Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Women and the Material Culture of Needlework and Textiles, 1750-1950. Edited by Maureen Daly Goggin and Beth Fowkes Tobin.
Burlington, VT: Ashgate, December 2009. Cloth: ISBN 978-0754665380, $99.95. 296 pages.
Review by Julia Hudson-Richards, Pennsylvania State University-Altoona College
This collection of essays is an excellent contribution to the growing literature on material cultures not only as texts, but also as artifacts in their own rights. Much of the historical literature on women’s roles in the production of textiles in the west has focused on the shift from home-based to factory production, but the scope of this book is far greater. The editors’ selections prove that the production of needlework and textiles—women’s primary entry point into material culture—was a pivotal intersection where the “social, political, economic, ethnic, and cultural facets of humanity” converged (1). The “world of the needle,” however, has been a blind spot for a number of scholars, and the essays in this work enhance not only to the history of material cultures, but also the construction of gender and ethnic identities, feminine culture, and the development of consumer economies.
The collection begins with an essay by Heather Pristash, Inez Schaechterle, and Sue Carter Wood that establishes a solid theoretical basis for needlework and textile production as text—a location for oftentimes coded discourses of dissent or protest, or even of gender and community identity. The discussion culminates in the analysis of the legendary “Willard Dress,” a pattern for a dress with concealed trousers published by the American Women’s Christian Temperance Union in the 19th century. The Willard Dress, though we cannot find any surviving examples, represented the ways that the personal – sewing – could take on not only practical but political dimensions, in the ways that women attempted to balance their own political agendas, like suffrage, with appearances in order to maintain a certain propriety in a hostile political environment. These political themes are traced more explicitly in Part III, “Politics and Design in Yarn and Thread.” The editors define politics quite broadly here, to their credit, noting the politics of the private behind knitting for soldiers during wartime (Susan M. Strawn) as well the untold story of Florence Cory as a medium for recovering the history of women in industrial design (Sarah Johnson).
A number of essays trace the ways that textile making shifted from a woman’s necessity—as in making her trousseau, for example—to the creation of material objects encompassing a vast array of meanings. For example, Marcia McLean’s essay “’I Dearly Loved that Machine’” (69-89) investigated the introduction of the home sewing machine into rural post-World War II Canada, allowing women to not only economize their own home’s resources, but also to keep up with the latest fashions for themselves and their families. Women took tremendous pride in their creations, noting the ways that they altered the patterns to make them individual, demonstrating their own professionalism in their craft(s). Beverly Gordon and Laurel Horton’s essay about quilting at the turn of the twentieth century also falls into this category. They argue that quilting, increasingly democratized through an abundance of cheap fabric in the last decades of the nineteenth century, allowed women to stitch family records, records of participation in societies, and even the popular culture of the period. They also served as records of family history, and even of women’s lives—they “embodied” their makers and the cultures in which they lived. Cynthia Culver Prescott tells a similar story through the spread of the trendy “crazy quilts” all the way to the Pacific Northwest, as the daughters of the first settlers from the East adopted middle-class domesticity and Eastern consumer cultures, transforming them to fit their own needs (112-13). In short, these quilts serve as a unique text we can use to read women’s cultures in turn of the century America.
Perhaps most interesting, however, were the examinations of the intersections of race/ethnicity and textiles as discussed by Marsha MacDowell in “Native Quiltmaking” (129-48) and “Mundillo and Identity” by Ellen Fernandez-Socco (149-66). MacDowell notes that Native women’s quilting flew under the radar for scholars, but like in many other contexts, this same quiltmaking, introduced by western missionaries and other do-gooders, served as a record of contact, oppression, and material and cultural expressions for Native women, though nonetheless subjected to similar stereotypes as other Native arts. Similarly, a revival in art of mundillo, “the traditional Puerto Rican art of handmade bobbin lace,” represented a revival in Puerto Rican ethnic identity that has helped spur the island’s tourist industry (149). Interestingly, mundillo also continues to articulate Puerto Rico’s long history of migration and the clashes and relationships between indigenous, African, and European cultures. Further, the creation of mundillo for American consumption indicates the island’s place in a larger history of labor exploitation in the twentieth century, as the creation of market goods began to move to cheaper, and less easily regulated, locales.
Though this review cannot claim to be exhaustive, the work under consideration is an excellent contribution to the expanding field of material culture studies. The contributors represent a wide range of disciplines—the editors’ decisions to include several museum curators in the ranks of these authors, for example, provides the work with a unique perspective. The beautiful illustrations—of quilts, of outfits sewn by interview subjects—also offer an added dimension to each author’s discussion. Though there are certainly stories that still remain—an explicit discussion of the role of women in sweatshop labor in the late twentieth century comes to mind—the essays in this volume would nonetheless serve not only as an excellent additions to upper-level undergraduate or graduate courses in history, folklore, women’s studies, or museum studies. From a scholarly perspective, they offer interesting insights into the vast realm of meaning of women’s work, and the shifts in women’s work over time.
Masculine Identity in the Fiction of the Arab East Since 1967. By Samira Aghacy.

