Archive | March, 2008

History Carnival#63: A Festivity for All Fool’s Day

31 Mar

Welcome all to the sixty-third edition of History Carnival, coming out on All Fool’s Day (Australian time), 1 April 2008.  

What you’ll find here is a series of links to blog entries on matters historical during March 2008. And because 8 March was International Women’s Day (indeed the whole of March was Women’s History Month in the States) this carnival will be largely devoted to posts on women’s history.


The Festival top 5

In past centuries, All Fool’s Day festivities were an excuse for the exchange of gifts and revelry. In this spirit, I celebrate my 5 top posts this month – an offering of treats from the blog-annals of women’s history:

One, Race and the Risky Game of Claiming Icons. In this a thought-provoking piece on Britannica Blog, Joseph Lane draws parallels between the Clinton/Obama contest and an earlier one between women’s suffragists and African-Americans in the 1860s. In this period, white suffragists such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton  argued that they were more deserving of the vote than black men. This, Lane suggests, was an eerie precursor to Hillary Clinton’s current political strategy. This discussion is well worth a read, both for its topicality and for its reminder that white feminism has often been uncomfortably implicated in the oppression of other social groups.


Elizabeth Cady Stanton & child

Two, Remembering Herschey Lang (1912-1917), posted by Penny Richards at Temple University’s Disability Studies blog. This post is a beautiful musing about a disfigured boy who lived in New York during the First World War. I’ve included it here because the boy’s sister was Bella Cohen Spewack, co-author of Kiss Me Kate, who wrote a memoir of her childhood called Streets. Now published by Feminist Press, Streets is a fierce, funny, poignant memoir’, full of extraordinary detail about street-life on Lower East Side Manhattan in the early twentieth-century. I will definitely be searching it out after reading this lovely piece.

Three, a compilation of Asian feminists both contemporary and historical, by profbwoman at her blog. Of special note is the mention of Yuri Kochiyama, an activist who spoke out against the American internment of Japanese people during the Second World War, and who held Malcolm X after his assassination, watching as he died in her arms.


Yuri Kochiyama

Four, a review of the Brilliant Women exhibition at the (British) National Portrait Gallery, posted by Natalie Bennett on My London Your London. Bennett draws our attention to portraits of women from the Bluestocking Circle, giving us a who’s who of 18thC English feminism.


Members from the Bluestocking Circle

Five, a glimpse into the lot of late 19thC female inventors in America, condescendingly dubbed “Lady Edisons” in their day. The post is written by Barbara West at Lupec Boston, a blog with a giddy mix of go-grrl feminist commentary and cocktail recipes, and comes complete with tips on how to make your own Edisonian Cocktail. I have to say that I don’t get the whole ‘I’m a feminist b/c I love cocktails’ thing – but enjoyed this, nonetheless.


Tongue-in-cheek kitsch on Lupec Boston

Petticoats & beading

Now, fellow fools for history, let me ask you this. Why is it that so many blogs on women’s history focus on the manners and customs of the womanly elite? Until reviewing the field for this Carnival, I had not realised quite how many bloggers are intrigued by fifteenth-to-early-twentieth century society-women’s lives.

This month one finds posts giving us the ‘real story’ on Mary Boleyn and recipes for Regency pound cakes on History Hoydens, for example – the latter not exactly a hoydenish subject, it seems to me. There’s a piece on Mary Tudor at Scandalous Women (setting the facts right for watchers of Showtime’s series, The Tudors); and on Marie-Adelaide, Grand Duchess of Luxembourg, at Tea at Trianon. Lessons on the customs of refined Regency picnics follow on JaneAusten’s World; ditto a musing on what Elizabeth I might have felt if handed a lacy thong in a post for History Undressed (see two images from this below). There’s a write-up of the romance between Edward and Wallis Simpson  from the gushing Writer of Queens. And for a much older example, there’s a post on a princess Zenobia, married off to an Iberian king a few decades after the death of Christ, on Zenobia: Empress of the East.

eliz.jpg th_thong.jpg

Elizabeth I & the thong. I mean, really…

Now I don’t want to suggest that the minute details of past women’s lives are uninteresting. Nor do I want to suggest that none of these posts are fun to read. On the contrary, one of the best-written blogs I know is Edwardian Promenade, which this month has an intriguing post on the craze for nipple-piercing and tattoos among aristocratic English women at the turn of the 20th century. (Edwardian Promenade also has a piece on English suffragettes this month, so it’s not all tea-dresses and calling-cards). Further, on Sail 1620: Discover History, Jeffery Bangs provides details of the 1613 marriage of Princess Elizabeth Stuart in admirably evocative prose, including information about music created in her honour by Pilgrim composer, John Coprario. Overall, however, there is such a focus on aristocratic women on these blogs, such a focus on the most luxurious aspects of their lives, that after a while one begins to stagger under the weight of the petticoats and beading.

