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  • How the Arabian Nights Inspired the American Dream, 1790-1935 by Susan Nance
  • Katherine Dillion
How the Arabian Nights Inspired the American Dream, 1790-1935. By Susan Nance. (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2009. Pp. 344, illustrations.)

The current global economy as a product of both revolution and evolution has its own story or history, but many Americans would be surprised to realize the impact that the Arabian Nights and Eastern performers have had both in shaping that history in an American consumer economy and in influencing the arts and social behavior through public performance. Evidence abounds showing a vibrant connection between the nascent social history of the United States and its ancient counterpart, the East. Susan Nance in How the Arabian Nights Inspired the American Dream 1790-1935 has not only amassed this evidence, but also has provided an analysis, a portal into a fascinating world of lecturers, athletes, dancers, Shriners, acrobats, and countless others who supplied a counterbalance to other American traditions of the eighteenth to twentieth centuries.

Nance's work is a skillful balance of the complexities of academic research combined with titillating details of cultural performances that show us how the Arabian Nights and attitudes associated with it affected consumer culture over the course of about 150 years of American history. While it can be valuable as a textbook in studying cultural intersections of East and West, this book far surpasses the boundaries of many plodding texts to provide an entertaining, colourful picture of the ways in which Americans engaged in and incorporated aspects of Eastern culture into their lives in a time that many in the post-9/11 era would never have imagined.

Nance begins by revealing the prevalence in many homes of the Arabian Nights, often found side by side with the Bible, representing that mysterious and luxurious side of life that religious people sometimes considered missing in their lives. As the American economy grew, consumers realized that they could own a piece of the perceived exotic life described in the Arabian Nights by purchasing items to create in their homes a reflection of the "luxurious consumption and transformation that served as metaphors for democratic capitalism" (p. 20). Nance connects this consumer mindset with upward mobility, in that one could show sophistication through home decor that reflected the perceptions of a more relaxed atmosphere of Eastern life, complete with floor pillows and a water pipe. Nance shows how this vision of life contrasts with the ever-present Protestant work ethic.

Connecting these images with ideas from literary transcendentalists, Nance explains that the concept of ex oriente lux, meaning "from the East comes light," permeated the thinking of people who considered themselves more educated or enlightened. The lecture circuits of the day boasted of those travellers returned from the East who, for the price of a ticket, could transfer their wisdom and knowledge to the audience, thereby separating themselves from the less informed about life in the East, particularly concerning Islam. Nance presents a thorough examination of performer/audience dynamics as she explains that the lecturers were [End Page 234] aware of the audience's desire to appear more informed and that they played on this desire in order to sell admission tickets.

While these lecturers made a good living by "playing Eastern" on stage, often in costume, later on, others would take playing Eastern to new levels of performance, including Arab athleticism in shows such as Buffalo Bill Cody's Wild West, which featured Bedouin horsemen or, later, shows exhibiting ultra-masculine Syrian immigrants creating human pyramids, to the delight of audiences. Women from Egypt came as dancers and originally performed under the guise of ethnography but later crossed over into various forms of entertainment, including the Hootchy-kootchy, a dance that included stock characters who parodied the moralizing citizens who opposed Eastern dance. Eastern dancing eventually evolved into a highly stylized dance form, and Nance provides illustrations and stories showing that women were as much affected by these performances as were the men. Eventually, they became more liberated in their behavior, as also reflected in changes in their choice of consumer products that allowed them to dress and...


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pp. 234-235
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