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Street Scenes

Staging the Self in Immigrant New York, 1880–1924

Esther Romeyn

Publication Year: 2008

The turn of the twentieth century in New York City was characterized by radical transformation as the advent of consumer capitalism confronted established social hierarchies, culture, and conceptions of selfhood. The popular stage existed in a symbiotic relationship with the city and uniquely captured the contested terms of immigrant identity of the time. Street Scenes focuses on the intersection of modern city life and stage performance. From street life and slumming to vaudeville and early cinema, to Yiddish theater and blackface comedy, Esther Romeyn discloses racial comedy, passing, and masquerade as gestures of cultural translation. In these performances she detects an obsession with the idea of the city as theater and the self as actor, which was fueled by the challenges that consumer capitalism presented to notions of an “authentic” self. It was exactly this idea of “authentic” immigrant selfhood that was at stake in many performances on the popular stage, and Romeyn ultimately demonstrates how these diverse and potent immigrant works influenced the emergence of a modern metropolitan culture.

Published by: University of Minnesota Press


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Title Page, Copyright

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pp. i-iv


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p. v

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p. vii

I would like to express my gratitude to the following people and institutions. To the Memorial Foundation for Jewish Culture, the University of Minnesota and the Department of American Studies for their generous support of this project in its embryonic stage. To Rob Kroes, David Noble, Riv-Ellen...

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pp. ix-xxxi

In 1941, Claude Lévi-Strauss, living as a refugee in New York and developing the ideas that would lay the foundation for structural anthropology, found himself enchanted by his urban surroundings. The monumental modernist architecture that dominated the metropolis, he realized, imposed...

Part I: The City as Theater: Performativity and Urban Space

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1 The Epistemology of the City

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pp. 3-25

New York City at the turn of the nineteenth century was the visual embodiment of the contradictions of modernity. Within the span of the previous two decades, mechanization, improvements in transportation, and a general rise in the standard of living...

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2 Detecting, Acting, and the Hierarchy of the Social Body

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pp. 27-50

Darkness and Daylight can be considered indicative of a paradigm shift that started to overtake dominant bourgeois attitudes toward the “problem” of the inner city and the poor in the late nineteenth century. The explosive growth of late nineteenth-century...

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3 Crossing the Bowery: Female Slumming and the Theater of Urban Space

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pp. 53-78

In 1897, in an article in Harper’s Weekly entitled “East Side Considerations,”E. S.Martin described the difference between the Lower East and the Upper East Side. For Martin, as for many middle-class observers, what distinguished the lower classes from gentility was the absence...

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4 Eros and Americanization: The Rise of David Levinsky, or the Etiquette of Race and Sex

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pp. 81-98

By the turn of the nineteenth century, heavy Jewish immigration from eastern Europe had transformed the neighborhood from the Bowery to the East River and from Market Street to Fourteenth Street (and pressing east of Second Avenue) into a center of...

Part II: Stages of Identity: Performing Ethnic Subjects

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5 Juggling Identities: The Case of an Italian American Clown

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pp. 101-122

In 1919, Carl Van Vechten, journalist and expert slummer, visited the Old Bowery Theatre to attend a performance of Eduardo Migliaccio, or “Farfariello,” one of the most popular and successful Italian American entertainers of the early decades of the twentieth century. He...

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6 My Other/My Self: Impersonation and the Rehearsal of Otherness

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pp. 125-156

“The vaudeville theatre,” Edward Royle observed in 1899, “belongs to the era of the department store and the short story. It may be a kind of lunch-counter art, but then the art is so vague and the lunch is so real.”1 With the department store and the short story, vaudeville...

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7 The Truth of Racial Signs: Civilizing the Jewish Comic

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pp. 159-184

For a casual observer like Edwin Royle, what was remarkable (and a little melancholy) about vaudeville was the seriousness with which it banned seriousness. The program, in his words, was “from the artist who balances a set of parlor furniture on his nose to the academic...

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8 Blackface, Jewface, Whiteface: Racial Impersonation Revisited

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pp. 187-211

On April 22, 1922, a month after the death of Bert Williams, Eddie Cantor paid tribute to the colleague with whom he had shared the stage of the Ziegfeld Follies. “He had the advantage of belonging to the race which we all more or less imitate when we put on...


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pp. 213-261


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pp. 263-273

About the Author

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p. 275

E-ISBN-13: 9780816666263
E-ISBN-10: 0816666261
Print-ISBN-13: 9780816645220

Page Count: 320
Publication Year: 2008

OCLC Number: 318218376
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Street Scenes

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • New York (N.Y.) -- Ethnic relations.
  • New York (N.Y.) -- Intellectual life.
  • Minorities -- New York (State) -- New York -- Social conditions.
  • Minorities -- New York (State) -- New York -- Intellectual life.
  • Immigrants -- New York (State) -- New York -- Social conditions.
  • Immigrants -- New York (State) -- New York -- Intellectual life.
  • Performing arts -- Social aspects -- New York (State) -- New York -- History.
  • Self -- New York (State) -- New York -- History.
  • Ethnicity -- New York (State) -- New York -- History.
  • City and town life -- New York (State) -- New York -- History.
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