Hamilton, Marybeth 1958–

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Hamilton, Marybeth 1958–


Born December 13, 1958; immigrated to London, England. Education: Princeton University, Ph.D.


Office—Birkbeck College, University of London, School of History, Classics, and Archaeology, Malet St., London WC1E 7HX, England. E-mail—[email protected]


Writer, historian, and educator. Birkbeck College, University of London, reader in American History, 1993—.


When I'm Bad, I'm Better: Mae West, Sex, and American Entertainment, HarperCollins Publishers (New York, NY), 1995, published as The Queen of Camp: Mae West, Sex, and Popular Culture, Pandora (London, England), 1996.

In Search of the Blues, Basic Books (New York, NY), 2008.

Contributor to books, including Movie Censorship and American Culture, edited by Frank Couvares, Smithsonian Institution Press (Washington, DC), 1996; and Listen Again: A Momentary History of Pop Music, edited by Eric Weisbard, Duke University Press (Durham, NC), 2007.

Contributor to periodicals and journals, including the Journal of Popular Music Studies, History Workshop Journal, Past and Present, and Drama Review.


Marybeth Hamilton is a writer, popular culture historian, and educator in London, England. She serves as a reader in American history at Birkbeck College, University of London. Her academic research interests include the history of popular culture; the history of sexuality; the history of the human sciences; and the social and cultural history of the United States, reported a biographer on the Birkbeck University of London School of History, Classics, and Archaeology Web site. Her teaching interests largely coincide with these topics, with the addition of North American history.

Much of Hamilton's academic and scholarly writing focuses on American film and the history of blues music. When I'm Bad, I'm Better: Mae West, Sex, and American Entertainment, published in England as The Queen of Camp: Mae West, Sex, and Popular Culture, offers a portrait of the sultry Mae West, who is "seen as a performer and as a product of the seamy side of turn-of-the-century New York," commented Susan Jeffreys in the New Statesman & Society. Hamilton "avoids, for the most part, trying to explain West's life in psychological terms. Instead, she deftly inserts into her narrative biographical details from West's life to provide a new perspective on her performance style," commented Rachel Shteir, writing in American Theatre. Hamilton traces the origins of West's sexually charged persona and performance style, finding that it echoes the fierce independence and the self-ownership evidenced by the "tough girls" of the hardscrabble urban neighborhoods where West grew up. "Tough Girls found freedom on the streets; they had their own money and few inhibitions," Jeffreys remarked. In the street-hardened vernacular of the self-assured tough girls, West found her signature way of walking, the sexually suggestive rolling of hips and pelvis called "Spieling." Hamilton explores the source of West's bawdy humor, noting how it was derived from parts of vaudeville and burlesque enhanced with a "layer of double-entendre humour borrowed from New York gays. There you have the foundations of her act, indeed of her life. There was no off-stage for her," Jeffreys remarked.

The largest part of Hamilton's work "examines West's sexy comedy in the context of the popular theatrical traditions of early twentieth-century urban America," Shteir remarked. In addition, "this feminist work places West within the context of cultural history," commented Jim Lovensheimer in the Journal of Women's History. Hamilton looks at significant elements of West's career as a performer, noting, for example, that she often maintained two different versions of her act. One, a tamer version, was intended to mollify the censors and prudes, while the other was racier and more explicit, aimed at the audience that appreciated West's humor and persona for what it was. Hamilton looks at West's varied fortunes in Hollywood and on Broadway; considers the effects of popular culture competitors such as the precocious moppet Shirley Temple; and traces the decline of West's career and dubious resurrection as a camp icon in the 1960s and 70s. "On the one hand, camp rescued West from obscurity; on the other, it ‘sentimentalized’ a deteriorating star," Shteir observed. "This is an account of a performer whose persona reflected the hidden sexual life of her times. It's not a gossipy, showbiz book, nor one of those scholarly affairs that whiff of the worked-over thesis, but it is vivid and sharply written," Jeffreys concluded.

With In Search of the Blues, Hamilton presents a history of blues music focused through the perspectives and experiences of the ethnomusicologists and collec- tors who discovered, recorded, preserved, and popularized blues and its performers. The book "is not another study of the blues, but of the white men and women who went out and looked for it," noted Roz Kaveny on the Time Out London Web site. "What makes Hamilton's investigation so rich and compelling is her astounding ability to bring such figures together with their disparate beliefs, methods, and aims while carefully revealing the shared impulses that underwrote their compulsions to collect, salvage, and (sometimes) preserve the objects of their musical desire. Hamilton clearly articulates their idiosyncrasies, gently probes their underlying convictions, and reveals each of her subjects in her or his own psychological environment," commented PopMatters Web site contributor Chadwick Jenkins.

