Review by Choice Review
The first important book on black-face minstrelsy since Robert Toll's Blacking Up (1974), Lott's study offers fascinating, often controversial, and sometimes debatable readings of this phenomenon (limited to the antebellum period). The focus is an interpretative analysis of the class, racial, and sexual politics of the form. Not a history as the dust jacket suggests, this book is nonetheless exhaustively researched and chock full of details, citing all the correct theorists and critics (with a magnificent bibliography), while offering few new discoveries other than the author's "take" on minstrelsy. Lott all too frequently obfuscates the plethora of ideas, frequently insightful and apt, with a penchant for the prose style and vocabulary so favored by some current cultural historians, at whom this study would seem to be aimed. If one is willing to penetrate this barrier the rewards are many, though some readers (especially nonspecialists) will find the effort frustrating and tedious, failing to digest Lott's considerable erudition. Lott, who has little sense of the performative aspect of minstrelsy (students and scholars of performance are likely to find this lack distressing), takes his study hyperseriously in an apparent attempt to convince the reader of its legitimacy in American culture study. A few illustrations. Graduate; faculty. D. B. Wilmeth; Brown University
Copyright American Library Association, used with permission.
Review by Kirkus Book Review
To this original and erudite study, Lott (American Studies/University of Virginia) brings a mass of obscure information and a multidisciplinary approach, interpreting the meaning of black-face minstrelsy to the white working classes who invented and performed it. The appropriation of black music, dance, humor, and narratives for commercial entertainment, says Lott, expressed the deep racial conflicts suffered by the white working classes, especially in the North in the decades before the Civil War. Their parodies reflected their admiration and contempt, their envy and fear, their remoteness and--as the economy changed--their impending identification with the dispossessed, whom they represented as absurd. In their imitation of blacks, and in the cross-dressing that minstrelsy required, whites males gained control over the alien and the threatening (especially black sexuality) and changed the way they experienced themselves as men. Lott's study ranges through folklore, history, sociology, politics, economics, psychoanalysis, theater history, popular music, even film theory, but it's based clearly on contemporary and technical studies of race, gender, and class: The ``stars'' of minstrelsy, Lott says, ``inaugurated an American tradition of class abdication through gendered cross-racial immersion.'' In the course of his analysis, Lott places Huckleberry Finn, Uncle Tom's Cabin, and the music of Stephen Foster in new and interesting perspective, and reveals the significance of an art form, a ritual, that has fallen into neglect after a period of universal popularity. A clever, disciplined, and resourceful reading of the commonplace: a pioneering study that, though somewhat academic, will no doubt influence more popular studies. (Eight halftones, eight line drawings)
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