Popular Culture Overview

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Popular Culture Overview

The forms of popular culture Americans experienced and participated in during the Civil War era varied according to the part of the country in which they lived and their personal preferences. Residents of the rural interior had different opportunities for diversion than did denizens of the relatively cosmopolitan cities, and Americans' ideas about desirable use of leisure time differed as widely in the mid-nineteenth century as they do in the twenty-first, even if many of the specific activities and attractions are much different.

One of the forms of entertainment available in many cities and towns was the theater. British theater was also popular in America. The British actress Laura Keene (1826–1873) came to America in 1852 and became an immediate favorite. In New York in 1855 she opened Laura Keene's Theater, which she managed until 1863. Thereafter she continued to star in her own traveling theater troupe, performing a variety of plays including the British playwright Tom Taylor's popular 1858 farcical comedy "Our American Cousin,"which Keene and her company presented at Ford's Theater in Washington, DC, for an audience that included President and Mrs. Abraham Lincoln on April 14, 1865. That performance was disastrously cut short midway through Scene 2 of Act III when Lincoln was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth (1838–1865).

Traveling thespians were not unusual during this era, and performances even by the most renowned actors of the day were not entirely limited to East coast cities, even if they were more frequent and abundant there. America's most famous acting family, the Booths, appeared in many cities, towns, and smaller venues during the decades preceding the Civil War. Junius Brutus Booth Sr. (1796–1852) and his son Edwin Booth (1833–1893) famously toured gold rush California, performing Shakespeare for the Forty-niners. In 1864 the Booths performed Julius Caesar in New York City, the only performance in which Junius Brutus Sr. and Edwin appeared on stage with the youngest member of the family, John Wilkes Booth, who was by then famous in his own right. Reputed to be the most handsome man in America, the youngest Booth son was already known for his energetic performances and onstage acrobatics. Less well known was his bitter racism and deep sympathy for the Confederate cause.

More readily accessible to most Americans than the theater was popular literature. The romantic novel was the favorite light reading material of many. The British novelist Sir Walter Scott (1771–1832) was a favorite of Americans of both the North and South before the war, and his books continued to be popular long after Appomattox. Scott had his American imitators, most notably William Gilmore Simms (1806–1870), a South Carolinian who tried to cultivate a distinctly Southern literature. At the opposite extreme of sectional literature was Harriet Beecher Stowe's enormously popular 1852 novel Uncle Tom's Cabin. Based on interviews with escaped slaves, Stowe's book was aimed at illustrating the evils of the system of slavery. Naturally, it was anathema south of the Mason-Dixon line. Louisa May Alcott (1832–1888) was not yet well known at the time of the Civil War, though her first book, Flower Fables, had appeared in 1854, and her 1864 novel, Moods, was received well by critics. She gained far more recognition for her 1863 nonfiction work, Hospital Sketches, which drew on her experience as a volunteer nurse in Union hospitals. Much greater fame awaited her 1868 book, Little Women. The Civil War was also the era of Transcendentalist authors such as Herman Melville (1819–1891) and the poet Walt Whitman (1819–1892), though their works had somewhat less appeal to popular audiences.

A significant segment of the American population looked somewhat askance at the reading of novels, and at most or all of the theater. For some devout Christians, novel reading and theater going represented worldly distractions that might draw them away from God. Other Americans, whether strongly religious or not, saw such pursuits as unprofitable and intellectually stultifying distractions for idle minds. For them, serious books and educational lectures were preferable.

Appropriately, therefore, a popular and educational feature of American culture during the antebellum period was the lyceum. The teacher and traveling lecturer Josiah Holbrook (1778–1854) founded the first American lyceum in 1826 in Millbury, Massachusetts. Holbrook believed learning should be a life-long passion, and he hoped to spread the concept of the lyceum as a regular venue for educational lectures in each locality. By the 1850s his dream had largely become a reality, with lyceums established throughout the country, sponsoring lectures on topics ranging from literature to science to current events and issues. Large eastern lyceums paid impressive fees to major figures of the day such as Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803–1882) and Henry David Thoreau (1817–1862), and top orators such as Edward Everett Hale (1822–1909) regularly worked the lyceum circuit. More remote lyceums might have had to turn to local talent, as when the Springfield Young Men's Lyceum in January 1838 heard up-and-coming twenty-eight-year-old Springfield lawyer and politician Abraham Lincoln speak on "The Preservation of Our Political Institutions." After the Civil War, lyceums gradually came to present more drama and entertainment and less lecture.

More active, if less intellectual, entertainment was to be found in physical activities. Children might play active games such as crack the whip or leapfrog, but adults usually did not. Some might play card games, though others eschewed such pastimes as sinful because of their close association with gambling. The closest means in which adults usually came to active physical play was by making some communal work activity into something like a game. This might be a corn-husking, a barn-raising, or a chopping bee. Those who did not have religious scruples against it might also engage in dancing. Also, the Civil War brought an exception to the usual rule that adults did not play physical games. The soldiers, many of whom were very young men barely out of their teens, often referred to themselves as "the boys." It made sense then that when boredom weighed heavily on them in camp, they took up some of the games they recently had played in the schoolyard. A favorite was known as "drive ball" or "town ball," and involved a player with a stick trying to hit some sort of ball thrown by one of the other players. It may be that the war, by bringing together thousands of young men with much unavoidable and generally tedious leisure time in the army camps, helped them to develop, regularize, and spread this game, which later came to be called "baseball." However, contrary to legend, it was not invented by the Civil War general Abner Doubleday (1819–1893).

Reading, playing, dancing, attending lyceum, theater, or religious worship, Americans of the Civil War era had many options for amusing themselves and occupying their free time, but of course work was the activity that took up the majority of the time of most adults, and to a far greater extent than is true in the twenty-first century.

Steven E. Woodworth

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Popular Culture Overview

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