- Never One Nation: Freaks, Savages, and Whiteness in U.S. Popular Culture, 1850–1877
Borrowing the notion of "blinding whiteness" from Toni Morrison's Playing in the Dark (ix), Linda Frost's insightful book analyzes what she sees as a nineteenth-century phenomenon: [End Page 207] "the rhetorical manipulation of racialized, blackened others that defines Americanness by contrast, in shadow" (xi). But while Morrison focuses on an Africanist presence, Frost boldly posits that the "others" employed to fashion a white American identity varied from region to region, conflict to conflict, and publication to publication. Never One Nation covers a short yet tumultuous period of history (1850–1877) that also saw the surge of popular periodicals. These texts, designed to serve and delineate particular communities of readers, indicate that "race as a category of otherness is a discursive formation"—one whose expression is not monolithic or monochromatic (xiv).
Demonstrating her thesis, Frost details how newspapers covering the Dakota wars of 1862 "relied on different rhetorical and racialized others to promote their nationally defined yet regionally aligned agendas" (2). When describing the Indian uprisings in Minnesota, local periodicals used a "discourse of savagery" to depict Native Americans in ways that reinforced readers' perspectives (18). For example, the St. Paul Pioneer and Democrat painted Indians as a threat to white Christian expansion, which could only be ensured through continued military and economic support. The New York-based Harper's Weekly and Frank Leslie's Illustrated Newspaper, on the other hand, connected the Dakota wars to the Civil War, thereby marking Confederates as "savages" eager to destroy the "civilized" Union.
Frost continues her discussion of the North in the next two chapters, which explore "emancipation anxiety" in the wake of Lincoln's Proclamation of 1863 (31). In their reporting of the city's Draft Riots later that year, she explains, New York newspapers fixated on "a fantasized black uprising," rather than the "very real white one" that targeted African Americans and Irish immigrants alike (36). This is the least compelling section of the book, probably because it closely follows the work of race historians like Noel Ignatiev. Frost is more persuasive, though, when she reveals how P. T. Barnum "recreated slavery as spectacle" by exhibiting the Circassian Beauty in 1864 (56). This female figure, represented as a pure white slave, calmed audiences' fears that emancipation would blur racial and national lines. Frost's sharp examination of press releases and postcards shows how this Beauty—"the perfect realization of Victorian American womanhood"—was held captive "by a white Northern gaze" (79, 78).
Chapters four and five mark the most enlightening part of Never One Nation, as they consider Southern periodicals that emerged briefly during the Civil War. Richmond's Southern Illustrated News, for example, filled its pages with "the racialized others inherent and necessary to [the Confederacy's] definition" (87). While slaves served as handy figures in this process, Frost stresses that "the African-American slave of the Confederate press is less a racialized alien and more a racialized foundation for the Confederacy itself" (88). In contrast, the Yankee was "racialized using a language of Christian morality" that "effectively alienated the figure . . . from the Confederate nation and therefore helped its ideological definition" (115). To illustrate her unique argument, Frost discusses Paddy McGann; or, the Demon of the Stump, a serialized 1863 novel by William Gilmore Simms whose Southern hero must banish the demon (read: Northerner) that haunts him (121–35).
At the opposite end of the country, Western periodicals addressed parallel concerns of communal identity with the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869. San Francisco's Golden Era and Overland Monthly expressed this anxiety through their depictions of Chinese immigrants—"the region's most visible, exploitable, and consequently threatening cultural other" (142). While these foreigners proved useful targets for white Californians, Frost goes one step further and notes how, "[a]t crucial moments, . . . the Chinese begin [End Page 208] to be confused or collapsed into a different Easterner...