Syracuse: Syracuse University Press, November 2009. Cloth: ISBN 978-0815632375, $34.95. 225 pages.

Review by Andrea Duranti, University of Cagliari, Italy

“One is not born a woman, but rather becomes one”, wrote Simone de Beauvoir in The Second Sex, a work that changed forever the way of considering that “creature, intermediate between male and eunuch, which is described as feminine” through an accurate and thorough multidisciplinary analysis of the condition of women in the human society. More modestly, yet not less effectively, Masculine Identity in the Fiction of the Arab East since 1967 aims at opening a window on a relatively new field of study, namely the analysis of the plural paradigms of masculinities in several countries of the Middle East (Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Palestine and Iraq), using the literary fiction produced in these nations as a primary source.
On one hand, the originality of this appreciable work lies in the inauguration of a new vein of research in the field of gender studies applied to the Middle East, as most of the existing studies in this area are focused on women’s conditions or, in case of male-oriented studies, on homoeroticism and homosexuality in Arabic classic literature or in the contemporary societies. Samira Aghacy’s work on the homosocial but heterosexual Middle Eastern men represents, in this regard, a new and praiseworthy piece of scholarship that fills in an epistemological gap.
On the other hand, another outstanding peculiarity of this work lies in the innovative perspective that reconnects the development of specific typologies of masculinities to the troubled history of wars – and defeats – in the Middle Eastern area since 1967, with particular regard to the reaffirmation of a violent, patriarchal model of man, who exerts his power – and abuses of it – within the domestic environment as a kind a “compensation” both to the ban from the public sphere imposed by the dictatorships which rule those countries and to the sense of impotence and defeat in the aftermath of the Arab Waterloo of the Six-Day War, an Epicurean “lathe biosas” that, far from being canalized into the development of a refined culture, revives the Mediterranean myths of patriarchy and of familiar violence described in the novels of Italian writers like Gavino Ledda or Ignazio Silone. Aghacy writes that “since war is generally considered a quintessential male affair, a history of defeats in successive wars in the area destabilized men’s views of themselves and their central role in society” (6).
From a structural point of view, the book is subdivided into four chapters, whose evocative – albeit sometimes deceptive – titles, inspired by Greek tragedies and their psychoanalytical reinterpretation, guide the reader through the discovery of novels which are almost unknown in the West. The first chapter, “Oedipus King: Tortured Masculinity,” examines the literary representation of the most traditional patriarchal paradigm that seems to echo the concept of the male as a “stuprator” (rapist) described by Eva Cantarella in her notable study on masculinity in the classic world (Bisexuality in the Ancient World) with regard to the Ancient Rome, with a major difference. If the young Roman men were grown up as “conquerors” (both in a military and in a sexual sense), then the main characters of the novels here analyzed are frustrated conquerors who fail to exert a substantial control on the surrounding world and on their subjects (women – wives and daughters – and sons), as in Zilal ‘ala al-nafidha (“Shadows on the Window”), by the Iraqi writer Gha’ib To‘mi Faraman. Gender polarization and an archetypal depiction of a homosocial order, as such as a crude description of male violence, are recurring elements in these works, features of a challenged masculine identity that reacts with anger to the weakening of men’s role in the family and society.
The next chapter, “The Politics of Masculinity: Goal-(Dis)Oriented Masculinity,” deals with a different paradigm, or, better, with a series of paradigms, related to the role of intellectuals in the Arab societies: intellectuels engagées arguing for armed revolution, mouthpieces of a regime, or disenchanted Epicurean-Hellenistic writers committed to the representation of subjective and private dramas, they share the belief in the power of the Word to change the World or to represent a refuge, an “ivory tower” against the World itself. A particular relevance in these novels is given to the character of the feda’i, the Arab militant soldier, “whose defiant valor and firmness of purpose will liberate the vanquished land” (57), definitely a heroic figure that, countering to “Oedipus King”, becomes the homo faber of his own destiny and of the fate of his country, making history with his hands. This is a phallocentric model in which women have the ancillary role of providing stability, fertility and care to the hero – “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at”, would say John Berger.
Then, Aghacy reprises, in a chapter titled “Dictator as Patriarch: The State and the (Dys)Functional Male,” the theme of emasculation already discussed in the first section of the book, focusing on the political “castration” of the dissidents and their imprisonment. The concept of masculinity as “activity” against female “passivity” returns here with particular regard to the monopolization by the State of the male features and of the femalization (i.e. passivization) of the whole population of subjects. The depiction of the humiliating torture of political prisoners assumes, on this regard, a strong albeit ambivalent symbolical value, of annihilation of the proactive attitude of the dissident, submitted, even sexually, by a hangman who metonymically represents the “male State” (or “sado/state”); nevertheless, the resistance of the tortured man can also acquire the value of a last heroic resistance (“a badge of courage”) against the emasculation imposed by the dictatorial rule.
Finally, completing an ideal path, with the fall of the King (“Oedipus Deposed: The Man’s Sex(uality)”), Aghacy focuses on a series of novels that challenge both the patriarchal and the heroic paradigms, evidencing the fragility of masculine identities in a post-war world, made vulnerable by the consequences of the armed conflicts that stained with blood the whole Middle Eastern region. Mutilated and disabled former soldiers, men who envy the fate of women for their being “outside history” (namely far from the political and military struggle), insecure and women dependent men are the typical characters described in the novels analyzed in the final, and, in my opinion, more interesting chapter.
Altogether, this work doubtlessly deserves words of appreciation both for the innovativeness of its perspectives, as formerly discussed, and for the theoretical effort of its author in offering a thorough and consistent framework to a remarkable number of novels from different countries, while the solid bibliography reported in the references evidences Aghacy’s mastery of the field. Yet this book represents a starting point for a new field of research, one that should be deepened not only by Western scholars but, first and foremost, by Middle Eastern men themselves. Indeed, if in the francophone Morocco a first attempt of breaking the taboos was made by the psychologist Abdelhak Serhane with his essay L’Amour circoncis, discussing the masculine sexuality in the Middle East still represents a wall hard to be destroyed.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Mainstreaming Sex: The Sexualization of Western Culture. By Feona Attwood.
London, New York: I. B. Tauris, April 2009. Paper: ISBN 978-1-84511-827-3, $29. 224 pages.

