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  • A Response to Gillian Silverman
  • Shirley Samuels (bio)

There is much to admire about Gillian Silverman’s essay and I find myself wishing mostly to comment on and to extend its arguments rather than countering them. The concept that a now heroic figure might have been lampooned to the degree that Abraham Lincoln was in the topsy turvy political climate of the nineteenth-century US must astonish audiences now. Yet perhaps we need not look very far into current popular landscapes to come up with similar caricatures. (Recall, for instance, the recent scurrilous use applied to a photograph of a deceased chimpanzee.) The purpose and effects of such ridicule are at once to reduce a political object to a diminished scatological role and inexorably to retain such diminished associations to establish an unequal ground of comparison with political rivals.

Once the image has been placed, it can never completely be unseated. The counter-imaging performed in this essay, where both Lincoln and Douglas become circus animals on display, suggests, in particular, how the work of staging tourism and the circus as combined spectacles pervaded popular culture. Such a concept, for example, forces us to consider how a figure like P. T. Barnum could lie behind the showmanship of political life, presenting Tom Thumb to Lincoln at the White House. (Barnum’s autobiography repeatedly shows him displaying Tom Thumb in conjunction with political spectacle, such as “the crowned heads of the old world” [292], but the scene of a national capitol as the place for curiosities and their display also appears in the early work of the Philadelphia Museum, Charles Willson Peale’s location for natural curiosities.) Indeed an aggregate of viewing, [End Page 788] spectacle, and political efficacy situates the production of politicians as a display for scientific curiosity. Silverman rightly places this production in conjunction with Thomas Jefferson’s comments on scientific racialism in Notes on the State of Virginia (1781).

The ability (or is it the need?) to develop shame in conjunction with politics influences the charge Douglas makes that by conciliating voters in the northern part of Illinois with an assertion of antislavery sentiments Lincoln might disavow an attachment earlier expressed to voters in southern Illinois who approve of slavery. Douglas expresses himself not only through an appropriation of Lincoln’s “house divided” speech but further, and more disturbingly, by expressing an altogether unnerving relation between an attitude toward slavery and the effect of such an attitude on the color of the skin. The very mottled appearance ascribed to Lincoln, as this essay suggests, becomes the sign of a transition between races. Such mottling recalls the fictional child Lola rescued from border territories in Mexico in María Amparo Ruiz de Burton’s Who Would Have Thought It? (1872), a child whose racially ambiguous and spotted appearance gives rise to suspicions about her claims to whiteness.

The suspicion raised here, that sympathy with a political position might change the color of your skin, suggests an anxiety associated with border zones and contacts—and also with tourism. The assumption produced here is that physical proximity to a border territory and its inhabitants might engage a white character—in this case a white politician—in a besmirching at once deeper than the skin and visible on the surface of the skin. The reaction to such tourism and display (cf. Mary Louise Pratt’s Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation [1992]) appears in relation to Mexico (in the case of the novel) and in relation to Lincoln’s origins in the border state of Kentucky (in the case of Illinois). But perhaps they are related proximities. The anxiety about the blurring of boundaries that dominated the period before and after the Mexican-American War of 1846–48 was stirred up when, in a famous but also famously forgotten maneuver, American troops invaded Mexico City and returned prepared, ten short years later, to fight each other over ambiguous boundaries between North and South.

Several confusions about spectators, animals, humans, and display appear in the difficult and intricate reading Silverman presents of the political cartoon “An Heir to the Throne, Or the Next Republican Candidate” (1860). This cartoon’s caricatures of Lincoln...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1468-4365
Print ISSN
0896-7148
Pages
pp. 788-792
Launched on MUSE
2009-11-25
Open Access
No
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