Hamilton discusses the early days of blues discovery and recording by pioneers such as Howard Odum, Dorothy Scarborough, and John and Alan Lomax. She explores how these scholars attempted to find the purest, most authentic form of the blues. Yet that authenticity was never truly located and authenticated, and in the searchings of Odum, Lomax and others "it is perhaps more accurate to say that the blues as such was never ‘discovered’ so much as it was invented—over and over again, all in the effort to promote some relatively circumscribed notion of the expression of the real," opined Jenkins. Emblematic of the desire to find a form of blues that fit preconceptions are John Lomax's interactions with seminal blues figure Huddie Ledbetter, or Leadbelly. Lomax and his son Alan discovered Leadbelly as an inmate in a southern prison, playing what they considered a pure form of blues. In their later relationship, Lomax tried to restrict Leadbelly's musical range to the supposedly uncorrupted works of his past, even as the musician was discovering new forms of music and was cultivating an interest in performing the newer, popular music. "Hamilton ably navigates the line between pointing out the morally repugnant assumptions underlying Lomax's view and demonstrating a cautious understanding of the social conditions under which such assumptions were almost inevitable for a man in Lomax's position," Jenkins stated.

In the mid-1960s, interest in the blues and its most obscure practitioners resurged, thanks in part to the efforts of dedicated collectors such as James McKune. Hamilton profiles McKune and collectors who congregated around him, known as the Blues Mafia. She also discusses another group of amateur musical researchers, including a group of friends, Frederic Ramsey, Charles Edward Smith and William Russell, who rediscovered Jelly Roll Morton and other blues icons in the late 1930s as they conducted a parallel search for the origins of jazz. "It is in these detective stories—these searches for obscure recordings and pursuits of an idealised past—that Marybeth Hamilton proves herself a fine and sensitive detective," remarked Caspar Llewellyn Smith in the Guardian.

A Kirkus Reviews critic called Hamilton's book an "affectionate look at the primal music of the black South," and found that it stands as a "useful bite-sized history suitable for the blues newbie." Kaveny concluded that In Search of the Blues "is an eloquent book about people making the forgotten important."



American Quarterly, March, 1998, Francis G. Couvares, review of When I'm Bad, I'm Better: Mae West, Sex, and American Entertainment, p. 192.

American Theatre, January, 1996, Rachel Shteir, review of When I'm Bad, I'm Better, p. 60; February, 1996, review of When I'm Bad, I'm Better, p. 60.

Boston Globe, March 23, 2008, Glenn C. Altschuler, "Bending the Birth of the Blues," review of In Search of the Blues.

Guardian (London, England), January 14, 2007, Caspar Llewellyn Smith, "The Original Delta Force," review of In Search of the Blues; January 20, 2007, Michael Moorcock, "Rewriting the Blues," review of In Search of the Blues.

Hollywood Reporter, December 28, 2007, review of In Search of the Blues, p. 32.

Journal of American History, March, 1999, Andrea Friedman, review of When I'm Bad, I'm Better, p. 1638.

Journal of Women's History, winter, 2000, Jim Lovensheimer, review of When I'm Bad, I'm Better, p. 207.

Kirkus Reviews, December 1, 2007, review of In Search of the Blues.

Library Journal, January 1, 2008, Dave Szatmary, review of In Search of the Blues, p. 102.

New Statesman & Society, March 15, 1996, Susan Jeffreys, review of The Queen of Camp: Mae West, Sex, and Popular Culture, p. 35.

New York Times Book Review, February 24, 2008, Dave Marsh, "Out on Highway 61," review of In Search of the Blues.

Sight and Sound, May, 1996, review of The Queen of Camp, p. 44.

Spectator, March 16, 1996, Philip Hensher, review of The Queen of Camp, p. 26.

Theatre History Studies, June, 1997, Daniel-Raymond Nadon, review of When I'm Bad, I'm Better, p. 157.

Times Literary Supplement, May 31, 1996, Aisling Foster, review of The Queen of Camp, p. 36.


Birkbeck University of London School of History, Classics, and Archaeology Web site,http://www.bbk.ac.uk/hca/ (April 10, 2008), biography of Marybeth Hamilton.

PopMatters,http://www.popmatters.com/ (March 7, 2008), Chadwick Jenkins, review of In Search of the Blues.

Time Out London,http://www.timeout.com/london/ (February 12, 2007), review of In Search of the Blues.

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Hamilton, Marybeth 1958–

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