Friday, October 30, 2009

Gender, Professions and Discourse: Early Twentieth-Century Women’s Autobiography.

By Christine Etherington-Wright.

London: Palgrave Macmillan, January 2009. Cloth: ISBN 978-0-230-21992-2, $80.00. 248 pages.

Review by Suanna H. Davis, Lone Star College, Texas

Christine Etherington-Wright examines autobiographies of British women from the 1900s to the 1920s. The author also writes of her search for meaning within the texts she studied, and her exploration of the autobiographies becomes a narrative of her own evolving theories on cultural history. It is a relational articulation of knowledge, which helps make the book more approachable. The vacillation between the scholarly objectivity and personal impulses fits well with her discussion of different styles of writing appearing within the autobiographies, with the changes apparently based on the subject matter.

Gender, Professions and Discourse discusses the autobiographies in two ways, by profession and theme. The professions are headmistresses, doctors, nurses, artists and performers (dancers, actors), and writers. The book details significant aspects of the autobiographies for each group. For example, Etherington-Wright found that the autobiographies of headmistresses used religious metaphors, while those of the doctors used metaphors from fairytales. Each chapter weaves together various threads of theories, uniting disparate fields and approaches. Within the chapter on doctors, for example, she calls upon numerous disciplines for explication, from Zipes on fairytales to Dworkin on woman-hating, from the history of children’s literature to discussions of social semiotics.

In the theme section, Gender, Professions and Discourse develops theories on frontpiece images, beginning materials, silences, and questions of identity and memory. In the beginning discussion within theme, the author describes the photographs used by different autobiographers as frontpieces; these ranged from studio portraits in the “girl child as angel” genre to an amateur snapshot of the author with a tennis racket and a mantling pigeon. The discussion of silences integrates theories of autobiography, representation, language, reader response, and sexuality to argue persuasively that the textual gaps within the autobiographies offer additional insight into the women who wrote them and the contexts in which they were written.

Etherington-White suggests that the autobiographies of representative women who were resistant to the dominant patriarchal culture, but who were not extreme, offer a unique insight into the era. She presents the idea that the individual voices in the autobiographies can be united in styles of writing, approaches to various subjects, and how they deal with or ignore various topics. They can amplify the female voice and mentality of the era so that modern readers can hear and understand it.

The book is partially an attempt to fill in the gaps left by historians who examine cultural artifacts, such as newspaper articles, and focus on the exceptional rather than the more normal. The author says that autobiographies contribute to the histoire de mentalit├ęs. She also says that autobiographies, being a masculine mode created and dominated by men, created expectations that women both acceded to and rejected; clearly a study of the ways in which they did both would help scholars to understand the viewpoint being expressed from these choices. In this attempt she joins many others, more and less successful, who have sought to identify and isolate the feminine for intellectual inquiry.

A variety of theories and theorists are quilted together to inform an understanding of the texts Etherington-Wright examines. Previous exposure to the theories is useful, but not necessary. The unique application of pieces of theories may be problematic. How can a particular part of a theory be relevant while the rest is not? However, if she is putting together a new theory, based on working models, then this is a legitimate exercise.

Within the book, Etherington-Wright says that the autobiographies she has chosen are representative rather than extreme. However, the methodology and criteria for determining this are not included. A chapter detailing parts of the decision-making process would have been useful on two levels. First, it would have allowed the reader to determine whether or not those decisions were reasonable. The representativeness is part of the issue in identifying the works as the voice of a generation of forward-thinking women. Decisions were made in silence, leaving textual gaps in the work that force the reader to accept or reject the arguments in the book without understanding their genesis. Second, a heuristic of her process would allow her work to be more effectively followed up or expanded.

Two other significantly lesser problems are distractions within the work. First, the author uses [sic] frequently, even when there is nothing wrong with the quotation. This could be a result of modern editing which cleared up the errors through a word processing program without recognizing the quotations or it might be a result of different word choices in British English. Second, while Etherington-Wright limits her discussions, she sometimes limits them only partially. The first instance of this is in the chapter on women writers where she prepares to discuss four authors, organizing them through the type of publications they produced. However, within the discussion she actually examines five, without placing her work contextually. The second instance is in the explication of the frontpiece images. The book includes six photographs for discussion, but Etherington-Wright actually discusses seven. This seventh is an actress who is included within the index, but she is not, in fact, mentioned anywhere else in the book.

