- Cultivating National Identity Through Performance: American Pleasure Gardens and Entertainment by Naomi J. Stubbs
In her new book, Naomi Stubbs recuperates the often ignored cultural phenomena of pleasure gardens, which flourished from the late eighteenth through the mid-nineteenth centuries, to argue that they allowed citizens of the nascent American nation to “perform various national identities through participation, observation, and association” (1). As is unfortunately often the case with popular entertainments, little documentation has been left, a fact that Stubbs acknowledges in her introduction. Yet, she adroitly uses newspaper accounts, advertisements, playtexts, and autobiographies to recreate for us the lost world of the gardens, which included landscaped spaces bedecked with lights and fountains, performances of plays, jugglers, and “Native Americans,” disparate entertainments like shooting galleries and mechanical Niagara Falls, and firework displays. Her analysis of the gardens, when taken into context with other broader cultural analyses of eighteenth-century culture, adds another fascinating piece to our understanding of the centrality of performance in the early nation.
Stubbs outlines the parks that will comprise her evidence with intriguing details, like Gray’s Ferry in Philadelphia (apparently known for its fresh fish). The author argues that these parks are all examples of Michel Foucault’s notion of heterotopias—spaces that contain “multiple meanings and significations” (7). The flexibility of these spaces and the ability to role-play allowed visitors to act out different class and patriotic identities, and helped construct an imagined community that delineated what Americans were and were not. She limits her analysis to parks located in the East Coast cities of New York, Boston, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Charleston. Each subsequent chapter is organized thematically around a particular contentious notion—national identity, tensions between rural and urban identity, class, and race—and examines how these ideas were performed, rejected, embraced, and opposed in the gardens.
The first chapter, “Performing Nation,” compares the American parks to their British predecessors to show how owners distanced and embraced different components in their search for a distinct American identity. Although many of the pleasure gardens [End Page 482] borrowed names from British antecedents like Vauxhall, Stubbs argues that, at the same time, advertisements and newspaper comments stressed the superiority of the American versions. This rhetoric was reinforced by the gardens’ increasingly widespread and extravagant celebrations of the Fourth of July—the elaborate fireworks displays, concerts, orations, and other events that allowed average citizens to help construct an American identity. While British culture was rejected, Stubbs contends that the additional celebration of French holidays and revolutionary heroes allowed parks to maintain a sense of European caché. The second chapter, “Performing Place,” explores the need for a unified national identity in a geographically and culturally diverse nation, examining tensions between the idea of rural and urban. She details the ways that the myth of self-sufficient agrarianism undergirded the values of “rural simplicity and virtue” that comprised early American identity (46). At the same time, most Americans could not afford this very lifestyle. The pleasure gardens, Stubbs argues convincingly, allowed urban working-class citizens carefully constructed stages of rural innocence to enact this. As she importantly points out, the parks also integrated new technologies: lights, panoramas, balloons, and so forth, in a way that gently introduced citizens to an increasingly mechanized world while allowing them to incorporate technology into their identities.
The differences in the identities and positions of those who attended pleasure gardens comprise the subject of the third chapter, “Performing Class” and the fourth, “Performing Race.” Stubbs details how hard the gardens worked to encourage and maintain an atmosphere of gentility through standards of dress and behavior. In addition, stratified ticket sales and fines for misbehavior led to increasingly divided spaces that ultimately resulted in rioting and vandalism, as members of the lower class destroyed the fences constructed to keep them out. In the last decades of the gardens’ popularity, they became a subject of ridicule, characterized as places where the low aped the high. Just as the gardens restricted...