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How the Arabian Nights Inspired the American Dream, 1790-1935

Susan Nance

Publication Year: 2009

Americans have always shown a fascination with the people, customs, and legends of the "East"--witness the popularity of the stories of the ###Arabian Nights#, the performances of Arab belly dancers and acrobats, the feats of turban-wearing vaudeville magicians, and even the antics of fez-topped Shriners. In this captivating volume, Susan Nance provides a social and cultural history of this highly popular genre of Easternized performance in America up to the Great Depression. According to Nance, these traditions reveal how a broad spectrum of Americans, including recent immigrants and impersonators, behaved as producers and consumers in a rapidly developing capitalist economy. In admiration of the ###Arabian Nights#, people creatively reenacted Eastern life, but these performances were also demonstrations of Americans' own identities, Nance argues. The story of Aladdin, made suddenly rich by rubbing an old lamp, stood as a particularly apt metaphor for how consumer capitalism might benefit each person. The leisure, abundance, and contentment that many imagined were typical of Eastern life were the same characteristics used to define "the American dream." The recent success of Disney's ###Aladdin# movies suggests that many Americans still welcome an interpretation of the East as a site of incredible riches, romance, and happy endings. This abundantly illustrated account is the first by a historian to explain why and how so many Americans sought out such cultural engagement with the Eastern world long before geopolitical concerns became paramount. Through a social and cultural history of the many Muslim and Muslim-impersonators who worked in a highly popular genre of entertainment throughout the United States from the 1800s through the mid-1930s, Nance identifies and analyzes the connections between America's historical vision of the Muslim world and the development of U.S. consumer capitalism. Performing in lavish North African, Middle Eastern, or Indian costumes in such venues as circuses, stage shows, fairs, expositions, clubs, and fraternal orders, the actors and their performances were by turns controversial, celebrated, and often commercially successful. Nance argues that the significance of these acts lies in what they reveal about the ways Americans behaved as sellers and buyers in the rapidly developing system of American consumer capitalism during this period. The leisure, abundance, and contentment many saw in the "Moslem," "Oriental," or, simply, "Eastern" acts was the same vision promised by the ideology of consumer capitalism that would come to define the nation. So, in a time when the region of the world from Morocco to India did not figure prominently in political and economic relationships with the United States, the Eastern persona experienced by large numbers of ordinary Americans was shaped not by imperialism, but by capitalism. In America, the representation of the Muslim world was mediated by the market. More than 25 illustrations will be included. Americans have always shown a fascination with the people, customs, and legends of the “East,” such as the stories of the Arabian Nights, the performances of Arab belly dancers and acrobats, the feats of turban-wearing vaudeville magicians, etc. According to Nance, these traditions reveal how a broad spectrum of Americans, including recent immigrants and impersonators, behaved as producers and consumers in a rapidly developing capitalist economy. The leisure, abundance, and contentment that many imagined were typical of Eastern life, Nance argues, were the same characteristics used to define “the American dream.” Americans have always shown a fascination with the people, customs, and legends of the "East"--witness the popularity of the stories of the ###Arabian Nights#, the performances of Arab belly dancers and acrobats, the feats of turban-wearing vaudeville magicians, and even the antics of fez-topped Shriners. In this captivating volume, Susan Nance provides a social and cultural history of this highly popular genre of Easternized performance in America up to the Great Depression. According to Nance, these traditions reveal how a broad spectrum of Americans, including recent immigrants and impersonators, behaved as producers and consumers in a rapidly developing capitalist economy. In admiration of the ###Arabian Nights#, people creatively reenacted Eastern life, but these performances were also demonstrations of Americans' own identities, Nance argues. The story of Aladdin, made suddenly rich by rubbing an old lamp, stood as a particularly apt metaphor for how consumer capitalism might benefit each person. The leisure, abundance, and contentment that many imagined were typical of Eastern life were the same characteristics used to define "the American dream." The recent success of Disney's ###Aladdin# movies suggests that many Americans still welcome an interpretation of the East as a site of incredible riches, romance, and happy endings. This abundantly illustrated account is the first by a historian to explain why and how so many Americans sought out such cultural engagement with the Eastern world long before geopolitical concerns became paramount.

Published by: The University of North Carolina Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. 2-5

Contents

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pp. 6-9

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Preface

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pp. ix-xi

After a half century of near invisibility, since 2001 West and South Asian Americans have become increasingly prominent in comedic and dramatic entertainment, advertising, and journalism in the United States. This notoriety is only ...

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Introduction: Playing Eastern

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pp. 1-18

As a historian, I have studied intercultural communication for many years. I have been most compelled by the workings of the entertainment business and the men and women whose bread and butter was ...

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One: Capitalism and the Arabian Nights, 1790–1892

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pp. 19-50

The population of the United States has always embraced a consumer ethic of one sort or another. Even before the market revolution of the early nineteenth century, historians tell of colonial subjects ...

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Two: Ex Oriente Lux: Playing Eastern for a Living, 1838–1875

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pp. 51-78

In an October 1865 review of William Alger’s compilation Poetry of the Orient, an anonymous reviewer for The Nation asked readers, ‘‘How shall the West be brought duly to appreciate and respect the East?’’ It ...

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Three: Wise Men of the East and the Market for American Fraternalism, 1850–1892

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pp. 79-110

After the Civil War, it was male audiences who were particularly compelled by accounts of the Eastern world marketed by a native-born man in Eastern persona because to them West Asia and North Africa ...

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Four: Arab Athleticism and the Exoticization of the American Dream, 1870–1920

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pp. 111-135

When and why did significant numbers of people from North Africa or West Asia intervene in the American practice of playing Eastern? In the mid-nineteenth century Christopher Oscanyan had done so as ...

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Five: Making the Familiar Strange: The Racial Politics of Eastern Exotic, 1893–1929

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pp. 137-170

The following three chapters all radiate out from 1890s Chicago to examine what native-born Americans did with the interventions people from North Africa, West Asia, and South Asia made into ...

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Six: Eastern Femininities for Modern Women, 1893–1930

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pp. 171-204

If there was one character that defined Eastern femininity in the United States after 1893, it was the persona of the Oriental dancer. She emerged to great notoriety at the Columbian Exposition and its ...

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Seven: Turbans and Capitalism, 1893–1930

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pp. 205-229

What happened to the persona of the wise man of the East with the rise of modern mass consumerism among the middle and working classes? Once he had been a fixture of American fraternal orders and ...

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Eight: Sign of Promise: African Americans and Eastern Personae in the Great Depression

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pp. 231-254

When the economic system began to crumble in the late 1920s, performers of spiritual Eastern manhood would have a more di≈cult time playing Oriental as a way of prospering in the market, although ...

Notes

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pp. 255-297

Bibliography

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pp. 299-334

Index

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pp. 335-344


E-ISBN-13: 9781469605784
E-ISBN-10: 1469605783
Print-ISBN-13: 9780807832745
Print-ISBN-10: 080783274X

Page Count: 360
Illustrations: 25 illus.
Publication Year: 2009