Review by Maheswar Satpathy, Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur

This book by Feona Attwood has emerged as a reflection of modern critical perspective dissecting the nuances of an intricate culture of incessant sexual consumerism. As is evident from the title “Mainstreaming Sex: The Sexualization of Western Culture,” the book promises to vividly portray the reaction formations and rationalizations people use regarding sex.

The author in the preface succinctly and precisely assesses recent trends. The breach between the concepts of public and private, the emergence of “public intimacy” reflected in more public displays of affection, and “striptease culture” involving self-revelation and exposure all receive a thorough treatment. The book integrates diverse themes of a sexed approach to the construction of western culture in its multifarious manifestations. Issues such as sex professionals as “architects of our sexual lifestyles,” and sex more as a form of recreation than a mechanism of reproduction or relationship have been elegantly canvassed.

The book raises important questions about the role of media, technology, leisure, commerce, education, and popular culture in the production, consumption and reproduction of sexual identities, relationships, ethics, and in a way our very ethos. It presents sex as a constantly changing concept, with its values and configurations being subjected to continuous reinterpretation, resulting in the creation of diverse meanings. Some of the prominent themes addressed are the gendering of sexualization, the epistemological undercurrents required for making sense of the ever-changing concept of sex, the question of sexual ethics, sexual citizenship, and the politics of intimacy.