The film and historical fiction industry seems to be driving much of this emphasis on opulent women. Given that both these cultural forms prioritise sumptuous visual imagery and sensual detail, they contribute to a view that the only women’s lives worth remembering are those that look and feel beautiful. This very argument was indeed made by Janet Mullany at RiskyRegencies this month. She writes a post helpfully explaining that the past lives of the English aristocracy are more interesting to read about than those of the “riff raff” because they were so very much more glamorous. Ouch.

Not so frothy

All Fool’s festivities were once celebrated by the riff-raff, friend fools, so think yourself lucky that the writer of this Carnival shares not Janet Mullany’s view. And thankfully, the same can be said of other bloggers on women’s and feminist history. At Progressive Historians, for example, Ralph Brauer has written about the wisdom of Fanny Lou Hamer, an African-American woman almost beaten to death by police in the 1960s for helping other African-Americans register for the vote. 


Fanny Lou Hamer, image from Progressive Historians

At Feminist Review, Rick Taylor has written a review of Sally G McMillen’s book on the origins of the American women’s rights movement. This review talks about some of the 1860s feminist history critiqued in Joseph Lane’s post (above), and like Brauer’s post on Hamer is worth reading as a companion piece.

In addition to her exhibition review on My London Your London, Natalie Bennett has another review on her blog, Philobiblon, in this case of Sylvia Bowerbanks’ Speaking for Nature: Women and Ecologies of Early Modern EnglandThe book combines women’s and ecological history – an apt blend of Bennett’s concerns on Philobiblon – and will appeal to those with a similar convergence of interests.

After you’re done with these reviews, you can read about Lydia Parrish, an American nurse during the Civil War, on Civil War Women. If you can get past the ads and the we-Canadians-rock cheer-squad, you can find out about Jennie Trout, the first women to be licensed to practice medicine in Canada, from sassymonkey on blogher. And on The Reality-Based Community, you can catch James Wimberley’s sweet remembrance of the lives of five English women who lived through the Second World War. 

On backlashes of one kind & another

In her post on the Brilliant Women exhibition (mentioned above), Natalie Bennett writes about the feminist backlash experienced by the Bluestocking Circle in England. Another 18thC backlash is detailed by John Holbo on Out of the Crooked Timber. This post looks at the views of German philosopher, Justus Möser, whose froth-at-the-mouth diatribe on single mothers and bastard children strikes Holbo as an almost note-perfect precursor to right-wing American conservatism.

Here at the Vapour Trail, you can also read about the hateful songs sung about battered married women on the 19th century English music-hall stage. The anti-feminism displayed there is worth remembering, given that memories of music-hall jesters such as Dan Leno now often come immersed in a bath of nostalgia for Victoriana and simpler days.

As Kristan Tetens points out on The Victorian Peeper, however, the Victorians are also in the process of being re-written as sex-mad in a Rupert Everett documentary series about to hit the small screen. It remains to be seen whether this series represents a simplistic backlash against old notions of the Victorians as the sex-hating repressed, or whether it produces a more complex view of Victorian sexualities. (Incidentally, although his career was over before the Victorian era began, I would be interested in Everett’s take on the womanising castrato singer, Giovanni Velutti, who appears this month on Providentia).


Dred Scott at Axis of Evil Knievel

For backlashes of another kind, check Axis of Evil Knievel’s post on the Dred Scott decision, 6 March 1857, which denied an enslaved man from Missouri the right to sue for his freedom in the US Federal Court. If you can cope with the thick white text on black background, see Yid With Lid on the anti-Semitism stirred up by the Dreyfus affair in ‘J’accuse! When anti-semitism became fashionable’. And also check Greg Laden’s piece on the ban on Irish gays joining the St Patrick’s Day parades in Boston and NYC.

