The Program in the History of the Book in American Culture (PHBAC) is hosting series of Virtual Book Talks. This installment features Michael D’Alessandro, who will present on his recent book, Staged Readings: Contesting Class in Popular American Theater and Literature, 1835-75 (University of Michigan Press, 2022).
Staged Readings studies the social consequences of 19th-century America’s two most prevalent leisure forms: theater and popular literature. In the midst of watershed historical developments—including numerous waves of immigration, two financial Panics, increasing wealth disparities, and the Civil War—American theater and literature were developing at unprecedented rates. Playhouses became crowded with new spectators, best-selling novels flew off the shelves, and, all the while, distinct social classes began to emerge. While the middle and upper classes were espousing conservative literary tastes and attending family matinees and operas, laborers were reading dime novels and watching downtown spectacle melodramas like Nymphs of the Red Sea and The Pirate’s Signal or, The Bridge of Death!!! As audiences traveled from the reading parlor to the playhouse (and back again), they accumulated a vital sense of social place in the new nation. In other words, culture made class in 19th-century America.