Attwood systematically develops three themes: Pornographication, Sexualization, and mainstream Media and Striptease Culture. In the first chapter, she examines pornography and the mainstreaming of sex. She provides penetrating discussion of issues such as Gonzo Culture and its role in blurring boundaries between reel and real; amateur sex; the role of technology in structuring our expectations, experiences and desires; purchased intimacy; realcore and hardcore; and the incitement of desires for selfhood through sex. Reflections on preferred masochism and pornographic short fiction and several stories published in Forum Magazine with vivid descriptions prove stimulating for a reader. Pornography is examined in a “postfeminist” framework. The author argues that Hyper-Sexualization of culture has desensitized us. She presents compelling arguments on the objectification, and commodification of the female, and a new feminist advocating the sexual confidence and autonomy in the sexual politics reigning over the scene.

The second part of the book deals with the role of media in sexual representations. It contains three fascinating chapters dissecting diverse issues. The exploration of private lives and fantasies is something readers can identify with. The chapter on themes of media representations of the choices and desires of women presents how the media has become an instrument of Foucauldian (sexual) subjectification, and in turn an empowering device. Treatment of intricate issues like sex advice and the changing roles of “agony aunts,” the concerns and dilemmas of today’s youth regarding sex and sexual identity, and the politics of advice-giving in the twenty-first century are dealt with extremely well.

The third section, i.e. striptease culture, deals with four diverse themes, namely media and impact on sexual learning, erotica, liberating women, and a new revolution in sexual history. Chapter eight is very self-consciously balanced, and refreshing for its emphasis on analysis based on research, advocating honesty, happiness, and personal freedom, rather than following externally imposed eternal ethical constraints in sexual knowledge and identity search. Another theme glorifies erotica over pornography and examines differential preferences of males and females and the pivotal role of consumption of various sexual resources in the construction and organization of sexual selves and lives in contemporary society. Attwood discusses the intricate pleasures derived by women through pole dancing. Some women find that activity liberating, stimulating, and sublimating, and find that it equips women with agency, freedom, and liberty for a freer expression of self in an ultra-modern society. The addition of a Film and TV guide is definitely useful to arouse curiosity in the minds of readers to dig further.

The book is unique because of its rich blend of academic spirit with interesting issues which it touches, and promises to take them forward, by creating curiosity, making readers to stay with it, reflect, ponder, and ask questions every moment. The book definitely challenges many prevalent social representation of sex. Though the book is a candid reflection of the mainstreaming of sex in western culture, still, the scanty discussions of alternative sexualities (e.g., LGBT culture), it suggests that these have not made their way to mainstream culture, remaining a kind of add-on practice. A chapter on the themes of LGBT sexuality would have certainly enriched the value of the work. To an onlooker, the book may appear to be a new feminist manifesto, but it has an interesting discussion of the end of the war between the sexes and a reconciliation of the binaries in the society. I recommend this work to all.

He Was Some Kind of Man: Masculinities in the B Western. By Roderick McGillis.
Waterloo, Ontario: Wilfred Laurier University Press, May 2009. Paper: ISBN 978-1-55458-059-0, $29.95. 222 pages.
Review by Laurence Raw, Baskent University, Ankara

Roy Rogers, Gene Autry, Ken Maynard, Bob Steele, Larry "Buster" Crabbe – all were stars of the B western, that highly popular genre that dominated American screens from the earliest days of the talkies to the mid-1950s, when television took over. He Was Some Kind of Man is an affectionate tribute to these heroes, written by someone who spent his formative years taking them as role models. The book is sprinkled with autobiographical reminiscences – for example, an occasion in 1954 when the author was photographed as a nine-year-old in a family group with two toy pistols at his side: “What is clear [from the photograph] is how pleased I was with the gun, how proudly I wore the holster; and how engaged I was in performing the quick draw. I was, of course, emulating the cowboy heroes I saw in the movies” (61).
At the same time McGillis tries to account for this popularity by showing how the B western hero communicated a view of masculinity that seemed particularly appropriate for the time. He argues, for instance, that the cowboy code was very similar to that of the Boy Scouts: both stress the importance of duty to God and country, helping other people at all times, and individuals’ keeping themselves strong and healthy at all times. The western hero had to be strong and powerful and exhibit “no sissy stuff” (such as bursting into tears), yet at the same time understand the importance of collective action to stop the kind of male posturing that leads to mindless violence (43).
On the other hand, the western hero offered a vision of freedom – especially for young boys brought up in the confines of the urban environment. Many of the films were set in a consciously fictional, almost nostalgic world of the American West, a world where good invariably triumphed over evil and the hero lived to fight another day. Young boys recreated these fantasy worlds for themselves. For McGillis “the identification with the cowboy provided a complex cover and compensation for a troubled home life. To enter the world of the cowboy was to escape the anxiety of home” (58). His comparison between the world of the B Western and J. M. Barrie’s Peter Pan is very apt here. The fact that B Westerns are basically fantasies is also important in looking at the way they deal with guns: “What the cowboy heroes […] offer is a clear-cut fantasy. Their guns, like their clothes […] remind us that they are the imaginary, impossible ideals that have life only in the world of play and pretend” (81).

