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Theatre Journal 56.2 (2004) 334-335
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P.T. Barnum was the most famous of all nineteenth-century Americans, Benjamin Reiss remarks in his 2001 book The Showman and the Slave: Race, Death, and Memory in Barnum's America. And, indeed, we still know him well. Whether as pop legend (suggested by his recent cameo in Scorsese's Gangs of New York) or as the subject of scholarly inquiry (both Bluford Adams's E Pluribus Barnum: The Great Showman and the Making of U.S. Popular Culture and Rosemarie Garland Thomson's Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body are relatively recent examinations), Barnum and his crew still command our interest. We are familiar with his exploits and his exploitations: the Feejee Mermaid, the Swedish Nightingale, Colonel Tom Thumb, and, of course, the 161-year-old African American woman and nursemaid of George Washington, Joice Heth, whose tour with Barnum during the summer, fall, and winter of 1835 inaugurated the showman's unprecedented celebrity. Yet in his rich study about Heth and her exhibitor, Reiss shows us a Barnum as complex as he is transparent, and no less mysterious in his chicanery than the "dark subject" who launched his career.
Reiss, through an expert use of thick description, recovers and retells the story of Barnum and Heth from "a Babel" (4) of primary sources that includes newspaper accounts, court records, letters, drawings, pamphlets, diaries, and Barnum's own autobiographies. In this fascinating narrative and cultural analysis of Barnum's maiden humbug (this book is a page-turner despite/because of its great erudition), Reiss outlines Heth's experiences with Barnum in three parts that chronicle her exhibition, her death and reemergence in culture, and her "speculative biography" (the title of his final chapter). In section one of the book, Reiss details their northern tour, describing both Heth's and Barnum's performances and interpreting spectator response. For American audiences, Heth proved to be both sacred and profane, a national treasure (as Washington's caregiver) and a repellant curiosity (weighing only forty-six pounds, blind, toothless, and paralyzed with nails that curled out like talons); she was both a pious Baptist and a whisky-swilling, irreverent rascal; she was both lively, animated, and engaging and an automaton (literally, some said); she was both "Lady Washington" and a slave. For Reiss, these many faces of Joice Heth, some fabricated by Barnum, some by the lawyer Levi Lyman (Barnum's partner in this venture), some by the press (some perhaps by Heth herself, as Reiss argues in the revealing final chapter of the book), make Heth seem an even more compelling text through which we can read various aspects of antebellum culture. Reiss's varied readings of this "hardly . . . stable persona" (76) are largely excellent, although his use of Bakhtinian theories about carnival and grotesque representation (Reiss's use of the term "grotesque" is problematic) could be [End Page 334] expanded, I think, to assist him in his reading of Heth as an open text.
Heth's very public autopsy in February 1836 at the City Saloon in New York (for which Barnum charged fifty cents admission) and the press's response to this event begin part two. Dr. David Rogers, upon dissecting the body, concluded that Heth was only eighty years old; meanwhile, New York papers ran competing stories about the hoax actually being a hoax, suggesting that the body under Rogers' knife was not Heth at all but a surrogate. Reiss ruminates upon the many machinations produced by this spectacular "resurrection" (the title of part two of the book), reading between each line for cultural meaning. Questions regarding identity, authenticity, and commodification emerge in Reiss's careful analysis, which exposes racial and class prejudices as well as the influence of the capitalist mass media in shaping opinion. As the book's title implies, race is a very important...