‘Great’ Men in history

Of course, online women’s history is hardly the only historiographical field to be dominated by the mighty or the rich. The idea that history is the story of past giants – great men looming up from the historical sludge, as it were – is to be found plenty of bloke’s history blogs. Thomas Levenson’s piece on the rivalry between two such ‘giants’, Isaac Newton and Robert Hooke, relies on this assumption. But it still makes for a zanily informative read. His discussion of the fact that Newton is celebrated while Hooke is largely forgotten also stands as a reminder of the machinations through which certain white men made the cut as Giants of History, and certain men did not.

Saifuddin’s piece for his eponymous blog, on the pre-1800 history of Yemen, similarly draws attention to the machinations between the ‘Giants’ of that region. By detailing the struggles between various sultans and governors in the era of the Ottomans, he highlights the imperial conquest and exploitation to which much of the history of Great Men is tied.

In a wonderful post by dogboy at Executed Today, you can read about the executions which the Catholic Church once deemed necessary for the good of the masses, but not at all necessary for the edification of noble Great Men. This post looks at the executioner, Giovanni Battiste Bugatti – a man who began his bloody work for the papacy at the turn of the 19thC, aged 17, and who otherwise spent his working life painting umbrellas by the riverside.

On the tricksiness of historical sources

At Easily Distracted this month, Timothy Burke has a snappy rant about the angst attending memoirs later revealed to be hoaxes or frauds. His focus is on contemporary memoirs, but is obviously relevant to historical sources. The post is worth reading as an illustration of good bloggy sass. And it is also worth reading to see if you agree with its attack on identity politics and the survivor memoir-industry. In this month of celebration of women’s history, which still relies on a form of identity politics, what say you to this provocative piece?

On Transylvania Dutch, John Newmark has a nifty post on the unreliable details his ‘Irish’ great-grandfather gave about his life. His great-granda hailed initially from Warsaw, not Ireland, and changed a few more less-than-trifling ‘facts’ about his life along the way – a cunning jester, if there ever was one. Then on The Virtual Dime Museum, L H Crawley has a post about an 1860s’ air-gun murder in Gold St, Brooklyn, with complicated connections to her own family. Trying to piece together information both about the murderer and her ancestors is a difficult business, she notes, particularly given omissions of errant wives and the like by past family historians keen on preserving their clan’s good name. Both these post read as if written if to illustrate Burke’s point about the tricksiness of historical self-presentation.


As a counter-point to Burke’s post, one finds a considered discussion of recent debates about the education of French children on Design Observer. As Jessica Helfand writes, plans are afoot to have every 5th-grader in France learn the life-story of a French child killed during the Holocaust. Featuring Anny-Yolande Horowitz, a seven year old French girl deported to Auschwitz in September 1942, this post raises compelling issues about the ethics of Holocaust history and about history education at large.

On this and other Carnivals

I must say now that there were a few submissions sent to me this month about the teaching of history and the impact of digital technologies on the same. Since my intention here was to focus on women’s history – and since I had a strong-enough view of my own on these posts, I made these the subject of a piece which I posted on this blog yesterday. Check it out if you want to catch up on some recent debates about the impact of new media on historiography and tertiary education (or at least for my views on the same).   

Before I get any further now, I want to thank Sharon Howard, who organises the History Carnival each month. Like any festival director, she puts in plenty of behind-the-scenes labour and energy into the Carnival, and heartily deserves our gratitude.

A couple of other Carnivals in honour of Women’s History Month or International Women’s Day are currently online. At Penny Red, you can catch The Carnival of Feminists. And for those of you who liked L H Crawley and John Newmark’s post about their forebears there are a whole series of reminiscences about female relatives and ancestors discussed in the Genealogy Blog Carnival at Creative Gene.  

If you are interested in becoming a host for a future History Carnival like this one, you can contact Sharon via the Carnival site. To submit a post to be considered for the next issue, you can make submissions via that site. The next host for the Carnival will be Felix (aka Fiona Thompson) at Bay Radical, and will appear on 1 May 2008. Looking forward to the next round of revelry and thoughtful exchange, Felix!

