- Fantasies of Conversion:The Sensational Jewess in Poe and Hawthorne’s America
Now it must be borne in mind that the veriest Shylock of her race is not more keenly alive to the value of money than is Rachel. Paris is full of stories illustrative of this. “She is not a Jewess—she’s a perfect Jew,” said some one [sic] who wished to give epigrammatic intensity to the expression of the general sentiment.“Rachel,” Republican Quarterly Review
1. Rachel Felix in America
The above quotation from the Republican Quarterly Review is one of many denunciations of the Jewish tragedienne Rachel Felix to appear during her highly publicized American tour in 1855.1 Though audiences flocked to Northeastern theaters to hear Felix’s impassioned performances, these denizens of culture were often mocked by critics skeptical of her overtly financial motivations, and scandalized by her alleged sexual promiscuity. The Broadway Belle thus offered a front-page cartoon and short sketch describing an audience made up of “cod-fish aristocrats” and “oyster house critics,” all of whom reflect the ignorantly “profuse liberality of Americans towards foreigners of every grade” (see Figure 1) (“Rachel’s”). Similarly, wealthy New York attorney George Templeton Strong writes in his journal that, “George Anthon, who is not susceptible to histrionic impressions, is made captive by the Israelitish woman Rachel”—a [End Page 431]
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description he follows by saying that Rachel’s ability to elicit such responses is linked to a disturbing licentiousness. As he puts it, “The moral repute of this Jewish sorceress is certainly low, for though she’s so prodigious a lion, she has been asked, I believe, to meet ladies but once, viz., at Trobriand’s. People whisper very black things of her” (235–36). For Strong, as for the writer of the RQR piece, Felix threatens American sensibilities, both male and female. Indeed, comparing Felix with popular Swedish singer Jenny Lind, who was brought to America by P. T. Barnum in 1850, the RQR writer states that, “Jenny Lind came to us invested with the charm of [End Page 432] certain qualities of heart and character, which the American people universally ascribed to her, and of which Rachel is as universally believed to be destitute” (“Rachel” 156; 159).
But, of course, these and many similar critiques also suggest that Rachel’s seductive charms are linked to a fairly specific quality, one that consolidates the various threats she poses: her Jewishness. Indeed, as “Jewish sorceress,” Rachel embodies the forms of excess said to inhere in the Jew—or here the Jewess—during this period, not only in Europe, but also in America. In a letter to J. R. Lowell, sculptor William Wetmore Story writes that Rachel “was wretchedly supported by a set of dirty Jews, and they too were taken into general admiration. She was jewier [sic] than ever and tried to skin a flint in Boston” (qtd. in James 303). The cartoon image of Rachel in the Broadway Belle captures the stereotypes offered by Story even more forcefully. With wild hair and flowing dress, wielding a knife and surrounded—like a kind of female Shylock—by bags of American money, she embodies not only theatrical excess and threatening sexual desire, but also, simultaneously, a repulsive avarice (note that foolish Americans are throwing her coins from the theater balconies). Or consider the remembered description of a younger Rachel, still in France, that Harper’s published after her American tour: “On the day of the performance the money was brought to her in a chest. . . . At sight of this box, full of five-franc pieces, this quantity of money all hers, her eyes dilated, and fastened upon it with an intensity that was almost painful to behold. . . . She ordered the box to be placed before her by her bedside, and, plunging her hands into it, kept stirring the silver about” (“Gossip” 542). Needless to say, the account may well be fabricated. Still, it’s noteworthy for the way it portrays an erotic relationship between Rachel and the money she fondles while in bed. For what this...