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Performing American Identity in Great Britain, 1880-1914.



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Defrates, Lewis 


This thesis explores the experiences and uses of transatlantic mobility and exhibition in Britain by a variety of Americans in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era. It emphasizes how this travel and work prompted Americans to consider their identity and work in ‘national’ terms, identifying two broad strains of American identity that were consolidated through transatlantic performance. I term these strains ‘dominant’ and ‘oppositional’ and argue that race played an increasingly central role in forming both conceptions of the national culture. It examines the changing place of Britain in affirming, rejecting and otherwise arbitrating the validity of American culture and politics in the decades following the Civil War. Britain remained a key site in the development of alternate visions of America, long after practitioners of the dominant culture stopped placing such a premium on the value of ‘Old World’ approval. Transatlantic performance enabled multiple visions of America to reach British audiences and be reflected back to observers in the United States. These included the celebration of the subjugation of Native Americans as ‘America’s National Entertainment’ through Wild West shows, the establishment of baseball as a ‘national pastime’ and the appraisal of Spirituals (as performed by African American vocal group the Fisk Jubilee Singers) as the ‘sole American music’. The status that these entertainments enjoyed as uniquely American emerged through their exhibition and reception in Britain. The same was true of more obviously political actors, from temperance advocates to anti-lynching campaigners. Differences abounded between the dominant and oppositional articulations of American identity in Britain, but both helped to consolidate the nation as the primary repository of social meaning and political action, even within ostensibly ‘global’ movements, and even as the United States turned to overseas empire. This consensus was established in the very era when international exchange was increasing dramatically, a phenomenon which has been overlooked in the existing scholarship. I argue that ‘the national’ was far more embedded in ‘the transnational’ than historians of the latter have conventionally acknowledged.





Gerstle, Gary


American History


Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Awarding Institution

University of Cambridge
Arts and Humanities Research Council (1951145)