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  • Whose Fair?: Experience, Memory, and the History of the Great St. Louis Exposition
  • Clarence Lang
Whose Fair?: Experience, Memory, and the History of the Great St. Louis Exposition. By James Gilbert (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2009. x plus 221 pp.).

Crucial to Whose Fair?: Experience, Memory, and the History of the Great St. Louis Exposition by James Gilbert is the premise that world's fairs are key to understanding the transformations and anxieties of the early twentieth century. From this standpoint, the 1904 Louisiana Purchase Exposition in St. Louis, Missouri, looms large in the shaping of modernity, compressing into one space a range of issues including "the entrance of the United States into the dangerous and controversial scramble for empire, the continuing divisions of race, a burgeoning multi-ethnicity in culture, rapid abandonment of the farm and urbanization, the end of the Indian Wars, and the amazing, westward trek of white population" (189). The author asserts that an alternative interpretation of the fair also provides an opportunity for historians to investigate the power of memory and experience as sources of meaning about the past.

Associations committed to memorializing the St. Louis World's Fair have treated the event as the city's shining moment on the national and global stage before its decline as a major urban center. Such nostalgia, Gilbert suggests, cleanses the exposition of its underlying racial politics. On the other hand, contemporary historians (most notably Robert Rydell) have interpreted the fair as a pageant of Anglo-Saxonism and imperialism, and a formative moment in an emerging discipline—anthropology—informed by racial hierarchies. The values of the latter were illustrated most graphically by the presence of the Pygmy Ota Benga and the Philippine Reservation, both of which promoted discourses of racial evolution and benevolent U.S. colonialism. Yet, according to the author, historians have unwittingly privileged the archives of the fair builders, allowing their perspectives to determine the event's overall meaning.

Gilbert contends that the competing approaches of memory and history both reduce the fairgoers themselves to "a mute block of observers, ready and willing to accept and absorb the various messages and lessons intended by the designers of the Fair" (16). Both ignore the possibility that visitors to the St. Louis Exposition were more attracted to the popular entertainments and [End Page 1160] carnival-like atmosphere of the exposition's midway than they were to any celebration of white civilization over the primitivism of the world's darker peoples. Likewise, attendees may have been far more impressed by fair innovations such as hot dogs, ice cream cones and iced tea than the catalogue of Western progress elaborated by fair administrators. Through a close and critical rereading of official publications and guidebooks, mass circulation newspaper and magazine accounts, diaries, popular novels, filmic representations, and photographic and stereographic images, Gilbert seeks to reconcile the tensions among history, memory and experience by excavating how the visitors actually received the messages and expressed purposes of the fair sponsors, and how they situated these encounters within their own existing frameworks of ideas. Going against the grain of current scholarship, he argues that world's fairs were not catalysts of innovation; to the contrary, they aggregated attractions that audiences commonly would have encountered at agricultural and industrial fairs, department stores, ethnic parades, amusement parks, traveling exhibitions, museums, and similar artifacts of a burgeoning urban leisure culture. Similarly, while white supremacy was pivotal in framing the affair, it was manifested in more quotidian, longstanding ways than the fair's racialized anthropology and imperial symbolism might indicate.

The author proposes that when scholars pay closer attention to how visitors "voted with their feet, their money, and their attention" (154), the diversity of the crowd, and the heterogeneous nature of their wanderings, become evident. "Despite the overtly didactic intentions of many displays," Gilbert writes, "the lure of novelty, the exotic, and the entertaining was just as strong, suggesting that the Exposition was used as much as an amusement park as the encyclopedia of civilizations, more an emporium than a university" (183). Indeed, "Orientalism" was the main organizing principle of their fairground experiences, as it allowed white audiences to suspend existing social etiquette...


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