Public Program- Benjamin Reiss

Lectures and Performances
Tuesday, November 27, 2001 - 7:30pm

The True Tale of Washington's Nurse
By Benjamin Reiss

portrait of PT Barnum
Benjamin Reiss will discuss and read from his book, The Showman and the Slave: Race, Death, and Memory in Barnum's America. Reiss uses P. T. Barnum's Joice Heth hoax to examine the contours of race relations in the antebellum North. Barnum's first exhibit as a showman, Heth was an elderly enslaved woman who was said to be the 161-year-old former nurse of the infant George Washington. Seizing upon the novelty, the newly emerging commercial press turned her act--and especially her death-- into one of the first media spectacles in American history. In piecing together the fragmentary and conflicting evidence of the event, Reiss paints a picture of people looking at history, at the human body, at social class, at slavery, at performance, at death, and always-if obliquely-at themselves. At the same time, he reveals how deeply an obsession with race penetrated different facets of American life, from public memory to private fantasy.

Benjamin Reiss is currently in residence at the Society as an American Antiquarian Society-National Endowment for the Humanities fellow working on a project about antebellum literary culture and mental institutions. He is an assistant professor of English at Tulane University.

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