Saturday, December 31, 2011

Favorite Historical Fan Studies, 2011

While I have not covered every book in fan studies that has come out in the past year, I have encountered quite a few good reads in fan history. It really is time for fan studies to expand beyond the idea that fandom is simply rooted in the “popular media” of the 20th century. As many of these books and articles show, those with enthusiastic devotion to public cultural figures and forms, whom sportswriters first called “fans” in the 1890s, have been around for centuries. There were no “fans” before 1890, but there were amateurs, beggars, boomers, buffs, bugs, connoisseurs, devotees, dilettantes, enthusiasts, fanatics, the fancy, fiends, gluttons, habitu├ęs, heads, hounds, kranks, lions, longhairs, lovers, maniacs, matinee girls, nuts, rooters, Lisztians, Wagnerians, and more.

Here are some of my favorite historical fandom books for 2011. They all engagingly offer new insights into the practices of ardent audiencing, over time and across sports, theater, literature, and music.

Lapham’s Quarterly: Celebrity
In many ways an update of Leo Braudy’s Frenzy of Renown (1988) this special issue of Lapham’s Quarterly (Winter 2011) sought to collect primary and secondary sources about celebrity in history, from Cicero’s complaints about the demands of fame to Steve Martin’s tongue-in-cheek form-letter response to fan mail. I found Lapham’s opening essay a bit too dependent on Daniel Boorstin’s negative assessment of the media’s role in modern life; I would say that the overall skepticism of the issue’s interpretive essays stem from a Frankfurt School-like focus on the productive machinations of celebrity rather than the varied activities of media reception and their meaning in the daily lives of fans. The issue nevertheless offers very good writing and a useful compendium of audiences, culture, and desire over the past several centuries.

John Thorn, Baseball in the Garden of Eden: The Secret History of the Early Game
Written by the Official Baseball Historian for Major League Baseball, this book is a detailed and fascinating account of the early days of baseball in the nineteenth century, including some nice tidbits on fandom, from audiences’ frequent interference in games and penchant for gambling (which, in part, explains rooters’ fascination with statistics) to DeWolf’s Hopper’s popularization of “Casey at Bat” to the status of a cultural mania in 1888. Most interesting is the many ways in which team owners sought to make the game appeal to fans through all kinds of changes to games rules, as well as sales gimmicks. Not directly about historical audiences, it nonetheless is a very readable history of the entire culture of baseball and fans central place in it.

Judith Pascoe, The Sarah Siddons Audio Files
One of the pleasures of writing this blog has been learning about fan research outside of my own realm of expertise. Not only did I learn about all the work out there on historical readers or early sports but also on theater audiences. Judith Pascoe’s book, which was released in May 2011, enthusiastically outlines the appeal of British actress Sarah Siddons, who was the star of London theatre in the late eighteenth century and whose aural presence fascinated Romantic poets and philosophers. Pascoe not only outlines the culture of Siddons’s celebrity, but also the trials of her own learning. Historiography has never been so fun.

Daphne Carr, Pretty Hate Machine
Okay, so the history here is fairly recent, but this is still an incisive, daring, and sometimes quite moving analysis of rock fandom in the 1990s, based on Nine Inch Nails’ 1989 album, Pretty Hate Machine. Rather than merely offering a critical appreciation of the album’s songs or a history of the album’s creative genesis, Carr locates PHM’s most profound significance in what it has meant to the fans who bought and listened to it. Her thinking about Trent Reznor’s is deepened by the transcripts of interviews with fans of various ages and backgrounds, as well as interpretive surveys of the industrial decay of north-central Ohio since the 1960s. Personally, I never really “got” NIN, but I got this.

Emily Satterwhite, Dear Appalachia
Satterwhite examines fan mail from readers of Appalachian-set fiction from 1878-2003 and identifies the ways in which such fiction serves to affirm readers’ imagined understanding of the region as a “rural, rooted place populated by simple whites with a rich cultural heritage protected from mass culture.” The ways in which this romantic construction of “authentic Appalachia” has worked for fans over the past century (from the Gilded Age to the Neo-Gilded Age of the 1980s) is not without controversy (Satterwhite acknowledges that it reinforces “simplistic versions of the region that celebrate whiteness, glorify Americanness, and figure primitive people the world over as in need of the expert guidance of well-to-do Americans”). But Satterwhite also sensitively accounts for the ways in which regional fiction engenders its own kind of fandom for the idea of a place.

Still left to read:
Claudio E. Benzecry, The Opera Fanatic: Ethnography of An Obsession
Amy Blair, Reading Up: Middle-Class Readers and the Culture of Success in the Early Twentieth-Century United States
Nancy Newman, Good Music for a Free People: The Germania Musical Society in Nineteenth-Century America

Looking forward to:
Andre Millard, Beatlemania: Technology, Business, and Teen Culture in Cold War America

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