Etherington-Wright officially covers 24 autobiographies in 248 pages. The presentations are insightful and fascinating, leading readers to ponder questions outside the scope of the book. An example of this is that the actresses presented were all encouraged to the stage by their fathers, despite the fact that stage work was considered synonymous with loose morality. Were the non-representative actresses also supported by their families? What caused this? How might it be explained?

Scholars working in gender, autobiography, and history, particularly of World War I, will find this book helpful and engaging. Readers in other disciplines will be enchanted with the glimpse into the private worlds of unconventional women of the early twentieth century.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

A Spectacle of Suffering: Clara Morris on the American Stage
By Barbara Wallace Grossman. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, February 2009. Paper: ISBN 978-0809328826, $37.50. 344 pages.
Review by Hayley Wood, Massachusetts Humanities
Barbara Wallace Grossman has contributed an engaging biography of Clara Morris to the Theater in the Americas series published by Southern Illinois University Press. Written with crisp and down-to-earth prose, the book not only conveys the remarkable life of an acclaimed nineteenth-century actress, it also recreates the industry of the gas-lit, resident stock theatre company—already in its decline by the time Morris began her stage career at the age of fifteen as a lowly “ballet girl” for three dollars a week.
Clara Morris was known in her heyday as a virtuoso of the “emotional school” of acting, an aesthetic match with the popular contemporary plays of the day, many of which were French melodramas with complicated plots and maudlin, hysteria-prone female characters. The actress, who excelled in summoning real tears and moving audiences with a blend of emotional realism and choreographed movements, honed her signature roles, all “victims of social usage.”
It will not surprise readers that Morris rose to prominence from an extremely poor and lonely childhood, the painstakingly researched (and puzzling) details of which Grossman records with care, noting all remaining uncertainties and using several sources besides Morris’s diaries, memoirs, and autobiographical fiction. Born in Toronto to a house servant and a man later discovered to be a bigamist, Morris knew little ease or joy as a young child. Her early life with her mother was marked by several moves to homes in which she was expected to remain quiet and unobtrusive—she experienced no security beyond the lifelong bond of mother and daughter (Morris’s mother lived with her until she died in her nineties). Getting a job at the Academy of Music in Cleveland signaled a dramatic upswing in the lives of Clara Morris and her mother.
Moving relatively quickly from playing chorus and dancing parts to being a stand-in for leading lady roles, Morris stayed with the Cleveland company for seven years. She advanced to a “leading business” position in a Cincinnati company, and from there, at the age of 22, moved on to the Fifth Avenue Theatre in New York, run with talent, care and a despotic level of control by Augustin Daly. Here she emerged in her career’s signature role as Cora the vengeful Creole in Article 47, in which her “descent into raving madness” seduced audiences and critics, cementing her reputation as an actress skilled at depicting acute emotional and physical pain.
Clara Morris’s decline—caused by chronic pain, morphine addiction, and an unhappy marriage—was long, public and painful, although her persistence as an actress and a writer was remarkable. Chronicling with intelligence and compassion both Morris’s satisfying hard work and success as well as her decline into poverty and illness, Grossman masterfully weaves details from Morris’s large body of work, which includes six books of fiction, three memoirs, countless newspaper articles, and her fifty-four-volume diary. A Spectacle of Suffering is a great read and a reminder of the treasure trove that a faithfully kept diary can be. It doesn’t hurt if that diary records the life of a famous stage actress whose arc of life resembles the American dream in both its promise and disenchantment.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Women Who Pioneered Oklahoma: Stories from the WPA Narratives. Edited by Terri M. Baker and Connie Oliver Henshaw. Foreword by M. Susan Savage. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, October 2007. Cloth: ISBN 9780806138459, $29.95. 280 pages.