Yet the screen representation of the western hero incorporated some ambiguous elements – especially in the way they dressed. McGillis shows how stars such as Rogers and Autry wore the kind of jeweled clothing never actually seen in the real West; rather, they made a kind of fashion statement, emphasizing their feminine as well as their masculine sides: “These are camp cowboys. The self-conscious assumption of a costume, the flaunting of the masquerade, signal immaturity. Camp is a guilty pleasure because it subverts the norms of straight living, and also because it keeps us loving childhood” (101). This is an important point: B Western heroes could never be accused of homosexuality. Rather they inhabited a childlike world in which adult distinctions between masculinity and femininity did not prevail. It was a world where women took little or no part, and where the hero cared more for his horse than anyone else: “the attractions of the cowboy and his horse appeal to our spectacular imagination, they are the imaginary” (128).

But McGillis also suggests that this image was a product of its time when white America reigned supreme and members of other cultures were either marginalized or othered. Mexicans or French Canadians were portrayed as sexually rapacious, while African-Americans were excluded altogether. It was only in films such as Harlem Rides the Range (1930), or Harlem on the Prairie (1937), intended specifically for African-American audiences, that more positive images could appear. However they seldom attracted mass attention, as they revealed the seamy truth lurking behind the façade of the white westerns: that the heroes were not always perfect in their treatment of other people (139).

The dominance of the white male in B Westerns also made sound commercial sense, as the studios marketed a range of products designed to help children relive their screen experiences. They included Hopalong Cassidy bicycles, crayon and stencil sets, tablecloths, wrapping paper, pocket knives, pins, comics, and of course guns and holsters (168). Many stars became successful business people in their own right, trading on their image to attract customers. Most of them have now passed on, but their lives and work are commemorated in museums: for example, the Roy Rogers/ Dale Evans Museum in Branson, Missouri, or the Gene Autry Western Heritage Museum in Los Angeles. The image of the Western B hero lives on.

And what of the hero today? He has been consciously appropriated by military leaders such as Norman Schwarzkopf and politicians such as George W. Bush as a way of justifying foreign interventions. However, McGillis argues that this is a “one-dimensional” version of the image, designed to validate the cowboy virtues of aggression, enterprise, and expansion. It neglects the more human side, which had its parallels with the Boy Scout movement. And perhaps it is these qualities, rather than the aggressive aside, that renders the B Western hero enduringly attractive even in a pluricultural world. Skillfully combining cultural history, critical theory, and reminiscence, He Was Some Kind of a Man reminds us of just how powerful an influence the Poverty Row products of the mid-twentieth century had on American popular culture. I thoroughly recommend the book to all readers.

