The Vulnerability of White Male Bodies in Philadelphia, 1785-1850: An Absurdly Concise History

The core dynamic in the white popular culture of Philadelphia was about the increasing vulnerability of male bodies and how popular culture was transformed in response.

I have book outlines but wanted to capture the dynamic here in short, sharp formulations.

Traditional Culture

1805, “Spanking Jack”: Artisans represent difficulties in terms of attacks on their bodies, i.e. sudden death, dismemberment, and torture.

Failure of Traditional Culture

1792, John Fitch: portrays his own sense of bodily vulnerability in terms of being “burned alive” as he worked on his steamboat project.

1829-1837, Workingmen: shift from treating difficulties as threats to portraying themselves as having vampires and incubuses attached. This is start of laboring men portraying their bodies as “occupied” and “feminized” in the sense of an intensified vulnerability and subjection.

1828-1850, Delirium Tremens: Sense of body being under threat changes to terror of the total environment. Only refuge is hallucination of attacks.

Cultural Transformation

1832-1842, Occupied. The minstrelsy of T.D. Rice counter-acted body anxiety through transgression: i.e, adapting blackness, embracing the degradations associated with blackness, and displaying that degradation. Leveraging these transgressions, Rice represented his “Jim Crow” character as having an enhanced and invulnerable masculinity.

After 1835, minstrel performers still adopted and displayed blackness, but also articulated an idea of black people as “comic substance” whose absurdity and suffering could enjoyed by white audiences. Projecting their sense of their own bodily vulnerability onto black people created some symbolic distance and created a leering, sadistic experience of whiteness.

1841-1842. Feminized Male Bodies. Just as minstrelsy embraced and displayed blackness, the Washingtonian temperance movement created a cultural practice that relied on the embrace of feminized male bodies. But the Washingtonians were not able to generate the collective temperance identity craved by their members and ultimately served as a bridge to the Sons of Temperance and their intense focus on collective identity.

1837-1850. Honored Felons. The volunteer fire companies also represented themselves in terms of displaying vulnerable, feminized, male bodies. But they were more successful because they were able to translate rioting into a strong sense of group identity.

1843-1850. Blackface Bands. The blackface bands continued to embrace the degradations associated with the ideas of black people as “comic substance,” developed songs and entertainment techniques that heightened the white enjoyment of black suffering, and added the sentimental enjoyment of black suffering to the minstrelsy repertoire.

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