Review by Michel Demyen, University of Victoria, British Columbia

Through the stories of Women Who Pioneered Oklahoma, the editors bring to light an era long gone. The narratives in this book describe adaptability, courage, and an adventurous spirit. Arranged into seven chapters, the book outlines the building of Oklahoma through the lives of the women who settled there, bringing forth new life, cultures, languages, and skills. The pioneering women—African American, white, and Native American—lived, grew, and created relationships together in order to survive without boundaries, without discrimination.
Some particular historic events covered in the narratives include the tragic Trail of Tears, the forced displacement of Native Americans; the Civil War; and run-ins with famous outlaws such as the James gang and the Daltons. Belle Starr, too, appears in a narrative or two. The narratives also tell the story of the railroad pushing its way through the land, opening up opportunities for businesses and communities to flourish, and of the Chisholm Trail and the endless sea of cattle slowly making their way through the waist-high prairie grass. Through the narratives of the women we see tent towns spring up and disappear; we see names of towns change or become familiar landmarks such as Tulsa and Guthrie. The book describes a simpler yet challenging era, a time when survival and friendship were more important than material things.
Long before white women or African American, Native American women forged homes and lives in Oklahoma. Throughout the general history of the region, tribal customs, alliances, and conflicts were challenged by the influx of newcomers to the territory. These newcomers came from all parts of the United States to settle and build their own identity. From crossing rivers and battling prairie fires, to simply finding shelter in a dugout on a hill, these new families faced nearly insurmountable obstacles before making a home in their new land. Some claimed land during the Oklahoma land run, racing wildly across the countryside in search of that perfect spot to call home. Others married natives in order to secure property. They filed claims, learned that someone had claimed the same property, then searched again and filed another claim, finally finding their little piece of paradise. In a land of constant dangers including potential attacks, thieves, wild animals, and countless other conflicts and struggles, these women faced shared one common basic goal: to survive.
The book highlights the importance to the early pioneers of animals and livestock. People depended for survival on livestock to provide eggs, meat, milk, butter, and transportation. Without a horse or even oxen for transportation, life was very difficult. The dog was an essential part of pioneers’ lives because it provided protection and companionship, and was an extra hand when rounding up cattle.
Toward the end of the Civil War, many women of all nationalities were widowed, children orphaned. Faced with this adversity, women took up roles formerly limited to men, opening businesses, selling produce, and taking in boarders. Others opened up schools in their homes. They battled wild animals and gunslingers to protect what little they had. They had to learn how to carry and shoot a rifle due to the changing population of Oklahoma, which brought in a wide variety of individuals. The chapter on coping with lawlessness shows how pioneer women were constantly exposed to threats by criminals, gangs, soldiers, or Indian attacks. Towns became battlegrounds, with saloons and prostitution bringing in cowboys who had too much money to spend and took advantage of the lack of law enforcement.
Such stories, though, are only part of pioneer women’s lives; we also get a look at their strengths and fears. Their ability to maintain a positive attitude and to focus on family and hope is inspiring. Women today could still learn a few things from the experiences and words of wisdom of the women pioneers. Although the book attempts to depict how women pioneered the Territory of Oklahoma, there are more examples of white women’s being affluent than of either African American or Native American women. White women appear in the book as having more material things, or possessing a more refined manner and education. Whether the editors intended to suggest this, or it was due to lack of available information on African American and Native American women, is not clear. Although the chapters are well organized, and the content provides fabulous insight into the lives of the Women Who Pioneered Oklahoma, the narratives themselves are presented somewhat haphazardly and skip from one decade to another. On the same page there are, for example, narratives written about the Civil War of the 1860s next to narratives of women riding side-saddle in the 1890s. It would have been helpful to organize the narratives within chapters in a more chronological manner.
Pioneering women not only laid the foundation for future feminist movements and for working equally with men in cattle drives, hunting, and fending off outlaws; they were also the ultimate “modern women” of their time. They took pride in their strong family values and cared for their neighbors regardless of race or nationality. Women pioneers took joy in the simple pleasures of family gatherings, parties, and dances. Through all of this the women who pioneered Oklahoma created a life. They established schools and took care of their children and each other. They did not see their situation as difficult, bleak, or dangerous. To them it was simply their life. They did what they had to do. This wonderful book shows them doing it, in compelling, immediate detail.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

Icons of the American West: From Cowgirls to Silicon Valley. Edited by Gordon Morris Bakken. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, July 2008. 2 Vols. Cloth: ISBN 978-0313341489, $175.00. 640 pages.
Review by Douglas C. Macleod, Jr., State University of New York, Albany
from SJC post 2 (10/13/08)