I will leave you now with a link to a List of Don’ts for women, published by a lady contributor to The Owl in 1903, which appears online at The Pen and the Spindle. I laughed when I first read this collation of foolish imperatives, but considering the fact that celeb pieces still offer us similar lists of what to wear and how to look (celebrity of course being the contemporary equivalent of historical lady-mania), perhaps it isn’t so jester-comic after all…


On the New Dawn of methodology, and other digital-booster claims

31 Mar

‘Sometimes friends in other disciplines ask me the question, “So, what are the big ideas in history these days?”’. So says Tom Scheinfeldt, Managing Director of the Center for History and New Media at George Mason University. ‘I then proceed to fumble around for a few minutes trying to put my finger on some new “-ism” or competing “-isms” to describe and define today’s historical discourse’, Scheinfeldt adds. ‘Invariably, I come up short’.

In a blog-post provocatively called Sunset for Ideology, Sunrise for Methodology, Scheinfeldt argues that global scholarship is currently witnessing a shift away from ideologically-driven theoretical frameworks towards a preoccupation with method and technique. We are on the brink of a ‘new phase of scholarship’, he claims, dominated not by ideas but by ‘new tools, methods, materials, techniques, and modes of work’.

Now I certainly agree that there is a new interest in internet-related research tools and management systems in scholarship today (including the tool Scheinfeldt promotes in his post, developed by his center at George Mason – nothing like a bit of product placement in the course of one’s critical commentary). I also agree that a disenchantment with High Theory has been growing within the humanities. But what I see as misleading about Scheinfeldt’s argument is its assumption that if scholarship isn’t about Big Ideas, then it isn’t about ideology.

The fact that there isn’t an -ism to define and describe today’s historical discourse does not mean that historiography is witnessing a shift away from matters ideological. Indeed, it seems to me that what we are seeing in place of High Theory is more of an interest in everyday life and affect among humanities scholars.  In some cases this interest is explicitly theorised by reference to such figures as Michel de Certeau or Eve Sedgwick. In others, it is more generally associated with a desire to make scholarship responsive to the immediacy and diversity of human experience. The whole point of that desire is to attend to the nuances of history and cultural life rather than to make Big Claims about History and Culture at large. Obviously, then, this move towards more specificity, towards more modestly-framed scholarly enterprise, can’t be described as the triumph of methods over ideas.

Scheinfeldt’s argument has been taken up by a number of other scholarly bloggers, predictably from the field of digital history and new media. It is time, these enthuasiasts say, for traditional academia to start responding to the shift in scholarly orientation taking place around it. Mills Kelly, another blogger from Scheinfeldt’s Center at George Mason, makes a similar claim about the inevitability of change within tertiary education. Universities need to catch up with the twenty-first century, he says. They need to replace creaky old Western Civilisation survey courses for first-years with ‘free, online content delivery systems’. Such systems would place a new emphasis on learning rather than content – on making sure that students acquire skills rather than simply amass facts of one kind or another.

Now, I have zero desire to defend Western Civ. survey courses. As an Australian historian, I have never had to teach one nor had experience of one as a student myself. I also have zero desire to defend an approach to education which values content in place of learning, just as you can’t have good ideas without attention to one’s methods or modes of research. I agreed with much of what Kelly says in his series of posts on first-year education. But given that the Center for History and New Media is quite possibly interested in developing such a ‘free online content delivery system’, I am cautious about his claim that it represents a shiny new era in learning for undergraduate students. And once again, I am suspicious of claims that learning in the humanities can somehow be divorced from content, pared back to a set of methods or structures capable of replication on an economically-efficient basis by web-based developers. I am also wary of the idea that seems implicit in these booster-arguments – that is, that scholarhsip might at last become depoliticised by technological means.

Am I overstating the case made by these bloggers here? What do other people think about this?

Why was the panto a non-show in America?

28 Mar

Not long ago I wrote a post about the cooch dance in early-twentieth century travelling shows, based on material from Robert Allen’s Horrible Prettiness. Allen recently visited the University of Queensland (where I am based). One thing he mentioned in passing then has stayed with me – this being how curious it is that pantomime never formed a part of the American popular theatre tradition.


Dan Leno as the panto dame, Widow Twankey (from

Mid-nineteenth century burlesque shows featured dame figures in America, just like the pantomime. These dames were men dressed up as cantankerous, be-wrinkled crones, who of course formed the butt of innumerable jokes during the course of a show. Given this cross-over, it is indeed odd (as Allen noted) that the pantomime never took off in America. It is even more odd given the similarities between aspects of blackface minstrelsy and pantomime harliquinades. Harlequins were black-masked figures who often engaged in ribald buffoonery very close to that of minstrel end-men and other American blackface clowns. (The very term ‘slapstick’, which played such a key part of American minstrel and vaudeville comedy, came from the stick which harlequins used to slap about other clownish fools on stage).


