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Archive for the ‘disability studies’ Category

Dear poolside readers,

Believe it or not, before this lazy scholar came to know the pleasures of American Studies, he was a full-fledged Anglicist (or is it Britishist?). Wordsworth, Eliot, Woolf, Forster—I would surely have carried a card if there were one. Don’t worry, I’m not crossing the pond just yet, though I am feeling in a transatlantic mood lately. So I can’t resist sneaking a peak at an archive devoted to a British artifact: the Victorian yellowback, courtesy of Emory’s DiscoverE Database.

A forerunner of the paperback, the cheaply-printed, cheaply-purchased yellowback caught on just as railways were spreading across the country (see the intro to John Plotz’s Portable Property for more on the link for more on this new mobility). The texts included many American works, whose copyrights, a British Library exhibit reveals, were not protected under British law. Too bad for Bret Harte and Mark Twain.

At least one New York firm, though, sensed a marketing opportunity: Beadle & Co., inventor of the dime novel, struck a deal with Routledge to found the “Beadle American Library” to peddle its pulp for the Anglo masses.

The books especially stood out for their lurid covers, like those of Ann Sophia Stephens’s Malaeska: The Indian Wife of the White Hunter and Esther: A Story of the Oregon Trail.

Apparently, she never met an unlikely heroine she didn’t like. Nor did yellowback readers, to judge by a handful of other covers. If she could be thrown onto the frontier, all the better.

To be fair, the British were fascinated by more everyday American concerns, as well. Take for example Jonathan and His Continent, a Toquevillesque travelogue by Max O’Rell (pseudonym for French author Léon Paul Blouet).

Here O’Rell remarks on the literal battle of the sexes:

“If men may not tar and feather a woman, women occasionally give themselves the pleasure of tarring and feathering a man, which shows once more how privileged woman is in America. On the 12th of August, 1887, the editor of a paper in a little town in Illinois had to submit to this ignominious operation at the hands of about five hundred of his townswomen. His crime was that of having spoken cavalierly of the feminine morals of the township.”

Those looking for a good railway read of their own, however, might best be advised to check out Struggles and Triumphs, or the Recollections of P.T. Barnum. Here, Barnum recounts the meeting of Queen Victoria herself and a member of Barnum’s troupe, “General Tom Thumb.”

“Surprise and pleasure were depicted on the countenances of the royal circle at beholding this remarkable specimen of humanity so much smaller than they had evidently expected to find him. The General advanced with a firm step, and, as he came within hailing distance made a very graceful bow, and exclaimed, ‘Good-evening, ladies and gentlemen!’ A burst of laughter followed this salutation. The Queen then took him by the hand, led him about the gallery, and asked him many questions, the answers to which kept the party in an uninterrupted strain of merriment.”

The Butlerian in me want to say something about queerness, disability, and performance, but I will restrain myself. Back to my twenty-first century reading for now.

Yours perusing the paperbacks,

Stephen

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To my fellow homebodies,

If you, like me, have found yourself reluctantly addicted to FOX’s high school dramedy Glee, then you know that this week’s episode shined its bemused spotlight the show’s wheelchair-riding, background singing Artie Abrams. The character has raised the ire of some disability advocates because he’s played by a nondisabled actor. But what strikes me as far more egregious than the casting is the degree of misguided, even degrading sympathy the episode points Artie’s way. When the glee club hesitates to help raise money for a bus that could accommodate Artie’s wheelchair, the director insists the students “learn a lesson” by using wheelchairs for at least three hours a day, you know, so they can understand what it’s “really” like to be disabled.

artie

This violence of viewing the disabled as “weaker” or “afflicted” is one of the central critiques of the emerging discipline of disability studies. The highlight of the episode, for me anyway, was an early sequence where Artie wheels around the high school singing Billy Idol’s “Dancin’ With Myself.” (Watch the clip for yourself here.) What makes the scene so surprisingly sublime is the way the boundary between body and apparatus blur, much in the way Petra Kuppers describes in her wonderful essay, “The Wheelchair’s Rhetoric” (you can download it here, with the kind permission of Professor Kuppers.) Artie’s joyful ability to dance within and with his wheelchair (thanks in part to stunt double and wheelchair athlete Aaron Fotheringham) begins to expose the pernicious norms inherent in the very term “disabled” and re-cast Artie as an artist, much more so than the wheelchair minstrelsy that ends the episode.

All of which I say by way of introducing a valuable resource for the digitally-inclined: The Disability History Museum. The archive includes both documents and images, like the 1933 advertisement below.

You can also read an 1863 article from Scientific American, The Great Lilliputian Wedding,” noting the marriage of the performing pair Charles S. Stratton, a.k.a. “General Tom Thumb,” and Lavinia Warren. As the author dimly advocates, “It is generally admitted, we believe, that these little people have as good a right to marry as the larger folks.”

And be sure to check out this videography of physical disabilities on film from the 1920 silent The Penalty (watch an excerpt here) to 2007’s Diving Bell and the Butterfly. And for a more political take, listen to the oral histories collected at UC Berkeley’s Disability Rights and Independent Living Movement site.

Until next time.

Sincerely yours,

Stephen

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