Icons of the American West: From Cowgirls to Silicon Valley is a somewhat sanitary anthology where historians, professionals, independent scholars, and graduate students assemble to provide a plethora of historical information on such subjects as Annie Oakley, John Muir, Disneyland, the Sierra Club, and Las Vegas (to name just a few). The two volumes, edited by Gordon Morris Bakken, provide a flawed journey through time from the primitive beginnings of what has been deemed (by these texts) the American West, to the American West of modern days; these modern days precede the more politically charged actual American West of 2008.Bakken’s volumes succeed when the authors discuss “human” icons of the American West. Most notable are the earlier essays in Volume 1: “Buffalo Bill Cody” by Jennifer Mizzell, “George Armstrong Custer” by Shannon D. Smith, “John Muir” by Kenneth W. McMullen, and “Annie Oakley” by Glenda Riley. All four articles are extremely informative, providing the reader with a clear picture of the fascinating lives that each of these American citizens led during a time of struggle and/or war. McMullen’s and Smith’s articles, in particular, help flesh out the lives of two men who, although diametrically opposed to each other as far as their respective life’s work is concerned (Custer the imperfect but funny military man, and Muir, the Al Gore of his time), are important figureheads from which America’s younger generation can learn. Also, it would be remiss not to point out John J. Stanley’s essay “Eugene Warren Biscailuz,” a brilliant piece in Volume 2 on the trials and tribulations of one of Los Angeles’s most influential, modern-day lawmen.
Where Icons of the American West seems to lose focus is when it discusses the iconic nature of “the place” or “the thing.” Although all are well-written, many of the articles tend not to prove that “the place” or “the thing” being written about is an icon. Such articles like “Bozeman, Montana” by Elwood Bakken, “Disneyland” by Solaiman M. Fazel, “Sierra Club” by Brandon Davis, and “Hetch Hechy” by Kenneth W. McMullen, provide the reader with brochure-like information, but end up doing just that and nothing else; they do not implicitly or explicitly explain why these “places” or “things” are iconic.Keeping that in mind, Icons of the American West thus (as two overall texts) reads only as fact; both volumes do not adequately question why these particular people, places, and things are iconic. Even the more successful articles state things matter-of-factly. One thinks of Susan Tschabrun’s article “Bill Gates,” where she writes about Gates’s legal issues, but with no grittiness; her article is very sanitary, as is the text in which it is published. One also thinks of Paul R. Spitzzeri’s essay “Banditry in California, 1850-1875,” which, although competent, does not provide the reader with a significant amount of descriptive detail. To put it another way, where is the essay on the O.J. Simpson trial? the essay on Los Angeles street gangs? the essay on Charles Manson? the essay on illegal immigrants? the essay on Alcatraz? the essay on the underground cultures of San Francisco? the essay on the San Francisco earthquake of 1902? the essay on Washington State Penitentiary in Walla Walla? Culturally speaking, rather than editing essays on Ronald Reagan (Caroline Owen) and Ann Willis Richards (Scott Behen), why not include essays on figures like Antonio Villaraigosa or Bill Richardson? on the significance of San Francisco’s version of Chinatown? Also missing are essays on Hollywood (of which there is only a brief mention in Owen’s article on Reagan)--the Hollywood sign, the Hollywood Walk of Fame, Hollywood icons of the past or the present. All of these topics would have made the volumes better-rounded and more culturally diverse.
To Bakken’s credit, he did add essays on American Indian culture (“Indian Casinos” by Lisa E. Emmerich, “Geronimo,” “Chief Joseph,” and “Sacagawea” by Vanessa Gunther). He also added an essay on female politicians by Danielle Moon (“Female Politicians”), an essay that (unfortunately) was published too soon, in that the incorporation of Sarah Palin to the work would have made for an interesting read. The entire volume, in fact, would have benefited from an essay on the new political Civil War taking place in America today: the “elitist East” (Obama and Biden ticket) versus the “idyllic West” (McCain and Palin ticket). But, through no fault of their own, editors and publishers cannot predict the future. The same goes for book reviewers. So one cannot say that Icons of the American West will be successful as a college textbook. For History departments: most likely. The volumes are very much a success when evaluating them as containing significant historical documents. For other areas within the Humanities: most likely not. For the volumes to be more successful on that front, Bakken should have picked or sought more diverse topics to add to his volumes. For one to be an icon, or for something to be iconic, he, she, or it does not necessarily have to be influential in a positive way; nor does he, she, or it have to come from a certain type of background. All things and people of cultural power, positive, negative, or otherwise, should be considered iconic.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Circus Queen and Tinker Bell: The Memoir of Tiny Kline. By Tiny Kline. Edited by Janet M. Davis. Champaign: University of Illinois Press, July 2008. Cloth: ISBN 978-0-252-03312-4, $65.00; paper: ISBN 978-0-252-07510-0, $24.95. 376 pages.
Review by Robert Sugarman, Circus Historical Society

