- Barnumizing Diaspora: The “Irish Skylark” Does New Orleans
Part of the experience of starving to death is the shame of it. The skeletonized exterior betrays the internalized cannibalism of the famished body digesting its own organs. By disclosing the secret of such a Thyestian feast (a body so abject as to be denied any source of nourishment except itself), starvation stigmatizes the afflicted, condemning them to social death. This mortification, which is both reflected in and produced by the averted gaze of the living, especially if the living are themselves well fed, occurs before physical death but then lingers on after it, ensuring that the starving seem to disappear both before and after they die. But they do not disappear entirely. The terrible images that make witnesses not want to remember what they have seen also make it impossible for them to forget what they have felt. Especially when starvation occurs on a massive scale, killing and dislocating millions, as it did in Ireland during the Great Hunger of 1845–51, social death becomes more than a shameful forgetting; it persists as a memory fiercely but imperfectly deferred.
When starvation returns as memory, bidden or unbidden, it often does so in the image of a woman. Such a gendering of social death would seem to characterize the semiotics of famines transhistorically. 1 Taking the form either of the emaciated victim or the menacing spirit of hunger itself, this specter—embodying the horror and shame that accompany starvation for both victim and witness—signifies a primal form of homelessness. “She” is a powerful figure of loss and dispossession, emerging most poignantly in the conflation of the barren landscape with the milkless breast of the dying mother. “She” can now offer those struck dumb by catastrophe only one last gift of her body, the symbolism through which the unspeakable may somehow be spoken.
In this essay, I propose to explore a particular instance of how the unspeakable literally found a voice, one that was heard by Irish-American immigrants among the still reverberating cries of the Great Hunger: the visit of the Irish-born diva Catherine [End Page 39] Hayes to New Orleans in 1852. The context of this occasion includes the great popularity of theatrical and musical renditions of the diasporic experience of Irish-Americans. It also includes the manipulation of that experience by skilled promoters, who followed the recent success of P. T. Barnum in exploiting Jenny Lind as a respectable high-culture alternative to minstrelsy and melodrama. In these concert events, the two divas—“The Swedish Nightingale” and “The Irish Skylark”—staged a drama of ethnic assimilation through the medium of gendered performance. Race-conscious New Orleans provided a particularly promising setting for this drama of social mobility and inclusion versus social death: predominantly Catholic and only partially anglicized by 1852, the Crescent City had already accommodated several waves of pre-Famine immigration and contained a well-established Irish-American elite within its complex ethnic, linguistic, and racial hierarchy. Yet during the worst of the Irish famine, New Orleans remained an important destination for some of the most abject of its victims—starving refugees from whose publicly visible sufferings most of the established Irish-Americans averted their gaze, but not, I argue, their imagination. I want to show how first Barnum, the national figure, used Lind and then his local successors used Catherine Hayes, to introduce now familiar marketing techniques that proved particularly effective in stimulating a need among consumers—a need for inclusion based on a sense of deprivation, a fear of unworthiness, and a desire to rise above both. Barnum’s techniques proved their long-term general efficacy to a nation of immigrants uncertain of their welcome, but they especially lent themselves to the exploitation of a hunger that the Irish in particular could not help feeling, even though many of them would be unlikely to satisfy it in their lifetimes: the longing to inhabit a home safe from the shameful revisitations of social death. In the exemplary expressiveness of the art song, New Orleanian audiences heard their losses evoked by many of the same phrases that gave voice to their aspirations.