A harlequin-figure holding a slapstick, also from the V&A collection at

As yet I have no good ideas about why the pantomime remained such a distinctively English institution. Incidentally, however, I note that when I was looking over a Sydney magazine called Theatre yesterday, looking at the issues produced during the First World War, it struck me that pantomime reached an apogee of popularity in Australia during those war years.

In February 1915, for example, the Theatre included some reminiscences of Dan Leno from one of his colleagues, noting that Leno had been famous for his dame-roles in the London pantomimes at the end of the nineteenth century. ‘Pantomime is drawing the biggest audiences of any entertainment in Australia at present’, the magazine declared – and went on to include reviews and picturees of the various pantomimes playing at the time. A month later, the magazine was reporting that hundreds of people were turned away every night when the George Willoughby pantomine, Babes in the Wood, was showing at the Adelphi in Sydney.

A feature of the pantomime in both England and Australia – at least from the late 19thC – was that it included cameos from the music halls and variety stage. Anyone comic singer who was big in variety theatre could do a star turn in the latest pantomime, belting out their latest hit or performing a skit only loosely related to the plot of the panto in question. During Babes in the Wood, for example, the American performer Joesphine Gassman appeared with her black piccaninnies in a brief cameo, having drawn great applause on the Australian Fuller vaudeville circuit some months previously.

The appearance of an American blackface act during an Australian pantomime is yet another example of the promiscuous intermingling of the popular theatrical forms. And it yet again brings to mind Allen’s question about the non-show of the panto in America. If anyone else has a notion of why this was the case (or else examples of American pantomimes), I would be keen to hear about it.


Theatre (Sydney).

By way of an aside, I note that Josephine Gassman is discussed in M Alison Kibler’s Rank Ladies: Gender and Cultural Hierarchy in American Vaudeville, published by the same university press (University of North Caroline) carrying Allen’s Horrible Prettiness. Kibler says that Gassman’s routines (as a white woman in blackface, performing with black ‘piccaninnies’) was regarded as disgusting by many American critics in the very early 1900s (pp. 121-23). By 1914, however, she was receiving rapturous reviews for her Australian vaudeville act in Sydney’s Theatre.

The Georgia Minstrels in Queensland, 1878

16 Mar

Last Friday I was looking at Queensland’s reception of the Georgia Minstrels, an African-American minstrel troupe managed by the impresario, Charles B Hicks, who toured Australia in 1877-79. They were sensations for the first eighteenth months of their tour, performing to packed houses around the colonies (Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia, Tasmania, Queensland) and attracting a certain celebrity.

When the Georgias arrived in Brisbane on the evening of 27 February 1878, a crowd gathered at the wharf to see them disembark. In their advance publicity, they had billed themselves as ‘The Great American Slave Troupe… Composed of Colored Men’. Evidently, then, there was a good degree of racial if not racist curiosity among the Brisbanites gawping at them as they hauled their belongings on-shore. (Perhaps people were interested in what the Georgias looked like sans make-up, as they blacked-up on stage in the same way that white minstrel performers did, covering their skin with burnt cork or greasepaint). And that curiosity of course played into their popularity in Brisbane, Toowomba, Warwick and Ipswich over the following weeks.


We are not a party of White Men with Blackened Faces.


are composed of




And are, therefore, the only exponents of the Native Humor of the Colored Man that have ever visited Australia.

The Georgias attracted a broad popular audience when they were in Queensland. They gave matinee performances towards the end of their tour, and entreated would-be patrons to bring along their children for a ‘thorough treat’. They also performed in the Botanic Gardens on a Saturday afternoon a couple of times. One of these occasions was for a celebration of St Patricks’ Day, however, which I imagine was a dog-whistle to the more rumbustious among their audiences, for an afternoon of al fresco revelry under the sign of Erin’s Isle green. And apropos of my previous post about larrikins’ attraction to blackface minstrelsy, there is an indication that a few larrikins were among their audiences in Ipswich:

‘Those in the back seats were unable [to hear] at times – through the noisy and disgraceful conduct of a number of ill-mannered youths – who seemed to have enteted the building for no other purpose than to make themselves obnoxious’.

