The Good of Poverty in Aristophanes’s “Wealth”

In his “Plutus,” or “Wealth,” the Greek playwright Aristophanes presents the possibility of catastrophic consequences resulting from actions otherwise expected to be universally beneficial. In so writing, Aristophanes raises questions not only about the specific subject of the play, wealth, but also wider questions about relationship of want to need.

The play begins with Chremylus and his slave Cario in a chance encounter with the eponymous god of wealth. Discovering that wealth is a blind dotard, they determine to bring him to the temple of the god Asclepius for healing. Chremylus describes this plan as an “honest and god-fearing plan, a plan which is good and full of virtue, a plan which will serve the whole of humanity!” He explains, “If the god of Wealth regains his eyesight, he won’t be wandering aimlessly and blindly about like he does now and he’ll be able to see who’s honest and who’s not and so he’ll go to the good folk and shun all the godless crooks and all the bastards. The result? Everyone will become good and god-fearing … and rich!”

Chremylus and Cairo have concocted a scheme which they believe will result in the establishment of a utopia. Wealth, freed of his blindness and able to move about with  youthful freedom and swiftness, can now bring his gifts to all good people.. As a result, good people will be rewarded for their goodness. All people, then, desiring to partake of the bounties of Wealth, will become good.

After his healing at the temple, Wealth begins to fulfill this plan, going about to reward the good for their goodness. The result of this munificence, however, is not entirely what was expected. Rather than creating a utopian society, the abundance of wealth begins to cause the destruction of society.

Chremylus had desired that “that the good folk, the god-fearing folk, the folk who do an honest day’s work” would be those to benefit from his plan because, he says, they “should be the ones who deserve to be rich, not the dishonest, godless crooks!” Visited by the goddess Poverty, Chremylus is warned, however, that should his plan come to fruition no one will be “do[ing] an honest day’s work.” “If Wealth were to get his sight back and if he spread himself around to everyone,” Poverty warns, “who’d be doing any of the work then or even any of the thinking?” All of the workmen, including the “smiths and . . . the ship builders, . . . the tailors, the cartwheel makers, the cobblers, the brick makers, the launderers, the tanners” and those who “till the soil with the ploughs and then reap” will choose instead to “sit around idly all day, doing nothing and caring about nothing.” Without the threat of poverty, no one will exert themselves or risk their health to do work. “It is I who forces them to do all that work,” says Poverty. “Yes, me, Poverty, whom they all want to avoid and earn themselves a livelihood, it is I who’ll be making them do all that work for you!”

Once Chremylus goes through with his plan, he finds that more dire consequences follow as a result of his actions. Just after returning from the healing of Wealth, he encounters an old woman whose young lover has left her because he no longer relied upon her for her wealth. Within this single broken relationship is encapsulated the two primary relationships that uphold and perpetuate any society, the love relationship between man and woman and the relationship of respect and dependence between the young and the old. With wealth gone, there is no need for anyone to depend upon another for sustenance. The result is that lovers separate from each other and the young, no longer in need of the inheritance passed on by the old, no longer respect the elderly.

The final calamity to result from the new profusion of wealth is revealed to Chremylus by the god Hermes, who comes to inform him that Zeus is “angry [with him] because from the moment you gave Wealth his sight back, we gods received nothing from you mortals! Not a single sacrifice, not a whiff of incense, not a single leaf of bay, not a single barley cake, not one victim, nothing! Absolutely nothing!” Because there are no more wants among men, piety has abated. Men no longer rely upon, and so no longer worship, the gods.

Through his effort toward creating a utopia, Chremylus has caused the dissolution of the primary institutions necessary to the continued stability of society: work, family, and religion. Through his exploration of these unexpected consequences of Chemylus’s attempt to eradicate poverty, Aristophanes also points to the often wide chasm between human want and human need, between what people believe is best and what is really best.

