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  • Laboring to Play: Home Entertainment and the Spectacle of Middle-Class Cultural Life, 1850-1920
  • Lori Merish
Laboring to Play: Home Entertainment and the Spectacle of Middle-Class Cultural Life, 1850-1920. By Melanie Dawson. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005. 272 pp. $39.95.

In her suggestive study, Melanie Dawson examines various forms of "home entertainment"—parlor games and theatricals, acting charades, tableaux vivants, and commemorative recitations—as vehicles of middle-class self-definition. Building on the work of Karen Halttunen, William Gleason, and others, Dawson argues that home entertainment constituted a productive cultural space in which participants could "clarify, critique, and question the[ir] everyday activities" (1). A strength of Dawson's project is her recovery of a diverse array of sources: didactic guides to home entertainment, magazine columns and series, and journal articles, all of which "circulated images of entertainment for a large" audience (8–9). (Dawson largely omits diaries and private letters from her study, explaining that they rarely provide detailed accounts [End Page 210] of home entertainment). She supplements these sources with literary depictions of the "entertainment chronotope" in (mostly American) texts, including Louisa May Alcott's Behind a Mask, Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, and Willa Cather's My Antonia (135–36). Emerging alongside "the marked development of an American middle class," home-based entertainments could allow middle-class participants to perform their class affiliation, thus sharpening a sense of class distinctions; alternately, they could allow participants to interrogate and mock middle-class conventions and aspirations, recording "a deep ambivalence with middling status itself" (4, 5). Countering formulations of a genteel middle class typified by "ritualistic tea-taking, card circulating, and making calls," Dawson finds a class engaged in startling forms of regressive, grotesque play where social "rules were manipulated, elided, extended, and, on occasion, suspended" (11).

Chapter one examines parlor games, such as "The Genteel Lady" (in which players mock gentility) and "The Trades" (in which players perform various kinds of physical work), which invite middle-class participants to reflect, sometimes anxiously, on their own social status. Noting that mid-century entertainment texts supplanted an earlier literature directed at children, chapter two examines the ways mid-century accounts of games such as Blind Man's Bluff position the figure of the child at "the reflective center of popular entertainments" (51): for middling participants, "childishness was attractive both because of its licensing of ungenteel behaviors and because of its promise of future development" (50). Chapter three reads grotesque forms of home entertainment—many seem parlor versions of mid-century "freak shows" and Barnumesque sensational displays—for the imperial and racial investments at the heart of middle-class whiteness. Read through the lens of Bakhtin, these spectacles reveal a temporary "transgression" of gentility that is ultimately "recuperated" by a hegemonic middle-class social order. Echoing Gleason's argument that leisure and ideologies of play could reinforce American ideals of individual autonomy, creativity, and agency, chapters four and five examine home entertainments such as charades and tableaux as the site of expressly female self-transformation. Texts such as Behind a Mask position skill as the basis of a specifically female mobility narrative, while later novels such as The House of Mirth dramatize the failure of the equalizing potential of a "skills based culture" in an era of increased class stratification, when home entertainments were appropriated by elites as a showcase for material display (151). Charting the movement of previously home-based entertainments into schools and clubs—and their realignment with children—in the early twentieth century, chapters six and seven examine how the era's pageants, tableaux, and recitations stress the "unifying, communal goals of play" (187): at a moment when "national unity appeared problematic," the robust individuality once at the heart of home entertainment gives way to "unification of the community" (194).

Authorizing middle-class dominance and enabling individuals to question class norms, home entertainment is called upon here to perform a substantial amount of (often-contradictory) cultural work, which the evidence presented at times seems hard-pressed to support. The historical argument that middle-class emergence is tied to (and reflected in) these cultural forms is unevenly presented and not...


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pp. 210-212
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