Dawson, Melanie 1967–

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Dawson, Melanie 1967–


Born January 23, 1967. Education: University of Richmond, B.A.; College of William and Mary, A.M.; University of Pittsburgh, Ph.D.


Office—Department of English, College of William and Mary, James Blair Dr., Tucker Hall 102, Williamsburg, VA 23187-8795. E-mail—[email protected].


College of William and Mary, Williamsburg, VA, visiting assistant professor.


(Editor, with Susan Harris Smith) The American 1890s: A Cultural Reader, Duke University Press (Durham, NC), 2000.

Laboring to Play: Home Entertainment and the Spectacle of Middle-Class Cultural Life, 1850-1920, University of Alabama Press (Tuscaloosa, AL), 2005.


In Laboring to Play: Home Entertainment and the Spectacle of Middle-Class Cultural Life, 1850-1920, Melanie Dawson analyzes the ways in which various types of home entertainment activities have influenced the self-definition of the middle class in the Victorian and early modern eras. She considers a wide range of entertainments, including parlor games such as charades, tableaux vivants, the recitation of poems, pageants, and others. Exploring the various guidebooks, magazine columns, and journal articles that provided the written rules and regulations of such activities, Dawson writes that these texts "implicitly argue that how one used leisure time was just as significant as how one earned a living." Home entertainments, she adds, can be seen as activities through which "middling Americans could perform their new postures, attitudes, and behaviors—during their leisure hours and in the everyday scenarios that followed."

Writing in Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers, Lori Merish praised Dawson's wide range of sources, which in addition to journalistic materials includes references to home entertainments as described in fiction and dramas of the period. Among the texts that Dawson considers are Louisa May Alcott's Behind a Mask, Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth, Willa Cather's My Antonia, Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman's Herland. For American Literary Realism contributor Nancy Morrow, Dawson's facility with analysis of literary texts is an especially interesting and informative aspect of Laboring to Play. The book "does an admirable job of helping us to better understanding the goals, fears, and concerns of nineteenth-century middle-class American society," wrote Merish, "and opens up new areas for exploration and discussion of the literary texts that reflect this era."

Laboring to Play, according to Theatre History Studies contributor Dorothy Chansky, "covers fascinating terrain." As the critic noted, Dawson describes several elaborate role-playing games, such as "The Genteel Lady" or "Stage Coach," in which people "who were striving for gentility in their everyday lives [used] their leisure hours indulging in bodily distortion, odd noises, and mimicking objects or animals or laborers." Dawson, the critic added, "sees these games as ways of escaping social construction while simultaneously shoring up cultural capital by breaking one set of rules via a wholly other, but equally status-marked, set."

At the end of the century, however, home theatricals had largely become a pastime of more upper-class women who distained the rowdy themes that had once provided the basis for role-playing amusements. By the first decades of the twentieth century, home performance had, in Dawson's view, become essentially rigid and didactic rather than spontaneous. Schools and clubs were now the sites where such performances usually took place, and they were generally organized by adults to instruct or mold their charges, rather than to provide amusement. As Dawson writes: "What counted as fairly outrageous amusement at the mid-century was now tempered enough for introduction into conservative sites such as churches." The result, she argues, was that at a time when "national unity appeared problematic," the strong sense of individualism that had once been fostered by creative home entertainments gave way to "unification of the community." Questioning Dawson's point, however, Chansky observed that "embodied, class-bound play was still to be found in the new century, but now perhaps in sports teams, automobile rides, or even volunteer arts work at settlement houses or tinkering with crystal sets."

With Susan Harris Smith, Dawson edited the anthology The American 1890s: A Cultural Reader. Organized thematically, the book includes pieces that address subjects such as social class, ethnicity, labor, racial strife, mental and physical health, and views about the American future. Among the writers included in the volume are Andrew Carnegie, Edith Wharton, Thorstein Veblen, Theodore Roosevelt, Booker T. Washington, Susan B. Anthony, Stephen Crane, Frederick Douglass, Jacob Riis, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Annie Payson Call, and Anna R. Weeks.



Dawson, Melanie, Laboring to Play: Home Entertainment and the Spectacle of Middle-Class Cultural Life, 1850-1920, University of Alabama Press (Tuscaloosa, AL), 2005.


American Historical Review, October, 2006, Randy B. McBee, review of Laboring to Play, p. 1214.

American Literary Realism, 2008, Nancy Morrow, review of Laboring to Play, pp. 90-92.

American Studies, summer, 2006, Bernard Mergen, review of Laboring to Play.Choice: Current Reviews for Academic Libraries, November, 2005, S.A. Riess, review of Laboring to Play, p. 468.

Journal of American Culture, March, 2006, Kathy Merlock Jackson, review of Laboring to Play, p. 74.

Journal of American History, March, 2006, Cindy S. Aron, review of Laboring to Play, p. 1446.

Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers, June, 2006, Lori Merish, review of Laboring to Play, p. 210.

Nineteenth-Century Contexts, December, 2006, Mary Chapman, review of Laboring to Play, p. 386.

Theatre History Studies, annual, 2007, Dorothy Chansky, review of Laboring to Play, p. 148.

Theatre Journal, May, 2007, James Peck, review of Laboring to Play, p. 328.


College of William and Mary, Department of English Web site,http://www.wm.edu/ (April 14, 2008), faculty profile.