Janet Davis’s previous book, The Circus Age: Culture and Society under the American Big Top (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002) has established itself as one of the most authoritative analyses of the Golden Age Circus that thrived in America in the early part of the twentieth century. The volume also examines in depth the relationship of that circus to the society in which it existed. Her new book, a memoir written by performer Tiny Kline and edited by Davis, is an excellent complement to The Circus Age, providing a firsthand account of the Golden Age circus by one of its participants. Kline rose through the ranks of what was then a rigid caste system from “Statue girl,” one who posed semi-nude in heavy grease paint in emulation of classic sculpture, to center ring performer. Legendary circus personalities such as Equestrian Director Fred Bradna and aerialists Lillian Leitzel and Alfred Codona are seen as professional colleagues in a demanding work situation. Kline recounts the difficulties performers experienced when the Ringling and the Barnum shows combined, and the awkward transition when the grounded Ringling Barnum show moved many of its acts to the Al G. Barnes show with which Kline had been appearing. When Kline joined the Barnum and Bailey circus in 1916, it was a gigantic affair. Its layout, usually in a different city each day, filled nine acres. Horses that moved the circus on and off the lot were the backbone of the mile-long parades that preceded each day’s show and of the performance itself. Except for top management and the most elite performers, living conditions for circus personnel were hard. In addition to the vicissitudes of weather, performers were responsible for creating and maintaining their costumes, which meant washing them in buckets of cold water and hanging them on tent ropes to dry. Performers traveled on trains in crowded and uncomfortable conditions. Through all this, Kline’s passion for circus performance led her to improve her skills and move up the circus ladder to present elephants, ride horses bareback and in chariot races around the hippodrome track surrounding the three rings and four stages, and to do a daring descent, suspended by her teeth, from the top of the tent on a breakaway wire. Davis’s introduction places Kline’s life in perspective. A Hungarian Jewish immigrant, Kline typified the immersion of many immigrants in American Popular Culture. Starting her career as a dancer in burlesque, Kline moved to various touring shows and Wild West shows, and eventually became a dancer at New York’s Hippodrome and played vaudeville during the circus’s off seasons. Kline’s memoir ends in 1948 when, four years after retiring from circus performance, she visited the thoroughly mechanized Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Show, which had been reduced in size and was directed and choreographed by Broadway showmen who, she felt, sexualized and regimented the show, diminished the spontaneity of performance, and compromised the show’s appeal for family audiences. Kline continued doing her “slides for life” in a variety of venues. Davis provides information about Kline’s final performance activity. In her seventies, Kline performed as Tinker Bell in Disneyland, doing a 484-foot slide suspended from a wire from the 146-foot Mount Matterhorn to Sleeping Beauty’s Castle, where her arrival signaled the start of the evening’s fireworks. Working from two drafts of Kline’s memoir, Davis has not only provided a coherent and enlightening document, but has supplied fully annotated endnotes to explicate references and correct factual errors. Like The Circus Age, Circus Queen and Tinker Bell is an exemplary demonstration of how the study of circus in particular and Popular Culture in general can enrich our understanding of the world in which we live. The book includes some photos. It will prove to be an indispensable addition to any Popular Culture collection.

Monday, August 25, 2008

from the University of North Carolina Press
Pauli Murray and Caroline Ware: Forty Years of Letters in Black and White
by Anne Firor Scott

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Our First Issue Will Be Posted September 8, 2008!

The Southwest Journal of Cultures will post reviews of new scholarly biographies, autobiographies, and memoires.