Academic journal article MELUS

Spectacle Ethnography and Immigrant Resistance: Sui Sin Far and Anzia Yezierska

Academic journal article MELUS

Spectacle Ethnography and Immigrant Resistance: Sui Sin Far and Anzia Yezierska

Article excerpt

In 1850, "Barnum's Chinese Museum" featured a live Chinese family on display for American amusement. Newspaper reviews marveled that Barnum's "stops short of nothing that is strange or wonderful" with its "genuine Chinese lady ... prepared to exhibit her charming self, her curious retinue, and her fairy feet (only two and a half inches long) to an admiring and novelty-loving public" (qtd. in Yung 14, 17). Capitalizing on the market appeal of the ethnic Other, Barnum's presented the Chinese as toy-like, eroticized, "primitive" beings beyond whom American civilization had progressed. Barnum's exhibit anticipated a complex of American cultural phenomena at the turn into the twentieth century. Spectacle-based entertainments such as circuses, zoos, vaudevilles, minstrels, "freak" shows, and world's fairs were in vogue; Americans developed a taste for gazing at an ever-changing pageant of wonders, often observing the ethnic Other for diversion. (1)

Employing titles such as "A Year Among the Cannibal Pigmies," popular periodicals also transformed new anthropological fieldwork into spectacle entertainment. (2) In addition, an influx of immigrants from unfamiliar locations, such as Asia and Eastern Europe, introduced the ethnic Other more immediately, inspiring ethnographic "slumming" expeditions. As Sabine Haenni recently has noted, these sight-seeing trips to immigrant neighborhoods allowed observers to view ethnic lifestyles at close physical range yet from distinct social distance. (3) Spectacle-based entertainment combined with ethnography to create a peculiarly exhibitory environment, a formidable obstacle for immigrants, who confronted both the exclusion efforts and the assimilation programs of more "established" Americans. This essay will demonstrate how two such immigrants, Sui Sin Far and Anzia Yezierska, wrote against this spectacularized climate. (4)

These writers respond to what I will term spectacle ethnography in viewing immigrants: the practice of Americans, primarily "Anglo-Saxons," observing, discussing, and writing about the ethnic Other in order to affirm the superiority of their own race, culture, or both. (5) Building upon interrelated anthropological and entertainment trends, spectacle ethnography shaped American discourse concerning immigrants, taking two main forms: observers discovered inflexible race characteristics that supported immigrant exclusion or observers uncovered hidden potential that demanded their own intervention in order to Americanize the immigrant.

Spectacle ethnography derived its exclusionary force from turn-of-the-century race theory, which ranked races in a specific hierarchy according to their "stages of civilization": "Anglo-Saxon" peoples led, followed by other whites, and then by peoples of color. (6) As president of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, anthropologist Daniel Brinton upheld this theory in 1895: "The black, the brown, and the red races differ anatomically so much from the white ... that even with equal cerebral capacity they never could rival its results by equal efforts" (68-69). (7) Anti-immigration activists adopted this racial hierarchy when discussing immigration in the popular media. In an 1891 issue of the North American Review, Massachusetts Senator Henry Cabot Lodge, co-founder of the Immigration Restriction League, complained that new immigrants comprised races "most alien to the body of the American people and from the lowest and most illiterate classes among those races" (32). Writing for the Atlantic in 1896, Francis Walker, commissioner general of the immigration service, dubbed immigrants "beaten men from beaten races," who lack "the ideas and aptitudes which fit men to take up readily and easily the problem of self care and self government" (828). Thus pseudoscientific racism prepared a hostile reception for Asian and Eastern European immigrants and contributed to the immigration restriction efforts of "nativist" Americans. …

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