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Reviews in American History 30.1 (2002) 80-87

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Tricking the Eye and Exposing the Body:
The Dialectics of Mass Deception

Benjamin Reiss

James W. Cook. The Arts of Deception: Playing with Fraud in the Age of Barnum. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001. xv + 302 pp. Figures, notes, and index. $45.00 (cloth); $19.95 (paper).

John F. Kasson. Houdini, Tarzan, and the Perfect Man: The White Male Body and the Challenge of Modernity in America. New York: Hill and Wang, 2001. viii + 244 pages. Figures, notes, and index. $26.00

With these two books, we now have a comprehensive account of American magic tricks, escape acts, hoaxes, and other staged deceptions from roughly the 1830s to the 1920s. Along the way, we learn about the cultural significance of winged flies that were pulled from a woman's stomach and put on display and of the dimensions of the boxer John L. Sullivan's buttocks, from Cook and Kasson respectively. That these are not just historical curiosities (although they certainly are that) but also building blocks of carefully considered arguments about the rhythms of commercial culture is testament to Cook's and Kasson's resourcefulness, playfulness, and eccentric learnedness. Casting wide evidentiary nets (wide enough even for Sullivan and his two friends), both authors argue for the emergence of a distinctively "modern" system of amusements somewhere in that ninety-year span. Cook sees this happening in the mid-nineteenth century, when the development of a truly commercial culture replaced the rationalizing, classifying tendencies of the Enlightenment. The culture that Cook sees as "modern," though, is for Kasson "Victorian," a rather more polite and unmanly realm that is replaced by the "modern" regimes of industrialized art, national advertising, pulp fiction, and new technologies of the body.

There are other differences. Despite his somewhat more demanding arguments, Cook more than Kasson ultimately stresses what was fun about popular culture--why going to a nineteenth-century amusement hall and witnessing a dubious object or artfully conceived humbug often produced a feeling of pleasurable disorientation, a sense of inrushing and vertiginous possibility. He gives careful attention to the social meanings of this process, [End Page 80] especially to the ways the "new middle class" was drawn to "artful deception" as a way to make sense of urbanization, modernization, and social differentiation; but in the end one leaves with a vivid sense of having repeated (with a difference) "the wonderfully excruciating analytical process undertaken by thousands of earlier, curious viewers" (p. 33). And although Kasson's writing is a bit more breezy than Cook's (he spends far more time on biographical sketches and detailed descriptions of his central amusements--and gives more illustrations, to boot), his book ultimately holds its objects at a greater critical distance. The turn-of-the-century bodily spectacles of white males liberating themselves from novel types of bondage and transforming themselves into wondrous new shapes may have had the feel of transgressive and even redemptive acts; however, in Kasson's final analysis, they were more constricting than liberating in their social meanings, in that they implied that such amazing feats were the province of the master race and the master sex.

The Arts of Deception concerns the emergence of a cultural style characterized by a self-conscious concern with deception in the middle of the nineteenth century, particularly in urban centers in the North. With two chapters (and most of the introduction) devoted to P.T. Barnum exhibits, it is clear that one of Cook's main challenges will be to crawl out from under the shadow cast by Neil Harris's justly famous chapter from his 1973 study of Barnum's career, "The Operational Aesthetic," which mapped out precisely the same terrain. Harris suggested that the pattern of hoaxes and (sometimes hoaxing) exposures that Barnum perfected was part of a wider urban "delight in observing process and examining for literal truth." This fascination would link Barnum with figures as disparate as Edgar Allan Poe, the transcendentalists, and an assortment of conspiracy theorists, all...