Billy Kersands

(An image of famous African-American minstrel, Billy Kersands, who was managed by Charles B Hicks in the mid-1880s. He didn’t come to Australia with Hicks’ Georgia Minstrels, but a performer called Billy Wilson did, and the two seem to have had similar performance styles. Wilson’s Australian performances attracted a great deal of commentary about the way he used his mouth and its size, as did Kersands’ in America).


Brisbane Courier, 28 February and 4 March 1878.

Queensland Times (Ipswich), 16 April 1878.

Richard Waterhouse, ‘Antipodean Odyssey: Charles B Hicks and the New Georgia Minstrels in Australia, 1877-1880’, Journal of the Royal Australian Historical Society, v.72, no.1, June 1986: 19-39 (fabulous, closely-researched article).

The coster and the larrikin

16 Mar


Last post I wrote about the larrikin Bill in C J Dennis’ The Sentimental Bloke (1915). Even though he had grown up a pugilist in a Melbourne slum, this Bill was famous for his romantic longings and penchant for reverie. (That’s his wedding scene from the 1919 Raymond Longford silent film based on Dennis’ poetry).

Dennis’s bloke Bill shows us that the Australian larrikin was able to be imagined in bewilderingly different ways by the early twentieth century. In 1870, Marcus Clarke had decided that the larrikin was much the same as Sam Hall, a rough music-hall character who went to the scaffold for murder, shouting ‘damn your eyes!’ at all society. In The Sentimental Bloke, however, the larrikin was a bovver-boy given over to a desire for domesticity. It was extraordinary that this sentimentalised view of the larrikin was possible, given that only a few decades before, larrikins were the subject of a moral panic in Australia over street youth and their gang-raping propensities. There was still concern about the degeneration of urban youth in the early twentieth-century, mind you, as well as the survival of early negative views of larrikinism. But these were no longer the only perspective available on Australian boys from the push.

The Australian larrikin’s progress from Sam Hall to Sentimental Bloke in C J Dennis’ poetry (and its filmic and theatrical spin-offs) almost exactly mirrors the characterisation of roughs in the English music hall. As historian Peter Bailey sees it, anyway, the quintessential music-hall character in mid-century England was none other than the murderous Sam Hall. The leading character in the 1860s and 1870s was the heavy swell: the plebeian Champagne Charlie who whooped it up in even higher style than his betters when out on the town. By the 1890s, however, the coster singer a la Albert Chevalier predominated, dressed in a pearlie-stitched velvet suit singing sweetly of “my old Dutch” (his wife; rhyming slang with Dutch fife). This shift in music-hall characterisation represented a movement, Bailey says, from class culture to mass culture – from popular resistance, through emulation of the upper class, to domestication.

There’s a lot to mull over in Bailey’s conclusion that coster singer of the 1890s represented the triumph of sentimental mass culture over the oppositional class culture of old. Since there are so many correspondences between the coster and the larrikin, this same argument might well also be applied in an Australian context. Nonetheless, I find it hard to accept the implicit judgment in the view that popular culture wrought a transition from an insurgent class identity to sentimentalised domesticity. Anyone brought up on feminist critique would surely blanch at the suggestion that representations of rough costers and larrikins are to be preferred over sentimental ones on the basis that the latter are inauthentic and that in any event sentimentality is undesirable. What Bailey is essentially doing via this argument is pitting a positive masculine notion of authentic toughness against a negative feminine one of overdone sentimentality – an old old trope by now. And this view can also be seen in Australian discussions of Dennis’ Bill. The Sam Hall-style larrikin is seen as a heroic figure, of sorts, while the Bloke-style one is considered an absurd fabrication, born of Dennis’ own middle-class fantasy.

I guess for my own purposes, what I am interested in why a sentimental vision of the larrikin gained such currency and popularity in the first decades of the twentieth century. I’m interested in explaining the shift from bad boy to sweet one rather than passing judgment about it. At the same time, I’m aware that the bad-boy vision didn’t disappear. In the 1920s, for example, the vaudeville comic Roy Rene gave his own spin to a raffish larrikin-figure on the popular stage. His Mo character was a Jewish boy from the slums of Woolloomooloo: frequently drunken, leery, and full of double entendres, a larrikin of a very different mould to Bill from Dennis’ poetry.

