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American Periodicals: A Journal of History, Criticism, and Bibliography 16.2 (2006) 229-233

Reviewed by
Jeff Berglund
Northern Arizona University
Never One Nation: Freaks, Savages and Whiteness in U.S. Popular Culture 1850–1877. By Linda Frost. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2005. 272 pp. Illus. Index. $20.00.

In Never One Nation: Freaks, Savages and Whiteness in U.S. Popular Culture 1850–1877, Linda Frost implicitly challenges Benedict Anderson's contentions that nineteenth-century nationalism came about in part because of changes in publishing that encouraged a simultaneity in reading experiences. Basing her claim on evidence gathered from regional periodicals and other popular representational formats tied to local interests, Frost argues that, instead, nationalism is negotiated by locales and by competing networks. Her primary readings are framed by Toni Morrison's assertion in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination that a "blinding sense of whiteness" affected portrayals and actualizations of policies of race. Frost suggests that this blinding sense of whiteness is used to construct a malleable notion of Americanness that best served the specific needs of regional interests.

Though Frost picks up Morrison's call to articulate the way whiteness informs nineteenth-century thinking about race, she notes in the introduction that this project evolved from her initial interest in better understanding the original context of the popular magazine fiction of Louisa May Alcott; this early work eventually opened her eyes to important themes to explore in other periodicals. As Frost acknowledges, while this is a study of the popular nineteenth-century periodical, it is not intended to be an exhaustive catalog of their histories or readership. Instead, in designing her methodology, she looked for periodicals that best "represent their region, that were concerned with a range of issues pertaining to readers both in and beyond their immediate publication home, but still concerned themselves with a 'home' readership" (xv).

Frost's rationale for the 1850–77 timeframe of her study is also noteworthy. This period was remarkable for an increase in the distribution of the popular periodical following major changes in the postal system in 1850. It also marks the creation and failure of emancipation and the social and political process of enfranchisement. The year 1863 saw the nation's largest mass execution staged in Minnesota, the outcome of the so-called Dakota wars and of the largest riots in the nation's [End Page 229] history. Well after California became a state, the completion of the trans-American railroad raised new anxieties about this western outpost and its Chinese population joining the nation at large. Throughout these decades, discussions of women's rights, Frost notes, were often connected to racialized discourses that supported regional political ideologies and class interests.

Frost first explores the so-called Dakota uprising in 1862 and then the representation of the mass execution of Dakota. Chapter one compares the differential coverage in regional (Minnesota) and national (New York-based) publications and suggests that the national handling of these events circulated alongside the exhibition of Sioux and Winnebago tribal members by P.T. Barnum at his American Museum in 1863. National coverage in 1862 editions of Frank Leslie's Illustrated Weekly or Harper's Weekly differed from regional coverage of these incidents by the St. Paul Pioneer and Democrat. This is Frost's strongest comparative chapter and makes the clearest connection to her subtitle and the various forms of popular culture where regional interests are different. Some of her background analysis on human exhibitions and Barnum will be familiar to readers of Robert Bogdan's Freakshow, Bluford Adams's E. Pluribus Barnum: The Great Showman and the Making of U.S. Popular Culture, Benjamin Reiss's The Showman and the Slave: Race, Death, and Memory in Barnum's America, and Marjorie Garland's Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body. Although each of these books also makes significant use of primary works from the popular press, Frost's focus on the interaction...


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