Terror in the Heart of Freedom: Citizenship, Sexual Violence, and the Meaning of Race in the Postemancipation South. By Hannah Rosen.
Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, January 2009. Cloth: ISBN 978-0-8078-3202-8, $65; paper: ISBN 978-0807858820, $24.95. 424 pages.
Review by Robin Dasher-Alston, American Historical Association
Reconstruction was a period when former slaves attempted to create new lives for themselves following the Civil War, and when the whites who occupied the cities, towns, and hamlets where these newly freed men and women settled were faced with the challenge of attempting to reconceptualize their perceptions of race and the racial hierarchy that had heretofore dictated their interactions. In 1865, Memphis, Tennessee was one of the many cities and towns that experienced an influx of former slaves from the surrounding countryside and other parts of the south. Recently freed blacks were drawn to Memphis, located in former Confederate territory, in part because of the strong presence of the Union Army and access to a local Freedmen’s Bureau. Of particular importance was the presence of black Union soldiers, who aided the federal government’s efforts to protect and provide for these newly freed slaves.
The former slaves embraced their newfound freedom, establishing schools, churches, and benevolent societies with such speed and vigor that local white communities were shocked by the sense of urgency associated with those efforts. Freed slaves did not hesitate to seek ways to exercise their rights as citizens, and quickly began to explore the opportunities associated with their new status as free men and women. Black women in particular sought the protection of law as administered by the local Freedman’s Bureaus. One former slave sued her employer for unpaid wages, and another filed a complaint against a former slave owner who refused to release her children. By virtue of such actions, these former slaves were redefining racial boundaries and their status in the public sphere—efforts to integrate and fully participate in every aspect of society as emancipated citizens—that had previously been denied them. Prior to this period, the very definition of citizenship was associated with being male and white.
What occurred in Memphis was, in many ways, illustrative of the struggles and conflicts that escalated as previously enslaved men and women sought political and social equality in realms that had been the preserve of whites. The Memphis Riot of 1866 and the brutal violence that followed was an example of how violence was tactically used to preserve black subjugation. For black women, rape and the threat of rape was used to intimidate, and to force them into submission. The presence of armed black Union soldiers, along with the accelerating tensions between those soldiers and the white city police provided the impetus by the white citizenry to correct perceived wrongs by Union troops. The events that led to the Memphis Riot were in were in many respects a violent collision between the established political order, with its historic racial hierarchies, and the demand for the rights and opportunities associated with citizenship by the previously enslaved.
Hannah Rosen reveals, through careful research and insightful analysis, that the violent response by white southerners against the push by former slaves to gain status in the political, social, and economic spheres served to unite whites across social and economic boundaries that had previously divided them. While wealthy white males may have initially resisted the economic implications associated with freed men and women seeking fair wages for their labor, immigrant whites understood the implications in terms of the potential loss their growing political power and a threat against the promise of enhanced economic status. The white citizens of Memphis were now united across class lines with a common goal and against a common target. While the goal was to suppress any actions by black men and women that would enable them to assert political, economic, or social independence or power in the public sphere, or to claim any notion of equality in the social sphere, black women were often targeted. The author reveals that the Memphis Riot was an attempt by the local white citizenry and the police to regain the control that they saw slipping away.
Rosen establishes that sexual violence against African American women enabled the rioters to reestablish the dominance of white over black, to reinforce racial differences and to assert racial and gender inferiority. The actions of the Memphis rioters were supported and, in some cases, even encouraged by local politicians and the press as an assertion of white manhood—protectors of not only the public spheres but also the private spheres of the home, hearth, and family. Not surprisingly, the riot erupted with a violent confrontation between black Union soldiers and white city policeman, followed by rumors of a planned attack by the black soldiers against the white community in general.
As Rosen asserts, the press often characterized blacks as disorderly and criminal, perceptions that black women, regardless of their status, were prone to sexual promiscuity and lewdness. These blatant mischaracterizations only served to heightened fear and anxiety amongst the white citizens who increasingly viewed the black community in Memphis as dangerous and out of control. During the riot, at least 48 blacks were killed, many were wounded, and at least five black women reported that they had been raped. Of the two white men who died, one succumbed to a self-inflicted gunshot.
Rosen presents the documented testimony of individuals—both black and white—both the perpetuators and victims of the violence of the Memphis Riot. Yet, most compelling is the testimony of the black women who were raped. The testimony of these women in itself was extraordinary because it revealed that they believed that the congressional committee that received their testimony would accept their statements as truthful, and that the law would recognize their rights as victims. To wit, their testimony challenged the perceptions of black women as immoral, incapable of being virtuous and honorable.
Among the many strengths of Rosen’s deeply engaging and penetrating book is that she uses the emergence of these formerly enslaved men and women into the social, political, and economic arena, as well as the Memphis Riot and its aftermath, as a way to examine and assess the radical shifts and disruptions that began to appear after emancipation. Rosen reveals, how, in an all-too-brief moment in history following emancipation, blacks sought to exercise their rights as citizens, and black women defied both racial and gender hierarchies as they sought to redefine those socially defined constructs.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Literature and Dance in Nineteenth-Century Britain: Jane Austen to the New Woman.
By Cheryl A. Wilson.

