Culture  /  Book Review

"A Fiendish Fascination"

The representation of Jews in antebellum popular culture reveals that many Americans found them both cartoonishly villainous and enticingly exotic.

Antisemitism has appeared in many times and places—and, as David Anthony shows in his informative, unsettling Sensationalism and the Jew in Antebellum American Literature, in many genres. Anthony has unearthed hostile portraits of Jews in various realms of US culture during the two decades before the Civil War: in pulp fiction, in novels about southern plantation life, in political cartoons, in stage performances, and in literary works like Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The Marble Faun. Anthony demonstrates that the Jew as villain—materialistic, scheming, sometimes sexually aggressive—was a common stereotype in the pre–Civil War era. But he also reveals that many non-Jews expressed ambivalence, depicting Jews as menacing yet enticingly exotic.

Much of Anthony’s focus is on Jewish characters in sensational novels. It has been said that nineteenth-century America was mawkishly sentimental—a culture of pap and prudery against which serious authors like Hawthorne, Herman Melville, Edgar Allan Poe, and Walt Whitman rebelled. To some extent this was true, as evidenced by the era’s didactic novels, religious tracts, and codes of proper decorum. It was an age when Evangeline St. Clare, the angelic heroine of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s best seller Uncle Tom’s Cabin, inspired millions, and when, in polite circles, undergarments were called “unmentionables,” legs “limbs,” men’s trousers “continuations,” and a trip to the bathroom “visiting Aunt Jones.” But there was a lurid underside to antebellum popular culture that bristled with bloodcurdling, yellow-covered pamphlet novels, erotic tableau vivant shows in which naked women posed in scenes like Venus Rising from the Sea or Susanna in the Bath, and penny newspapers full of accounts of homicides, illicit sex, horrible accidents, and the like.

In exploring this seamy side of antebellum America, Anthony follows many critics who have examined nineteenth-century sensational culture over the past several decades. But he is the first to highlight Jewish characters. He discusses, among others, Gabriel Von Gelt, a money-hungry figure in George Lippard’s The Quaker City, the kidnapper and pimp Jew Mike in George Thompson’s Venus in Boston, the corrupt pawnbroker Isaac Jacobs in Emerson Bennett’s The Artist’s Bride, and Jewish women who use sex to lure Gentile men into murder schemes in shocker novels like The Beautiful Jewess, Rachel Mendoza, and The Life, Confession, and Execution of the Jew and Jewess.