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Best of the Web

Leo Braudy, The Frenzy of Renown: Fame & Its History (1986)

A sprawling work that goes back to antiquity and forward to the 1980s in order to unearth the origins, dynamics, and multiple incarnations of fame. Valuable sections on P.T. Barnum, Matthew Brady's photographic studio, and antebellum celebrity.

Richard L. Bushman, The Refinement of America: Persons, Houses, Cities (1992)

Examines the spread of conspicuous consumption to the growing middle class during the antebellum period, as mass production industries multiplied the number and variety of luxury goods on the market and higher standards of living enabled more families to acquire those goods, despite potential conflicts with their religious and egalitarian sensibilities.

Karen Halttunen, Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-Class Culture in America, 1830-1870 (1982)

Halttunen makes a persuasive argument that middle-class Victorian culture in America developed around and in response to the specter of the Confidence Man and the Painted Woman; the trickster who was not to be trusted in an age of increasingly anonymous urban centers, and the harlot who posed as the girl-next-door.

Neil Harris, Humbug; the Art of P. T. Barnum (1973)

An excellent biography of a complicated man and the culture he both shaped and symbolized.

David M. Henkin, City Reading: Written Words and Public Spaces in Antebellum New York (1998)

The shared experience of reading texts in public spaces, a single headline or billboard being read by hundreds or thousands of spectators, most of whom did not know one another but who shared access to the same information, was a new chapter in the annals of the public sphere. America's exceptionally high literacy rates ensured the widespread impact and resonance of everything from journalism to sign-making to advertising industries. Henkin artfully traces the cultural implications and complications of this phenomenon as it developed most strikingly in the country's largest metropolis.

Lawrence W. Levine, Highbrow/Lowbrow: The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America (1988)

Charts the course by which the works of Shakespeare went from a popular theatrical production, familiar to Americans of almost every walk of life, to a highly regulated and exclusive entertainment-form for quiet and orderly bourgeois audiences. Between the early and late nineteenth century, a demarcation appeared along class lines in American culture, from artwork to classical music to the aforementioned theatrical productions.

Lawrence W. Levine, Black Culture and Black Consciousness: Afro-American Folk Thought From Slavery to Freedom (1977)

An acclaimed work that captures the richness and multifaceted sophistication of black culture, even when black Americans were imprisoned by the shackles of slavery.

Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (1993)

Lott explores the paradoxical but enormously popular practice of blackface minstrelsy from a multitude of perspectives. This commercial entertainment, devised and performed by the white working class for the white working class, appropriated and manipulated black expressions, language, gesture, and appearance in what amounted to a conflicted gesture of admiration and contempt.

Leon F. Litwack, North of Slavery; the Negro in the Free States, 1790-1860 (1961)

Litwack's first book attests to the level and extent of anti-black discrimination and segregation that existed in the American North.

Robert C. Toll, Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-Century America (1974)

A thorough examination of the fraught subject of minstrelsy.

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