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, April 2009. ISBN-978-0-521-51909-0, $90.00. 220 pages.

Review by Luca Caddia, Independent Scholar

According to Alexander Pope, who has deserved the epigraph of this book, “those move easiest who have learned to dance” (1). Whatever mobility Pope refers to, Cheryl A. Wilson soon clarifies in her introduction that her study privileges certain aspects of the culture of dance, such as upper-class and urban entertainments. This leads her book to focus on the discipline of social dance, which turns the individual body into public discourse and imbues literary works with a range of social, political, and national concerns. In particular, the subjects she privileges are those by which feminist cultural studies are usually informed, including gender construction and social mobility, so that this book could also be defined as a study of the body politics of nineteenth-century ballrooms.

Wilson has devoted the first two chapters to a comprehension of the culture of nineteenth-century dance through the analysis of dance masters and Almack’s Lady Patronesses, two complementary categories of gender construction and destabilization. In the first chapter, for example, she highlights the idiosyncratic position of dance masters within upper-class life: often depicted as effeminate figures who eschew traditional manly employment (i.e. Dickens’s Mr. Turveydrop in Bleak House, 1853), they also figure as social arbiters through their dance manuals, which include instructions to ensure that participants in a ball behave appropriately. However, especially in the emergence of scandalous dances such as the waltz, “the dance manual emerges as a text that simultaneously affirms the need to police physical bodies and promotes transgressive behaviors” (29). Indeed, whereas social dance contributes to gender socialization and construction, it also has the potential to destabilize gender norms: while German cotillion “gives [women] the rare chance of showing their preferences” (33), figures like ‘Blind-man’s Bluff’ do incorporate descriptions of same-sex couplings” (34).

The second chapter is dedicated to Almack’s, the most fashionable club in Regency London. Wilson explains how institutions such as Almack’s react against changes in class boundaries by reveling around the fashionable aristocracy. Yet the Lady Patronesses, the aristocratic ladies who assumed an authorial role in its organization, complicate the “separate spheres” ideology by exercising political influence and arranging marriages. The chapter discusses the satirized authorial role of the Lady Patronesses through fashionable novels such as The Exclusives (1830), by Lady Charlotte Campbell Bury, and Almack’s: A Novel (1826), by Marianne Spencer Stanhope. This is perhaps the part of the book where Wilson’s own authoriality proves more reliable, especially when compared to her analysis of Jane Austen’s Emma (1816). Perhaps this happens not because Wilson has not understood Emma, but because the purposes of her chapter (a comparison between the social codes of Almack’s and those of Highbury) lead her to focus too much on a constrained comparison between Emma and Mrs Eldon that favors the former instead of treating Emma’s own unfulfilled matchmaking pretentions as the major topic it is in the economy of the novel. Indeed, if it is debatable that “Emma employs a system of admission designed to promote her own desires and in doing so positions herself in an authorial role” (65), this does not mean that “Emma displays a critical self-consciousness” (66). On the contrary, by eventually giving up to Mr Knightley’s moral authority, Emma abandons her patronizing pretentions and learns not to impose her views on others. Wilson has clearly realized this, but since her conclusion contradicts most of her previous discourse, this part of the chapter is not as strong as that devoted to silver-fork novels.

Each of the following three chapters is devoted to a single social dance as described in a significant selection of nineteenth-century fiction, which shows that, instead of compiling a catalogue raisonné of all the nineteenth-century novels where social dance has a prominent part, Wilson has chosen texts in which the relationship between literature and dance can be analyzed in narrative terms. The social dances selected in the book are the English country dance, the quadrille, and the waltz. Despite its name, the term country dance derives from the French “contredanse, which referred to the two lines of dancers standing across one another” (71). This highlights the divisions inherent in such a dance, which authors like Austen, Thackeray,and Eliot employ to consider social ideas concerning class, gender, and nation. In particular, the subchapter dedicated to Vanity Fair (1848) is particularly convincing in its attention to the French-English conflict, especially if one considers, as Wilson does, that Becky Sharp may prove unable to complete her turn through the country dance because it is a symbol of English national identity. Also striking is the way Wilson’s reading of Northanger Abbey (1798-9) manages to match that of Adam Bede (1859): indeed, the social and sexual dangers carefully avoided by Austen are sympathetically explored by Eliot by means of an intertwining of the social and the marriage plot through country dance.