(Roy Rene as Mo)


The coexistence of these two larrikin figures suggests that there wasn’t some overall debasement of cultural attitudes in early twentieth century Australia, in which tastes otherwise attuned to the oppositional and carnivalesque turned instead to the sentimental. What seems to have happened is that the sentimental developed alongside a continuing interest in the raffish, anti-bourgeois larrikin type. Views of the larrikin diversified, in other words, rather than changing neatly from one thing to the other. So far as I know the same thing happened in England: the sentimental costers of Albert Chevalier still competed for room on the music-hall stage with more rebellious and gritty personae.

Ultimately, I suspect that recognising and interpreting the development in views of the larrikin/coster will require a less judgmental perspective on what was taking place in popular culture than the one offered by Bailey. It won’t be possible to explain the emergence of sentimental figures as part of an overall feminisation of Anglo culture. And nor will it be possible to simply equate mass culture with a syrupy domestic sensibility, imagined as something insincere and bad.


Peter Bailey, ‘Custom, capital and culture in the Victorian music hall’, in Robert D Strorch, ed., Popular Culture and Custom in 19thC England (London: Croom Helm, 1982): p. 198.

Suzanne Clark, Sentimental Modernism: Women Writers and the Revolution of the Word (Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1991) (on the denigration of sentimentality and mass culture as feminine).

Marcus Clarke, ‘Australian larrikins’, Australasian, 19 March 1870.

C J Dennis, The Sentimental Bloke (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1915).

Jonathan Docker, Postmodernism and Popular Culture: A Cultural History (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1994), pp. 198-218 (on Roy Rene as Mo).

Andreas Huyssen, ‘Mass culture as woman: modernism’s other’, in After the Great Divide: Modernism, Mass Culture, Postmodernism (London: Macmillan Press, 1986), pp. 65-81.

John Rickard, ‘Lovable larrikins and awful ockers’, Journal of Australian Studies 56 (1998): 78-85 (on sentimental visions of the early 20thC larrikin).

The Sentimental Bloke

13 Mar

When my sister was still in high school a few years ago, I went to see her in a musical based on C J Dennis’ Songs of the Sentimental Bloke. Apart from watching her as an Anzac-era working girl, flouncing and sashaying about in the chorus, the main thing I thought as I sat in the audience was how little Dennis’s work now speaks to us. Published as a collection of poetry in 1915, it became immensely popular during World War One – particularly given that Dennis wrote further spin-offs, The Moods of Ginger Mick and Digger Smith, which featured Anzac heroes. There seemed to be such a gulf to me, sitting in the auditorium of a Sydney high-school, between what appealed to wartime Australians and what appeals to audiences now.

For a start, the vernacular in which Dennis had his characters speak no longer sounds Australian (”Er name’s Doreen… Well, spare me bloomin’ days!’). No one hawks rabbits through Melbourne slums now, either, as Bill the Bloke does in Dennis’ poems.  More than anything else, though, the reason that the musical seemed so removed from my own sensibility, at least, was because it wasn’t funny. In its own day, The Sentimental Bloke was renowned for its comedy, but what is comic now about a plain-torkin’ bloke who loves a ‘tart’ from a pickle factory?


(Still from an amateur production of The Sentimental Bloke, ransacked from this public photo-album. Click to enlarge.)

When I first began thinking about it, I decided that perhaps The Sentimental Bloke was funny in its day because of the incongruity of its larrikin character, denizen of Little Bourke Street, talking of ineffable yearnings and ‘ideel love’. There was something condescending about the laughter he incited then, with his rough vernacular rubbing up against his soft spot for Doreen. Perhaps this humour was augmented, I surmised, by the fact that sentimentality was not quite the thing for a man of the time. In an era when men were increasingly supposed to be tough, muscular, and beloved of other men’s company, here was the doltish bloke Bill carrying on about Doreen, oblivious to the fact that his wistfulness made him ridiculous to his fellow man.

Now that I have been reading a little further into it, it appears that most of The Sentimental Bloke‘s Anzac-era fans found it funny not because they found his sentimentality ridiculous, but because they found it sweet. I know that humour can be both things at once: witness, for example, the comicality of Michael Caton’s Daryl Kernigan in The Castle, a latter-day sentimental bloke if there ever was one, or Kath’s husband Kel Knight in the TV series, Kath and Kim. But from reading contemporary accounts so far, I don’t get any sense of the snigger-snigger that Kel and Daryl incite in reactions to The Sentimental Bloke. So far, references to his embodiment of supposedly universal longings, and of a defiantly anti-elitist love of the Bloke’s sweetness, are what prevail. 

