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Hardcover The Showman and the Slave: Race, Death, and Memory in Barnum's America Book

ISBN: 0674006364

ISBN13: 9780674006362

The Showman and the Slave: Race, Death, and Memory in Barnum's America

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Book Overview

In this compelling story about one of the nineteenth century's most famous Americans, Benjamin Reiss uses P. T. Barnum's Joice Heth hoax to examine the contours of race relations in the antebellum... This description may be from another edition of this product.

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A fascinating study of antebellum America

Reiss sets about to untangle the mysterious relationship between enterprising showman P.T. Barnum and Joice Heth, an elderly ex-slave whom Barnum falsely advertised and exhibited as the nurse of the infant George Washington. Through a careful study of the archives (letters, periodicals, Barnum's autobiographies and much, much more), Reiss shows how the Barnum-Heth relationship is a unique case study of how celebrity and capitalism mingled during the antebellum period. As an elderly black woman whose body was deformed by age and malnutrition, Heth simultaneously inspired disgust, doubt, admiration and erotic fascination in her audiences, particularly in the white newspaper reporters who were either obsessively profiling her or sneeringly debunking her. Reiss shows how Barnum fed the flames of her celebrity, keeping alive all manner of stories and skepticism about Heth. Reiss is an impressive prose stylist; he knows how to pace a historic narrative to maximum effect. And rather than doggedly pursue any single thesis, he spins out a lot of possible interpretations of the Barnum-Heath duo, while acknowledging that there's much about Heth's private life that we'll never know. Barnum and Heth are unforgettable characters, but their story is also a prism revealing many facets of American life in the 19th century: the significance of George Washington's memory in the early republic, public entertainment, race, urban life, the growth of penny newspapers, the status of the working class and, of course, the meaning of slavery in the American North and South.
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