Saloon-Smashing Fanatic, Corn-Fed Joan of Arc: The Changing Memory of Carry Nation in Twentieth-Century American Magazines

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The Changing Memory of Carry Nation in Twentieth-Century American Magazines

Early in the twentieth century, Carry Nation achieved celebrity status by smashing Kansas saloons with a hatchet. This made her something of an icon in American lore, remembered as a fierce crusader for temperance and women's rights, yet almost as a cartoon caricature. Scholars have written about her crusades using press coverage as a primary source, but no one has examined, over time, public memory of this fascinating woman. This article traces magazine coverage of Nation throughout the twentieth century, showing how portrayals of "The bar room smasher" changed and what those changes reveal about American culture and the American press. The purpose is to argue that these stories can be an important tool for studying cultural history.

Sing a song of six joints,

With bottles full of rye;

Four and twenty beer kegs,

Stacked up on the sly.

When the kegs were opened,

The beer began to sing.

Hurrah for Carry Nation,

Her work beats anything.1

In 1901, when Carry Nation was smashing Kansas saloons with a hatchet, the local press reacted strongly, and sometimes inconsistently. For example, well-known Emporia Gazette editor William Allen White called her "crazy as a bedbug" in January and "a brave, fat old heroine" in February.2 Since then, she has become something of an icon in American history, remembered as a fierce crusader for temperance and women's rights, yet almost as a cartoon caricature. Scholars have written about her crusades in Kansas, Michigan, Oklahoma, Florida, Missouri, and Iowa, using press coverage as primary source.3 Yet no one has examined, over time, public memory of this fascinating character. This article traces media coverage of Nation throughout the twentieth century, to see if and how portrayals of "the bar room smasher" changed and to see what those changes might reveal about American culture and memory, as well as about the American press.

A century after her anti-alcohol crusades, Nation is still remembered, evoked as a type of metaphor but often not a flattering one. The New York Times, for example, in 1992 discussed public perception of Tipper Gore, wife of then vice presidential candidate Al Gore, as "a prissy, humorless Carry Nation of rock-and-roll."4 The Mmes assumed the public awareness of Nation was strong enough that it did not have to explain the image when using it for symbolic analogy. In 2001, the Times again recalled Nation's "hatchetations" in New York in an article about troubled times for that city's modern nightlife industry.5 Such a metaphor, based in collectively held images, has symbolic cultural significance, for as historian Richard Slotkin argued, "Metaphors are primitive hypotheses about the nature of reality."6 He continued: "When we study cultural history we are examining the processes by which metaphors are generated, projected into a material world, and socially reified."7 The press, through framing, plays a part in projecting cultural metaphors to a mass audience.

Nation has been identified by one historian as "one of the first personalities created by Americans to satisfy national anxieties and desires."8 Though not the first or only person to smash a saloon in the cause of temperance, she was the one who fascinated, delighted, and repelled the public, first in Kansas and then throughout the nation. Part of the reason was her "genius at self-promotion and her remarkably media-genic personality."9 Part of the reason, according to historian Frances Grace Carver, was the new journalism, which after the 1890s, "practiced by the burgeoning dailies packaged the news as a series of melodramas and atrocities, of titillating events covered as spectacles, complete with illustrations."10 Part of the reason was cultural; Nation fit a need for Americans who, in an era of great turmoil and uncertainty, "placed their faith and invested their wealth in emotion-packed personal symbols and rhetorical formulas. …