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American Sensations

American Sensations: Class, Empire, and the Production of Popular Culture

Shelley Streeby
Copyright Date: 2002
Pages: 399
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  • Book Info
    American Sensations
    Book Description:

    This innovative cultural history investigates an intriguing, thrilling, and often lurid assortment of sensational literature that was extremely popular in the United States in 1848--including dime novels, cheap story paper literature, and journalism for working-class Americans. Shelley Streeby uncovers themes and images in this "literature of sensation" that reveal the profound influence that the U.S.-Mexican War and other nineteenth-century imperial ventures throughout the Americas had on U.S. politics and culture. Streeby's analysis of this fascinating body of popular literature and mass culture broadens into a sweeping demonstration of the importance of the concept of empire for understanding U.S. history and literature. This accessible, interdisciplinary book brilliantly analyzes the sensational literature of George Lippard, A.J.H Duganne, Ned Buntline, Metta Victor, Mary Denison, John Rollin Ridge, Louisa May Alcott, and many other writers. Streeby also discusses antiwar articles in the labor and land reform press; ideas about Mexico, Cuba, and Nicaragua in popular culture; and much more. Although the Civil War has traditionally been a major period marker in U.S. history and literature, Streeby proposes a major paradigm shift by using mass culture to show that the U.S.-Mexican War and other conflicts with Mexicans and Native Americans in the borderlands were fundamental in forming the complex nexus of race, gender, and class in the United States.

    eISBN: 978-0-520-93587-7
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xi-xvi)

    • ONE Introduction: City and Empire in the American 1848
      (pp. 3-37)

      Ned Buntline (E.Z.C. Judson), one of the most prolific and successful producers of popular sensational literature throughout the second half of the nineteenth century, is probably best known today for his role in creating the legend of Buffalo Bill. In 1869, Buntline took a train from California, where he had been lecturing on the virtues of temperance, to Nebraska, where he fell in with a group of men who had recently participated in a battle against Sioux and Cheyenne Indians. One of these men was William Cody, an army scout and hunter who had, among other things, made a living...

    • TWO George Lippard’s 1848: Empire, Amnesia, and the U.S.-Mexican War
      (pp. 38-78)

      In one of several scenes pictured in the complicated conclusion toNew York: Its Upper Ten and Lower Million(1853), George Lippard focuses on a band of “emigrants, mechanics, their wives and little ones, who have left the savage civilization of the Atlantic cities, for a free home beyond the Rocky Mountains.” As their leader, the socialist mechanic-hero Arthur Dermoyne, gazes upon the moving caravan, he sees his followers as “three hundred serfs of the Atlantic cities, rescued from poverty, from wages-slavery, from the war of competition, from the grip of the landlord!” For just a moment, the eastern U.S....


    • THREE The Story-Paper Empire
      (pp. 81-101)

      Issues of gender, sexuality, and race were clearly at stake in political debates about imperial expansion and in popular sensational adventure literature published during the 1840s and 1850s. This was so, first of all, because both champions and critics of imperial expansion appealed to ideologies of manhood. In the 1840s, the “volunteer”—the virtuous citizensoldier who defended the nation out of a love for his native land—was often championed as a manly ideal and as a symbol of the United States in the popular press. But other men, including the large numbers of immigrants and propertyless men in the...

    • FOUR Foreign Bodies and International Race Romance
      (pp. 102-138)

      This chapter focuses on two boundary-crossing figures in sensational literature: the immigrant soldier and the cross-dressed Mexican female fighter. The immigrant soldier who joined the U.S. military forces had already crossed at least one important boundary by migrating from Europe (usually from Ireland or Germany) to the United States; crossing over into Mexican territory posed special perils, it was feared, for immigrant men, especially the Irish, who might be seduced into switching allegiances for a variety of reasons, but particularly because most were Catholic. At the same time, however, the treacherous immigrant soldier was often represented as an exception, for...

    • FIVE From Imperial Adventure to Bowery B’hoys and Buffalo Bill: Ned Buntline, Nativism, and Class
      (pp. 139-158)

      Ned Buntline was surely one of the nineteenth century’s most popular writers. His literary career spanned most of the second half of the nineteenth century, from the 1840s until his death in 1886, and during those years he produced dozens of mysteries-of-the-city and Western frontier novels. Buntline’s significance as an innovator in these popular genres has sometimes been noted, but little has been said about the imperial adventure fiction that he wrote during the 1840s and 1850s. This chapter argues that Buntline’s sensational literature about Mexico, Cuba, and an “empire of Popery” can tell us much about the intimate, volatile...


    • SIX The Contradictions of Anti-Imperialism
      (pp. 161-188)

      In A.J.H. Duganne’s dime novelThe Peon Prince; or, The Yankee Knight-Errant. A Tale of Modern Mexico(1861), the Yankee who appears in the subtitle is Putnam Pomfret, an “offshoot of that great Anglo-Saxon stock, whose footsteps track the paths of empire from the pine woods of Arastook to California cañons; from the wild swash of icy seas upon Labrador’s beaches, to the swell of undulating waves in Pacific harbors.”¹ A native of Vermont who comes to Vera Cruz to sell clocks to Mexicans, he is an example of what Alexander Saxton calls a “natural Jacksonian. . . vernacular...

    • SEVEN The Hacienda, the Factory, and the Plantation
      (pp. 189-213)

      Because Duganne’s literary career bridged the transition from the labor newspapers, story papers, and periodical literature of the U.S.–Mexican War era to the dime novels of the Civil War years, his work is especially revelatory of the complex ways that race, empire, and labor and land reform were entangled from the 1840s through the 1860s, as the second “party system” broke down, the Republicans became the dominant party in the North, and the South seceded from the Union. During the 1850s, the Republicans gained support not only by appealing to Northern antislavery men who were fleeing both the Whig...

    • EIGHT The Dime Novel, the Civil War, and Empire
      (pp. 214-248)

      Although issues of slavery, black/white race relations, and sectional division are central to Duganne’s Civil War memoir, they hover ominously in the background of his two dime novel “Mexico Westerns.” In the previous chapter, I suggested that Duganne’s representations of peonage and the Mexican hacienda inThe Peon Princeimplicitly and explicitly reference domestic debates over slavery extension and over free and unfree labor. InPutnam Pomfret’s Ward,which was published in October of 1861 and which is set during the U.S.-Mexican War, Duganne also takes up questions of empire, slavery, and the relationship between North and South, though he...

  8. PART 4: BEYOND 1848

    • NINE Joaquín Murrieta and Popular Culture
      (pp. 251-290)

      The events of 1846–1848 are a shadowy but important shaping presence in Joseph Badger’s 1881Beadle’s New York Dime Library novel Joaquin, the Terrible: The True History of the Three Bitter Blows that Changed an Honest Man to a Merciless Demon.One of several Badger stories about the California social bandit Joaquín Murrieta,Joaquin, the Terriblefeatures a villain, Don Manuel Camplido, who had served as a Mexican army officer in the “late war” and was infamous for his “arrant cowardice on the field of battle.”¹ In California, Camplido conceals his Mexican origins, takes on a new name, John...

  9. Notes
    (pp. 291-342)
  10. Bibliography
    (pp. 343-378)
  11. Index
    (pp. 379-384)
  12. Back Matter
    (pp. 385-385)