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How the Arabian Nights Inspired the American Dream, 1790-1935

How the Arabian Nights Inspired the American Dream, 1790-1935

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    How the Arabian Nights Inspired the American Dream, 1790-1935
    Book Description:

    Americans have always shown a fascination with the people, customs, and legends of the "East"--witness the popularity of the stories of theArabian Nights, the performances of Arab belly dancers and acrobats, the feats of turban-wearing vaudeville magicians, and even the antics of fez-topped Shriners. In this captivating volume, Susan Nance provides a social and cultural history of this highly popular genre of Easternized performance in America up to the Great Depression.According to Nance, these traditions reveal how a broad spectrum of Americans, including recent immigrants and impersonators, behaved as producers and consumers in a rapidly developing capitalist economy. In admiration of theArabian Nights, people creatively reenacted Eastern life, but these performances were also demonstrations of Americans' own identities, Nance argues. The story of Aladdin, made suddenly rich by rubbing an old lamp, stood as a particularly apt metaphor for how consumer capitalism might benefit each person. The leisure, abundance, and contentment that many imagined were typical of Eastern life were the same characteristics used to define "the American dream."The recent success of Disney'sAladdinmovies suggests that many Americans still welcome an interpretation of the East as a site of incredible riches, romance, and happy endings. This abundantly illustrated account is the first by a historian to explain why and how so many Americans sought out such cultural engagement with the Eastern world long before geopolitical concerns became paramount.

    eISBN: 978-1-4696-0578-4
    Subjects: History, Performing Arts, Sociology

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-viii)
  3. preface
    (pp. ix-xiv)
  4. introduction Playing Eastern
    (pp. 1-18)

    As a historian, I have studied intercultural communication for many years. I have been most compelled by the workings of the entertainment business and the men and women whose bread and butter was live performance. This interest has driven me to consider a phenomenon I seem to find hidden in plain view everywhere I look in the American past but especially between 1790 and 1935: Why did so many choose to perform in the guise of persons from the East? And what practical and cultural rules governed who could speak for North Africa, West Asia, or South Asia in such...

  5. chapter 1 Capitalism and the Arabian Nights, 1790–1892
    (pp. 19-50)

    The population of the United States has always embraced a consumer ethic of one sort or another. Even before the market revolution of the early nineteenth century, historians tell of colonial subjects mobilized politically in a ‘‘revolutionary marketplace’’ in which their shared experiences as consumers helped a diverse population decide to support rebellion against Britain so as to protect consumer choice and domestic production.¹ Once the dust had settled, with the Revolutionary Wars resolved and the Constitution in place, shoppers in one Virginia town made a translation of the Arabian Nights the single most popular work of fiction sold by...

  6. chapter 2 Ex Oriente Lux: Playing Eastern for a Living, 1838–1875
    (pp. 51-78)

    In an October 1865 review of William Alger’s compilation Poetry of the Orient, an anonymous reviewer for The Nation asked readers, “How shall the West be brought duly to appreciate and respect the East?” It only made sense for The Nation to raise such an issue. Triumphant abolitionists had recently founded the magazine just as slavery had finally come to an end in the United States, and the future seemed bright for all sorts of progressive causes. However, it was not time to rest on one’s laurels yet, the reviewer continued: “Ex oriente lux is a true enough motto for...

  7. chapter 3 Wise Men of the East and the Market for American Fraternalism, 1850–1892
    (pp. 79-110)

    After the Civil War, it was male audiences who were particularly compelled by accounts of the Eastern world marketed by a native-born man in Eastern persona because to them West Asia and North Africa were utterly masculine spaces. The pattern had already begun with men like Christopher Oscanyan, who performed as Eastern Christian man for mixed Anglo-American audiences. Bayard Taylor similarly played Eastern artist to sell books and cope with the lyceum trade inadvertently attracting young male and female fans impressed by his reputation as a manly traveler. Among their audiences, a few men would in time play Oriental themselves,...

  8. chapter 4 Arab Athleticism and the Exoticization of the American Dream, 1870–1920
    (pp. 111-136)

    When and why did significant numbers of people from North Africa or West Asia intervene in the American practice of playing Eastern? In the mid-nineteenth century Christopher Oscanyan had done so as an Armenian convert to Protestantism and native of Istanbul. He spent many years talking to Anglo-Americans as best he could while making a living for himself. Yet Oscanyan was only one voice, and his limited influence in comparison to native-born professional spokesmen like Bayard Taylor shows that it was very difficult for anyone from overseas to come to America and participate in public debates about the Eastern world....

  9. chapter 5 Making the Familiar Strange: The Racial Politics of Eastern Exotic, 1893–1929
    (pp. 137-170)

    The following three chapters all radiate out from 1890s Chicago to examine what native-born Americans did with the interventions people from North Africa, West Asia, and South Asia made into American culture. There is an important difference hereafter, though, which I must explain in regard to the previous chapter. In order to preserve the chronology of their first intervention into American culture beginning in the 1870s, Chapter 4 segregated North African and West Asian actors and the personae they suggested from audience’s uses of them. That construction, while pointing out the agency of foreign-born actors in elaborating some important entertainment...

  10. chapter 6 Eastern Femininities for Modern Women, 1893–1930
    (pp. 171-204)

    If there was one character that defined Eastern femininity in the United States after 1893, it was the persona of the Oriental dancer.

    She emerged to great notoriety at the Columbian Exposition and its spin-offs in the form of actual women from North Africa and the Middle East who came to perform Eastern-style cabaret dancing as an entertaining ethnological show. As Americans took her, the Oriental dancer seemed to embody the carefree, consumerist nature of the “Golden Nineties.” One wag would remember of the era, “America, definitely out of the pioneer and Indian-fighting stage, relaxed. . . . Wine, women...

  11. chapter 7 Turbans and Capitalism, 1893–1930
    (pp. 205-230)

    What happened to the persona of the wise man of the East with the rise of modern mass consumerism among the middle and working classes? Once he had been a fixture of American fraternal orders and a standing joke among Shriners critical of the Gilded Age commercialization of masculine mysticism. Yet by the turn of the century, he became newly relevant to female consumers, and he made American men very nervous. Women already had limited access to actual men from the Eastern world as immigrants and traveling entrepreneurs. Yet between 1893 and the 1930s these men would be joined by...

  12. chapter 8 Sign of Promise: African Americans and Eastern Personae in the Great Depression
    (pp. 231-254)

    When the economic system began to crumble in the late 1920s, performers of spiritual Eastern manhood would have a more difficult time playing Oriental as a way of prospering in the market, although many turned to playing Eastern as a way to cope with the worst fiscal crisis the nation had ever seen. A “crescendo of credit criticism” from moral watchdogs had for several years already acknowledged the growing opinion that consumers were an important measure of the strength of the economy but that many consumers made irresponsible choices. Plenty of people in the middle classes and working classes were...

  13. notes
    (pp. 255-298)
  14. bibliography
    (pp. 299-334)
  15. index
    (pp. 335-344)