“Productive and Unproductive Labour” in Smith’s The Wealth of Nations

In Book II, Chapter III of his The Wealth of Nations, Adam Smith states and explains the distinction he makes between the categories of “productive and unproductive labour.” According to Smith, “there is one sort of labour which adds to the value of the subject upon which it is bestowed,” namely productive labor, and “there is another which has no such effect,” namely unproductive labor. In addition, Smith holds that the productive laborer makes a greater contribution to a society than the unproductive laborer due to the former’s role in “the growth of public opulence.”

The former, productive, class of labor he identifies specifically with the manufacturing class which produces “some particular subject or vendible commodity.” These laborers, in other words, produce some tangible item which contributes to an indubitable increase in the total material wealth of a society. Smith envisions a society in which, through the profuse production of commodities by the manufacturing class and the consumption of these commodities “in adorning his house or his country villa, in useful or ornamental buildings, in useful or ornamental furniture, in collecting books, statues, pictures; or in things more frivolous, jewels, baubles, ingenious trinkets of different kinds; or, what is most trifling of all, in amassing a great wardrobe of fine clothes,” on the part of the wealthy, greater material wealth is made available to all. Because of the insatiable appetite of the wealthy for new commodities, they will eventually “grow weary” of the items they have purchased previously. As a result, “the houses, the furniture, the clothing of the rich, in a little time, become useful to the inferior and middling ranks of people.” The greater the number of commodities produced, the more available all commodities become to all people. The profusion of material wealth creates a trickle-down economy which increases the material wealth of all in a society. What is necessary to create such a system, Smith holds, is a great number of productive laborers of the manufacturing class working to produce said commodities.

Smith contrasts those whom he terms the “unproductive hands” with this productive group of laborers. Among the unproductive in a society Smith classes “the sovereign . . . with all the officers both of justice and war who serve under him” as well as “the whole army and navy.” In addition, “in this same class,” says Smith, “must be ranked, some both of the gravest and most important, and some of the most frivolous professions: churchmen, lawyers, physicians, men of letters of all kinds; players, buffoons, musicians, opera-singers, opera-dancers, etc.” While these are certainly not without value to a society, Smith classes all of these together as “unproductive” because they do not produce any lasting tangible items, or commodities. “Like the declamation of the actor, the harangue of the orator, or the tune of the musician,” says Smith, “the work of all of them perishes in the very instant of its production.”

The distinction that Smith draws between productive and unproductive laborers is quite compelling and insightful, yet fraught with danger for a society which takes it too seriously. On the one hand, Smith admirably rescues the manufacturer and the artisan from the belittlement of the nature of their vocations which had been a mainstay of Western thought since antiquity. Aristotle, who exerted a substantial influence on the Western mind during and following the High Middle Ages, for instance, claimed that “all paid employments . . . absorb and degrade the mind.” To this condemnation, Smith offers a corrective in the form of a reminder of the necessity of these “paid employments” to the material wealth of a society.

It is this material wealth, in turn, which creates the environment which allows the “unproductive hands” of artists, musicians, and men of letters to flourish. A society which continues to exist at a mere subsistence level cannot develop a distinguishable class of priests and storytellers because all hands must be employed in the cultivation and production necessary to the maintenance of biological life. Only with a class of productive laborers of some size and which is capable of meeting and even producing superfluity beyond the basic needs of a society, such as the slave class of Aristotle’s ancient Greece or the manufacturing class of Smith’s 18th century Scotland, does a class of the “unproductive” become possible.

It is not be overlooked, however, that it is this class of the “unproductive” which leads a society beyond mere animal existence. While Smith is right to place great value upon the manufacturing class, it would be a mistake for a society to lean too far in this direction and so devalue the creative and intellectual element. A poverty of thought is as detrimental to human existence as a poverty of the goods necessary to material well-being, a fact Smith would have done well to note.