In his preface to the 1915 edition of Dennis work, for example, Henry Lawson vaunted the Bloke’s everyman status and his ‘exquisite humour’ as the key reason for the book’s appeal. Others similarly spoke of the Bloke’s ‘sentiment’ as his most alluring quality. And the very pictures that accompanied the original book suggest that this sense of his sweetness didn’t come with the laugh-at-the-bogans edginess of later comic offerings. They portrayed Bill as a chubby cupid, pink-skinned and baby-cute.  


How, I wonder, does all this celebration of sweetness and sentimentality fit in with the historiography of masculinity in the early twentieth century? In Making the Australian Male, for example, Martin Crotty looks at the way that middle-class Australian boys were inculcated in a certain dashing manliness and militarism in the lead-up to World War One. They were taught to place less emphasis on domesticity and sentimentality than the generation before them, he says. In an English context, John Tosh similarly talks about a movement away from an expressive personal style and from domestic desires among middle-class men in this period. In Australasia, there is also of plenty of commentary on the consolidation of the muscular, stoic-masculine ideal after the War, as the Anzac myth got underway.

The popularity of the Bloke’s wistfulness makes me think that there was rather more attraction to sentimentality among Australian and New Zealand men in this period (among working-class and populist men at least) than we might imagine from this historical literature.


Martin Crotty, Making the Australian Male: Middle-Class Masculinity, 1870-1920 (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2001).

C J Dennis, Songs of the Sentimental Bloke (Sydney: Angus & Robertson, 1915), including preface by Henry Lawson.

John Tosh, Manliness and Masculinities in Nineteenth Century Britain: Essays on Gender, Family and Empire (Pearson Longman, 2005), especially the last chapter.

The cooch

12 Mar


Coincidence. Here I am still in the midde of Carnivale, working my way through the first series on DVD. The last few days I’ve been particularly interested in its depiction of carny cooch, being, ah, rather taken in by Rita-Sue. This week I also met historian Robert Allen from the University of North Carolina, out in Australia on a whistle-stop lecture-tour. (He gave an extraordinary paper on cinema history yesterday, which will perhaps form the subject of a future post). And here, in his 1991 book, Horrible Prettiness, a cultural history of American burlesque, is a chapter on cooch and carnival.

From the 1890s, Allen tells us, circus sideshows regularly exhibited freaks and cooch shows, often accompanied by a band of black musicians. By the 1920s, however, the circus was a waning theatrical form, losing out to movies and amusement parks. It was during that decade that the more mobile, cheaper-to-run carnivals began taking its place. They essentially took the circus sideshow and rides and dispensed with the big top and expensive equestrian display (trick riding being the most distinctive element of the circus as an entertainment form). “By 1937, 300 carnival units toured the US”, Allen tells us, and they were still working small-town America in the 1960s.

The freak show was always “an important if not central attraction” in the carnivals. And so, of course, was the cooch. Actually (so far as one commentator in the 1960s was concerned) it was the cooch that the boys really came to see:

Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise… Carnivals that hit the rural South or the Pennsylvania Dutch country … have to carry as many as three girl shows to handle customers who spend the whole night going from one to the other and returning to the first and starting it all over again.

The smaller and more cash-strapped the carnival, the “stronger” the cooch show. In metropolitan clubs in the 1920s, performers had segued from the cooch to the shimmy, a dance set to jazz rhythms, all frenetic movement, fancy costumes, bright lights. The carnival shows were much more up-front, so to speak, about the fact that it was nudity that the marks came to see. “This is a dance that you don’t tell your mama about’, says Stumpy in Carnivale. Most other talkers of the era advertised the strongest cooch dances as something the marks “would never see at home”.

Such acts didn’t necessarily just end with the blow-off, when the dancer took off her G-string for the gawping multitudes. Some ended with the rubes coming forward with flashlights to really get a good clinical look between the splayed legs of the dancer. By that time, the sequin-studded satin-and-fringing routine had been reduced to fumbling with a torch in the halflight, a gynaecological exhibit got underway.

Robert Allen, Horrible Prettiness: Burlesque and American Culture (Chapel Hill: University of Nth Carolina Press, 1991), pp. 232-36