The book proves even more convincing in the following chapter, which shows how, compared to the English country dance, “the quadrille embodies changing cultural perceptions concerning nation […] and enables authors to employ time, space, and physicality to advance a consideration of social mobility” (105). This is certainly true of Anthony Trollope’s The Way We Live Now (1875) and was also magnificently realized by Andrew Davies when, in his 2001 adaptation of the novel, he had a self-confident Prince George dance with the awkward Mrs Melmotte. As regards Trollope, it might have been useful for Wilson to mention Rachel Ray (1863), a pretty novel on provincial life where the waltz is employed to express the same concerns about sexuality and social mobility advocated by Wilson’s last chapter, which prefers to rely on dance-less works like Aurora Leigh (1856) instead. But who writes is far from complaining: this book is properly orchestrated and remarkable for its insightful reading, and considering Wilson’s desire to be acknowledged as a Lady Patroness herself, she can be more than satisfied with the result.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

For the Freedom of Her Race: Black Women and Electoral Politics in Illinois, 1877-1932.

By Lisa Materson.

Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, February 2009. Cloth: ISBN 978-0-8078-3271-4, $42. 352 pages.

Review by Jason Hostutler, Mount Mary College, Wisconsin

In For the Freedom of Her Race, Lisa Materson makes an important contribution to our understanding of the role of African-American women within Jim Crow era politics. Materson tells the story of black women activists in the context of the Illinois political system, working in favor of the Republican Party agenda that supported the use of federal authority to protect the constitutional rights of black citizens. Separated from the influence of Southern white supremacists, these women strove to make a positive political impact for those black Americans facing disenfranchisement and terror in the American South. Individually, these women-activists were of diverse social, economic, and educational backgrounds. However, each had migrated to Illinois from the recently “redeemed” and increasingly racist South, and each possessed a zealous drive to assist the embattled Southern black community in any political way possible. Initially these political opportunities were very limited for Illinois women, but gradually increased alongside expanding suffrage. Women in Illinois won the right to vote in school elections in 1891, and for municipal and federal offices in 1913; they were finally granted full franchise in 1920. Materson convincingly makes the case that even when the outlets for political expression were limited, these African-American activists represented those in the South who had lost their political voice “by proxy,” and encouraged African American men in their communities to do the same. Over time these activists began to lose faith in the Republican Party, as Republican politicians failed to make good on promises to assist their black constituents with anti-lynching legislation. In this manner, the origins of the African-American embrace of the Democratic Party are visible years before the 1932 election of Franklin Roosevelt.

Materson provides numerous case studies to convincingly demonstrate the high level of engagement of Illinois black Republican women in the years 1877-1932. The author describes these decades as the “nadir” and “crucible” of black life in America. Activists such as Ella Elm, Jennie Lawrence, and Alice Thompson Waytes rose to the challenge and actively engaged local, state, and eventually national politics with a zeal fueled in part by the racial injustices occurring in the southern states. Materson’s examination of these women provides much-needed detail to a political drama that in previous historiography has been overshadowed by the story of the black reformer Ida B. Wells. Wells is mentioned only as a side note to allow lesser-known actors to take center stage. The stories of these women make Materson’s study a colorful and fascinating read. Still, the author’s treatment of the specific activities of these women can be at times too superficial. When lacking specific evidence to detail the exact words and activities of her subjects, Materson relies on generalizations based on the overall social climate of the era to imply what the women should have been thinking or doing at the time. Furthermore, the author is also vague about the specific accomplishments of the black activists, especially with regard to their impact on the lives of the Southern black community they are supposedly representing. While these issues are troubling, they do not detract from the quality of this study overall. For the Freedom of Her Race sheds new light on a previously under-examined topic in the political history of the Jim Crow era. The accessibility of this study is due in no small part to Materson’s clean and precise writing style and vibrant storytelling. Her research, most notably in Chicago-area archives, is meticulous.