Walking is a revolutionary act

It seems that not even a poster campaign featuring rappers, basketball players, and cartoon characters can provide the encouragement needed to incite young people to read today. In spite of L.L. Cool J’s best efforts, the 2013 National Assessment of Education Progress test scores revealed that a shocking 60% of 4th graders scored below their grade level in reading. One recent poll found that almost half of American teenagers read other than assigned school reading less than twice a year. Perhaps the problem is larger and runs deeper than a celebrity can solve by having his picture taken with an open book. Perhaps, indeed, those celebrities are part of the problem. Reading is not declining because schools are worsening, though they are, nor because children cannot relate to the books available to them, as those who have made a bad situation worse sometimes assert. Instead, the problem is, ultimately, at the root of modern society.

Ray Bradbury’s 1951 short story “The Pedestrian” envisions a dystopian future in which taking an evening stroll is a crime. Instead, people are expected to rush to work in the morning, rush back home after the end of the work day, and spend their evenings in the glow of their television sets. While it is, as of 15 November 2014, still legal, to a limited extent, to take an evening stroll, the dystopian future Bradbury envisions is not too far distant from reality. According to a recent report by Nielsen, the average American spends a stunning five hours a day watching television. Americans, it seems, are just too busy to read a good book. They are busy watching the celebrities who pretended to read for a photograph encouraging children to read.

One recent study concluded that living in a household with a 500-book library accelerated the reading levels of children by an average of 3.2 years. Given that a book can be purchased for less than a dollar at most thrift stores, a 500-book library is surely as affordable as a new television. Yet almost every American home has a television, but not a 500-book library. In fact, almost none of the families Americans watch on television have 500-book libraries either.

The problem is quite clear. We live in a society that has developed a disdain for reading. We live increasingly busy and technologized lives. When we return home from the ratrace, we park ourselves in front of the television. Rather than taking a walk, we sit on the couch. Rather than having a lively family dinner discussion, almost half of American children eat dinner in front of the television. A society without home libraries, evening strolls, family discussions, and the sacredness of a communal meal is not a society conducive to the life of the mind. It is a society which has, through more if not through legal fiat, become the dystopia Bradbury imagined.

The helplessness and hopelessness invoked by Bradbury’s story is sure to bite into anyone who laments the loss of the very essence of humanity in the acts of reading, discussing, walking, and eating. This is especially true as there is no easy solution. There is no new curriculum proposed by any particular politician nor any photograph of a celebrity that will solve this problem. There is only the radical countercultural act of taking an evening stroll.

The Roman Republic (Introduction to Western Civilization 4.3)

After the overthrow of Lucius Tarquinius Superbus in 509 BC, the Romans decided to get rid of monarchy altogether and become a republic. Whereas one person rules the whole nation under a monarchy, all of the people take part in government in a republic. The Roman Republic is very different from the Athenian democracy in some important ways, but what they had in common was a concern that all citizens have the opportunity to have their voice heard and to help make decisions.

Not everyone was considered equal, however, and some people played a bigger role in governing Rome than others. Under the Roman Republic, there were two main social classes. They were called the patricians and the plebeians.

The patricians were the wealthy and powerful upper class of Rome. They claimed to be the descendants of the 100 men whom Romulus had chosen to help him rule the new city after he founded it. Only patricians could hold the highest and most powerful positions in Rome.

The other social class, called plebeians, was made up of all of the common people. Not all of the plebeians were poor, but almost none were as rich as the patricians. And none at all were more powerful than the patricians. The plebeians participated in the government under the Roman Republic by voting for their leaders.

The government of the Roman Republic had three layers. At the top were the consuls. Under the Republic, two elected consuls shared the highest and most powerful position in government. Consuls were members of the Senate who had been elected to serve one year terms as consul. The consuls’ most important power was that they controlled the army. No decision could be made by one consul without the other consul agreeing to it. Both consuls held the right to veto the decisions of the other.

The Senate consisted of 300 men, all of whom were from the patrician class. Senators were appointed by the consuls and, once appointed, served as senators for life. The senators were the lawmakers of the Roman Republic. They controlled all spending and approved other decisions made by the consuls.

