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The Arts of Deception: Playing with Fraud in the Age of Barnum
Synopses & Reviews
Ingenious automatons which appeared to think on their own. Dubious mermaids and wild men who resisted classification. Elegant sleight-of-hand artists who routinely exposed the secrets of their trade. These were some of the playful forms of fraud which astonished, titillated, and even outraged nineteenth-century America's new middle class, producing some of the most remarkable urban spectacles of the century.
In The Arts of Deception, James W. Cook explores this distinctly modern mode of trickery designed to puzzle the eye and challenge the brain. Championed by the "Prince of Humbug," P. T. Barnum, these cultural puzzles confused the line between reality and illusion. Upsetting the normally strict boundaries of value, race, class, and truth, the spectacles offer a revealing look at the tastes, concerns, and prejudices of America's very first mass audiences. We are brought into the exhibition halls, theaters, galleries, and museums where imposture flourished, and into the minds of the curiosity-seekers who eagerly debated the wonders before their eyes. Cook creates an original portrait of a culture in which ambiguous objects, images, and acts on display helped define a new value system for the expanding middle class, as it confronted a complex and confusing world.
"The Arts of Deception is a delight. James Cook's study combines fascinating stories and characters, thorough scholarship, and profound insights into nineteenth-century popular culture." John F. Kasson author of Houdini, Tarzan, and the Perfect Man: The White Male Body and the Challenge of Modernity in America
"An eloquent, wide-ranging, and above all honest cultural study of the American hunger for fraud." Eric Lott author of Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class
"The Arts of Deception is a gracefully written and intriguing book. James Cook's well-told stories reveal a new and exciting way of looking at the culture of this dynamically expanding society. Anyone interested in the history of nineteenth-century America will read this book with pleasure and considerable profit." Shane White co-author of Stylin': African-American Expressive Culture from Its Beginnings to the Zoot Suit
"James Cook's The Arts of Deception is an exceptionally fine achievement in cultural history, characterized throughout by artful use of narrative detail and sophisticated, supple interpretation. It is a delight to read and ponder, full of fascinating stories and fresh insights into American market society — one of the most illuminating accounts I have ever seen of the confidence games at the core of our culture." Jackson Lears author of Fables of Abundance: A Cultural History of Advertising in America
"Cook focuses on American commercial culture from the 1830s through the 1880s. It is P.T. Barnum's world — the emerging street carnival of urban entertainment, oddities, extravaganzas, and curiosities too numerous to mention. Its representatives included Johann Maelzel and his amazing automaton chess player; Signor Antonio Blitz and his "modern magic" (which replaced supernaturalism with sleight-of-hand skill); William Harnett and his trompe l'oeil illusionist paintings; and above all Barnum himself, whose exhibits had a way of blurring familiar boundaries (truth or illusion? ape or man?) and provoking audiences to raise a series of unanswerable epistemological questions. In Cook's account, Barnum and his contemporaries were commercial versions of the mythical figure of the trickster — patron of the crossroads and of trade, of risky business and of new beginnings. Traditional tricksters inhabited the cosmological margins, defining themselves against principles of order, opening portals of possibility to unseen worlds. Commercial tricksters played a less exalted role. In market society, they moved from the margins of mythology to the center of everyday life, into the cities, where they mutated into confidence men without any vestige of a sacred aura." Jackson Lears, The New Republic (read the entire New Republic review)
In The Arts of Deception, James Cook explores the distinctly modern mode of trickery designed to puzzle the eye and challenge the brain. Upsetting the normally strict boundaries of value, race, class, and truth, the spectacles offer a revealing look at the tastes, concerns, and prejudices of America's very first mass audiences.
About the Author
James W. Cook is Assistant Professor of History and American Culture at the University of Michigan.
University of Michigan
Table of Contents
Introduction: Thinking with Tricks
1. The Death and Rebirth of the Automaton Chess-Player
Epilogue: Barnum's Ghosts
What Our Readers Are Saying