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Open Access Publications from the University of California

American Vernacular: Popular Culture, Performance, and the Question of National History, 1871-1915

  • Author(s): Milner, Gabriel Farren
  • Advisor(s): Cándida Smith, Richard
  • et al.

Scholars tracing America's development into a powerful modern nation between the end of the Civil War and the beginning of World War One have traditionally considered popular culture, and especially popular culture's depictions of national history, as a vehicle for conveying ascendant socioeconomic ideals of "incorporation" or "Americanization." In this view, vernacular histories--histories rooted in local conceptions of self, community, and experience--provided a nostalgic reminder of a lost golden age, a diversion from the tasks of everyday life, or a quality to be appropriated and remade to fit prevailing narratives of economic and territorial consolidation and white racial superiority. This dissertation, by contrast, considers how popular representations of national history and citizenship were frequently framed by local conceptions of past and present. Specifically, I examine four performances where groups that were (or imagined themselves to be) regionally, ethnically, or racially marginalized by the nation's shift to modernity enacted their pasts for national audiences, and the ways in which these performances circulated vernacular versions of U.S. history and culture for a consuming public.

Chapter one examines the Fisk Jubilee Singers in their first decade (1871-1881). The chapter discusses their performances of slave spirituals as cultural expression and as political practice in a decade spanning the end of Reconstruction and the rise of Jim Crow. Spirituals embodied ideals of self-making, piety, communal solidarity, and liberation. The singers, like their slave forebears, used the spiritual to achieve a level of autonomy, cohesion, and pride as they negotiated the contours of citizenship. The performances examined in chapters two and three struggled with the question of the ideal of "progress" in late nineteenth century historical narration. Chapter two describes the emergence of a particular brand of rugged self-making, seen as central to American identity and threatened by the "settlement" of the West, which was enacted and perpetuated at Buffalo Bill's The Drama of Civilization (1886-1887). Buffalo Bill Cody astonished audiences with a spectacular pageant reenacting the "settlement" of the West, but his presentations also mourned the potential loss of "rugged individualism" with the closing of the frontier. Chapter three considers the ways in which the Hull-House Labor Museum (1900-1910) dramatized a history of immigrant craftspeople as integral to seeing America as a workingman's republic, the benefactor of a transnational, transhistorical process of self-, community-, and nation-making through indigenous craftsmanship. Chapter four reads The Birth of a Nation (1915) as a highly divisive neo-Confederate history that dramatized a discourse of northern conspiracy and southern patriotism. Ending with this popular film, the dissertation also highlights the dangers of vernacular history becoming normative.

Reading these accented dramatizations of national history within and against key social and economic developments, the dissertation argues that popular culture provided a language for registering disillusionment with the shift to modernity, including links between whiteness and patriotism, territorial expansion and "settlement," and technological and social progress. For the performers and the impresarios of these performances, enacting a familiar past as foundationally "American" provided a framework for self-making, "authenticity," and ambition that shaped their conception of the meaning of modern citizenship and of their own place in the nation at large.

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