The largest layer in the government of the Roman Republic was the Assembly. The Assembly was composed of all the plebeian citizens of Rome. The Assembly did not have a building to meet in like the Senate. Instead, the plebeians who wanted to vote gathered at the Forum, an open area near the center of the city of Rome. For the most part, the Assembly’s power was very limited. They could vote for or suggest laws, but the Senate could block their decisions. The Assembly could also vote to declare war but the Senate could override them on this also.

The Assembly did, however, have one right that made them very powerful. It was the members of the Assembly who voted each year on which two members of the Senate would serve as consuls. As a noble, if you wanted to rise to the level of Consul, the highest position in government under the Republic, you needed to gain the support of the plebeian class. Since it was the Consuls who filled empty seats in the Senate, if the Assembly chose their consuls well, they could slowly gain power in government by putting people in charge who were sympathetic to their needs. As a result, plebeians gained more rights over time and some of them even became very powerful and wealthy. A few plebeians were even able to become members of the patrician class!

Above all else, what made a person powerful and influential in Rome their ability to speak well. The Romans loved a good orator more than almost anything else. When the Assembly met at the Forum, many speeches were going on at the same time. One speaker might say, “Rome’s roads need repair!” Another speaker might say, “We need to stop crime in the streets.” If you wanted your speech to have an impact, it did not matter how rich or poor you were. What mattered was how persuasive you were as a speaker.


Review Questions

 1. What were the two social classes of the Roman Republic? Describe each social class.

2. What were the three layers of government under the Roman Republic? What was the job of each?


Vocabulary Words

 Orator – a public speaker, especially one who is eloquent or skilled.

Veto – Latin word meaning “I forbid;” the power to stop the enactment of a law

Personhood in Greco-Roman Thought and Practice (Personhood, Part II)

Demonstration of the very narrow understanding of personhood in Greek thought begins with the earliest texts of Western civilization, the Iliad and the Odyssey, both attributed to the poet Homer and composed in about the eighth century BC.1 Both works limit their purview to the lives of male Greek aristocrats. The concerns of women and children are treated only insofar as they affect the men. The concerns of slaves, of the poor, of the handicapped, and other such groups are never considered at all. The world of Homer is the world of a small but powerful elite class.

Later developments in Greek thought served to justify this narrow definition of personhood. Aristotle, for instance, writing in the fourth century BC, provided a succinct list of groups explicitly excluded from the category of personhood as well as a justification for the exclusion of each in his Politics: “Although the parts of the soul are present in all of them, they are present in different degrees. For the slave has no deliberative faculty at all; the woman has, but it is without authority; and the child has, but it is immature.”2 Because of their lack of “the deliberative faculty,” Aristotle claims that slaves, along with “brute animals[,] … have no share in happiness or in a life based on choice.”3 Similarly, says Aristotle, “the female is, as it were, a mutilated male.”4 In addition, Aristotle also excluded the lower classes, the poor and even laborers from his definition of personhood, arguing, for instance, that “the life of mechanics and shopkeepers … is ignoble and inimical to goodness.”5 Aristotle also placed the entirety of the non-Greek population into the category of those lacking “the deliberative faculty,” asserting that “barbarians … are a community of slaves” who should rightfully be ruled by the Greeks.6

These negative assessments regarding the personhood of women, slaves, children, barbarians, and others in the writings of Aristotle can be taken as representative of Greco-Roman thought more generally. The Leges Duodecim Tabularum, or Law of the Twelve Tables, for instance, a document of the fifth century BC which formed the foundation of Roman law, institutionalized the systematic marginalization and oppression of these groups within Roman society.7 In the Twelve Tables, the male head of household was granted the right to dispose of the women, children, and slaves within his household in the same manner as he treats animals and other property under his control, including the right to sell them and even to kill them; he is, in fact, ordered by the Tables to kill any children born with deformities (Table IV). Women, being property themselves, are denied the rights of property ownership (Table VI). Marriages between members of the aristocracy and members of the lower classes were banned outright (Table XI). In short, only an adult male member of the Roman aristocracy was granted full personhood in this initial document which governed and defined Roman society. This narrow understanding of personhood remained the standard understanding in the Roman Empire until the fourth century.


