Transatlantic Spectacles of Race: The Tragic Mulatta and the Tragic Muse

Transatlantic Spectacles of Race: The Tragic Mulatta and the Tragic Muse

Transatlantic Spectacles of Race: The Tragic Mulatta and the Tragic Muse

Transatlantic Spectacles of Race: The Tragic Mulatta and the Tragic Muse


The tragic mulatta was a stock figure in nineteenth-century American literature, an attractive mixed-race woman who became a casualty of the color line. The tragic muse was an equally familiar figure in Victorian British culture, an exotic and alluring Jewish actress whose profession placed her alongside the "fallen woman."

In Transatlantic Spectacles of Race, Kimberly Manganelli argues that the tragic mulatta and tragic muse, who have heretofore been read separately, must be understood as two sides of the same phenomenon. In both cases, the eroticized and racialized female body is put on public display, as a highly enticing commodity in the nineteenth-century marketplace. Tracing these figures through American, British, and French literature and culture, Manganelli constructs a host of surprising literary genealogies, from Zelica to Daniel Deronda, from Uncle Tom's Cabin to Lady Audley's Secret. Bringing together an impressive array of cultural texts that includes novels, melodramas, travel narratives, diaries, and illustrations, Transatlantic Spectacles of Race reveals the value of transcending literary, national, and racial boundaries.


My heritage!” It is to live within

The marts of Pleasure and of Gain, yet be

No willing worshiper at either shrine;

To think, and speak, and act, not for my pleasure,

But others’. the veriest slave of time

And circumstances. Fortune’s toy!

To hear of fraud, injustice, and oppression,

And feel who is the unshielded victim.

—ADAH isaacs menken, “MY HERITAGE” (1860)

In early July 1862, the American actress and poet Adah Isaacs Menken had just completed a successful run at the Bowery Theater in New York City, where she captivated audiences in a range of productions, including The Three Fast Women, or the Female Robinson Crusoes, the French Spy, Joan of Arc, Lola Montez, and the play adaptation of Byron’s Mazeppa. As the Tartar prince in Mazeppa, the role that would make her an international sensation, she cross-dressed, performed death-defying stunts on the trick horse Zofloie, and at the play’s climax was stripped down to a nude bodysuit by enemy soldiers (fig. 1). With the press and public clamoring to know more about the young woman whose performance in Mazeppa shocked theatergoers and whose recent divorce from the boxer John Heenan made headlines, Menken decided to begin writing notes for her autobiography. Before heading to Boston for a two-month engagement at the Howard Athenaeum Theatre, she mailed the first installment of “Some Notes of Her Life in Her Own Hand” to Gus Daly, a friend and playwright living in New York, whom she asked to edit the notes into a book. As Daly explains in his introduction to the “Notes,” which he published in the New York Times shortly after her death in 1868: “Everybody was asking, ‘Who were you before?’ the reckless girl was not averse to paying the penalty and gratifying this curiosity, but . . .

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