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Commerce in Color

Race, Consumer Culture, and American Literature, 1893-1933

James C. Davis

Publication Year: 2007

Commerce in Color explores the juncture of consumer culture and race by examining advertising, literary texts, mass culture, and public events in the United States from 1893 to 1933. James C. Davis takes up a remarkable range of subjects—including the crucial role publishers Boni and Liveright played in the marketing of Harlem Renaissance literature, Henry James’s critique of materialism in The American Scene, and the commodification of racialized popular culture in James Weldon Johnson’s The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man—as he argues that racial thinking was central to the emergence of U.S. consumerism and, conversely, that an emerging consumer culture was a key element in the development of racial thinking and the consolidation of racial identity in America. By urging a reassessment of the familiar rubrics of the “culture of consumption” and the “culture of segregation,” Dawson poses new and provocative questions about American culture and social history. Both an influential literary study and an absorbing historical read, Commerce in Color proves that—in America—advertising, publicity, and the development of the modern economy cannot be understood apart from the question of race. “A welcome addition to existing scholarship, Davis’s study of the intersection of racial thinking and the emergence of consumer culture makes connections very few scholars have considered.” —James Smethurst, University of Massachusetts James C. Davis is Assistant Professor of English at Brooklyn College.

Published by: University of Michigan Press

Series: Class : Culture


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pp. ix-x

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pp. 1-18

By the time the stock market crashed and the Great Depression provoked a widespread reappraisal of U.S.-style capitalism, Americans were already well on the way to defining themselves as a nation of consumers. We tend to think of consumerism as a recent or even “postmodern” phenomenon,...

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1. No Place of Race: Consumer Culture's Critical Tradition

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pp. 19-63

For students of African American history and of race in the United States, the years between Plessy v. Ferguson and the Great Depression were pivotal in the renewal of racial thinking—the retrenchment of racism, the disenfranchisement of African Americans, and the consolidation of a whiteness that would include the massive “second wave” of...

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2. "Stage Business" as Citizenship: Ida B. Wells at the World's Columbian Exposition

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pp. 64-84

Visitors to the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition saw “Negroes” but few, if any, African Americans. An ethnological display exhibited the Fon people of Dahomey (now the West African nation of Benin), but African American endeavors had been scrupulously suppressed. By and large, the only African Americans in the...

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3. Thrown into Relief: Distinction Making in The American Scene

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pp. 85-128

Henry James noted in The American Scene in 1904 that in New York there are “occasions, days and weeks together, when the electric cars offer you nothing else to think of” besides immigrants. “The carful, again and again, is a foreign carful,” he continued, “a row of faces, up and down, testifying, without exception, to alienism...

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4. Race-changes as Exchanges: The Autobiography of an Ex-coloured Man

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pp. 129-168

Reflecting on his travels by Pullman coach at the end of The American Scene, Henry James imagines a race-change. He speculates that his perceptions would be altered dramatically were he “red” instead of “white,” a Native American rather than a “native” American. He scolds the railroad itself:...

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5. A Black Culture Industry: Public Relations and the "New Negro" at Boni and Liveright

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pp. 169-212

The same year that Boni and Liveright published Jean Toomer’s Cane (1923), which many took as a signal of the maturation of a new generation of black writers, a book entitled Publicity appeared, outlining the subtle new tactics of promotion that were bolstering the new industry...

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6. Confessions of the Flesh: The Mass Public in Epidermal Trouble in Nathanael West's Miss Lonelyhearts and George Schuyler's Black No More

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pp. 213-247

By 1930, the quantity of goods manufactured in the United States had grown at nearly three times the rate at which the population had increased since the turn of the century, according to a federally commissioned study by Middletown author Robert Lynd (“People” 857). This discrepancy had been a fundamental crisis...

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Conclusion: Leaving Muncie

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pp. 248-254

In 1923, ROBERT S. LYND hit a methodological snag while in the ‹nal planning stages for the research that would become Middletown—a text that, along with Veblen’s Theory of the Leisure Class, helped found a “native” critical tradition on consumer culture....


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pp. 255-278


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pp. 279-290


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pp. 291-309

E-ISBN-13: 9780472026074
E-ISBN-10: 0472026070
Print-ISBN-13: 9780472069873
Print-ISBN-10: 047206987X

Page Count: 312
Publication Year: 2007

Series Title: Class : Culture
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OCLC Number: 593287275
MUSE Marc Record: Download for Commerce in Color

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Consumption (Economics) in literature.
  • American literature -- 20th century -- History and criticism.
  • Material culture -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
  • Racism in popular culture.
  • African American consumers -- Social conditions.
  • Popular culture -- United States -- History -- 20th century.
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