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White Rebels, "Ape-Negroes," and Ignoble Savages: Race and Revolutionary Resistance in The Pioneer Patriot (1858)

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Abstract:

In January 1858, as the nation wrestled with the slavery question and continued to suffer economically from the Panic of 1857, actor Harry Watkins proposed to P. T. Barnum (proprietor of the American Museum in New York) that he adapt Sylvanus Cobb, Jr.'s "The Pioneer Patriot" for the museum's in-house theatre. Cobb's serialized novel, which centered on the Battle of Oriskany (1777) during the American Revolution, had just concluded publication in the New York Ledger. Watkins's hunch about its dramatic potential turned out to be right: spectators flocked to see Cobb's tale of patriotic rebels, evil Tories, and savage "Indians" brought to life. Indeed, the production was so popular that Barnum--himself reeling from the effects of the Panic--was able to keep the doors open at his struggling museum.

Why were audiences attracted “The Pioneer Patriot” during this time of national crisis? I argue that Cobb's novel, as well as changes to the story made by Watkins in the process of adaptation, addressed many of the anxieties preoccupying middle-class patrons at Barnum's museum in 1858. Watkins deploys and revises several racial stereotypes that would have been instantly recognizable to American audiences: the white hero, the happy slave, and the violent Indian. The protagonist Philip Lancey, a paragon of American patriotism, poses a stark contrast to the villainous Guy Bradbrook (also white), the Tory who serves as Philip's political and romantic nemesis. Meanwhile, the Mohawk warriors in the drama--who accept compensation from the Tories in exchange for killing and scalping revolutionary rebels--depart markedly from the "noble savages" depicted in plays like John Augustus Stone's "Metamora" (1829). But the most compelling figure is Jocko, Philip's trusty slave, which Watkins himself performed. Described as an "ape negro" in the cast of characters, the seemingly half-man/half-animal Jocko is an intriguing variation of the happy slave that frequently appeared in both minstrelsy and melodrama. Inspired by the kind treatment of his master, Jocko not only puts himself constantly in harm’s way, but also commits murder in the name of the revolutionary project. His intense loyalty, resilience, and upbeat attitude combine into a campy but nevertheless idealized vision of what happens when a slave is treated "properly."

Ultimately, I assert that even though the plot of this Revolutionary drama has nothing to do with slavery, it had everything to do with slavery in 1858. In Barnum's theatre, audiences could glimpse a kind of utopia in this fictionalized history of revolution, resistance, and empiric reconfiguration when the Union itself was on the brink of falling apart. Watkins was an avid nativist and outspoken member of the American Republican Party; some of his dramaturgical decisions, particularly the emphasis on Jocko, seem to communicate a belief that the US must remain united, even if that meant maintaining the South's "peculiar institution." His play enjoyed considerable popularity, suggesting that New Yorkers sought refuge in the comforting stereotypes of white patriots, faithful slaves, and ignoble Indians at a time when abolition was on the public mind.
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MLA Citation:

Hughes, Amy. "White Rebels, "Ape-Negroes," and Ignoble Savages: Race and Revolutionary Resistance in The Pioneer Patriot (1858)" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Puerto Rico Convention Center and the Caribe Hilton., San Juan, Puerto Rico, Nov 15, 2012 <Not Available>. 2014-12-11 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p568988_index.html>

APA Citation:

Hughes, A. E. , 2012-11-15 "White Rebels, "Ape-Negroes," and Ignoble Savages: Race and Revolutionary Resistance in The Pioneer Patriot (1858)" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Studies Association Annual Meeting, Puerto Rico Convention Center and the Caribe Hilton., San Juan, Puerto Rico <Not Available>. 2014-12-11 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p568988_index.html

Publication Type: Internal Paper
Review Method: Peer Reviewed
Abstract: In January 1858, as the nation wrestled with the slavery question and continued to suffer economically from the Panic of 1857, actor Harry Watkins proposed to P. T. Barnum (proprietor of the American Museum in New York) that he adapt Sylvanus Cobb, Jr.'s "The Pioneer Patriot" for the museum's in-house theatre. Cobb's serialized novel, which centered on the Battle of Oriskany (1777) during the American Revolution, had just concluded publication in the New York Ledger. Watkins's hunch about its dramatic potential turned out to be right: spectators flocked to see Cobb's tale of patriotic rebels, evil Tories, and savage "Indians" brought to life. Indeed, the production was so popular that Barnum--himself reeling from the effects of the Panic--was able to keep the doors open at his struggling museum.

Why were audiences attracted “The Pioneer Patriot” during this time of national crisis? I argue that Cobb's novel, as well as changes to the story made by Watkins in the process of adaptation, addressed many of the anxieties preoccupying middle-class patrons at Barnum's museum in 1858. Watkins deploys and revises several racial stereotypes that would have been instantly recognizable to American audiences: the white hero, the happy slave, and the violent Indian. The protagonist Philip Lancey, a paragon of American patriotism, poses a stark contrast to the villainous Guy Bradbrook (also white), the Tory who serves as Philip's political and romantic nemesis. Meanwhile, the Mohawk warriors in the drama--who accept compensation from the Tories in exchange for killing and scalping revolutionary rebels--depart markedly from the "noble savages" depicted in plays like John Augustus Stone's "Metamora" (1829). But the most compelling figure is Jocko, Philip's trusty slave, which Watkins himself performed. Described as an "ape negro" in the cast of characters, the seemingly half-man/half-animal Jocko is an intriguing variation of the happy slave that frequently appeared in both minstrelsy and melodrama. Inspired by the kind treatment of his master, Jocko not only puts himself constantly in harm’s way, but also commits murder in the name of the revolutionary project. His intense loyalty, resilience, and upbeat attitude combine into a campy but nevertheless idealized vision of what happens when a slave is treated "properly."

Ultimately, I assert that even though the plot of this Revolutionary drama has nothing to do with slavery, it had everything to do with slavery in 1858. In Barnum's theatre, audiences could glimpse a kind of utopia in this fictionalized history of revolution, resistance, and empiric reconfiguration when the Union itself was on the brink of falling apart. Watkins was an avid nativist and outspoken member of the American Republican Party; some of his dramaturgical decisions, particularly the emphasis on Jocko, seem to communicate a belief that the US must remain united, even if that meant maintaining the South's "peculiar institution." His play enjoyed considerable popularity, suggesting that New Yorkers sought refuge in the comforting stereotypes of white patriots, faithful slaves, and ignoble Indians at a time when abolition was on the public mind.


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