age and century, but also to another economic system that was soon to meet its demise. Although Jefferson did many things as a man and a politician that would be seen as abhorrent even to 19th century virtues, such as engaging in sexual relations with his slaves, prohibiting all but landholders the right to vote, and allowing for slavery to continue, Jefferson did allow for change in the form of amendments to the constitution and bracketed the problems of race and class as something future American generations would have to sort out, as they did in the reconfiguration of the modern class structure of city crimes.

Thus, Jefferson allowed for the necessity of all republics to change, and he would not necessarily oppose the construction of society into more democratic terms as depicted in City Crimes. But he would deplore the more formidable role of government in the nation, given that he founded America as a land that would lack a bureaucratic and hierarchical form of governance, as existed in Great Britain. For Jefferson, politicians should never be a class of people, nor should politics be a profession. Politics was supposed to be every 'man's business, although every man in Jefferson's era was every wealthy landowner. However, the burgeoning city population and the complexity of administering large, sprawling metropolises proved to be too unwieldy for the Jeffersonian ideal.

Question 4…[continue]

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