1 Harold Bloom, Homer (New York: Infobase Publishing, Inc., 2009), 205.

2 Aristotle, Politics, in Aristotle: II, ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins (Chicago: William Benton, 1952), 1260a10-14.

3 Ibid., 1280a32-34.

4 Aristotle, On the Generation of Animals, in Aristotle: I, ed. Robert Maynard Hutchins (Chicago: William Benton, 1952), 737a26-7.

5 Aristotle, Politics, 1328b39-40.

6 Ibid., 1252b4-8.

7 The Laws of the Twelve Tables, (accessed 24 March 2013).

Personhood in Late Antiquity: How Barbarians, Slaves, Women, and Children Became Persons (Personhood in Late Antiquity, Part I)

The Greco-Roman world, whose Hellenistic culture and thought dominated the West throughout Antiquity, possessed a very narrow definition of what constituted a person, a full and equal member of the human political and legal community with all of the rights and responsibilities that status confers. In large part, the full application of that term and the concept it represented were limited to free adult male Greek, or, later, Roman, aristocrats. Groups such as slaves, children, women, men who were not Roman citizens, the poor, and others who did not fit into this narrow category were excluded from full participation in personhood. Slaves alone constituted a third of the population of the Roman Empire and women made up approximately half. The majority of the population of the Roman Empire, then, was seen as possessing less than full personhood. Groups that were denied full personhood were often subject to disdain, abuse, brutality, and even execution with no legal recourse. The Jews, on the other hand, who made up a small but visible minority of subjects and citizens under Greek and Roman rule in Antiquity, because of their doctrine of the Imago Dei, held a much wider understanding of personhood and included under that concept all members of the human species regardless of social status, age, gender, or nationality. As a result, Jewish law conferred upon slaves, women, children, the poor, and other such groups the status of full personhood and the rights associated with that status under Jewish law. Christianity emerged from Judaism in the first century AD and carried with it the idea of the Imago Dei, coupling with that idea its own original ideas of the Incarnation of God as man and the availability of salvation for all people through recapitulation. Already heavily influenced by Hellenistic thought from its inception, Christianity in large part became a point of synthesis between Judaism and Hellenism beginning in the second century as an increasing number of converts to the incipient religion came from segments of the Roman Empire outside of the Jewish community, especially from marginalized and oppressed groups. Because of its message of the full personhood of women, children, slaves, and other marginalized and oppressed classes in Roman society, it drew its converts especially from these groups. In the fourth century, Christianity became the official, dominant, and popular religion of the Roman Empire and began to exert a major influence on law, thought, and culture in the West. Although it continued to struggle with the process of reconciling and synthesizing the Judaic and Hellenistic elements it had inherited, Christianity introduced a new and wider understanding of who was fully a person, a definition which included even unborn children and the lowest and most degraded segments of society. Popularized and refined throughout Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages, this definition became the standard understanding of what constitutes a human being according to Western thought and, although it has been and continues to be challenged from various quarters, it remains the standard understanding today.

Race and Representation in the Gilded Age: Popular Culture and Depictions of Marginalized Racial Groups

The end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth saw the rise of the first genuine popular culture in the United States. New advances in technology coupled with an increase of leisure time and extra money among a significant portion of the American population made this popular culture possible. Popular culture exerted a major influence on American life as its various mediums were used to create a cultural homogeneity which had not previously existed as well as to reinforce white cultural hegemony through propagating stereotypes about marginal groups.

An important distinction that must be made is that between folk culture and popular culture. As American cultural commentator Dwight Macdonald pointed out, “folk art grew from below” as the “spontaneous, autochthonous expression of the people” who were “without the benefit of High Culture.”1 In other words, in the absence of access to more refined artistic and cultural forms, folk art was a natural aesthetic outgrowth from people who wished to express themselves artistically. Popular culture, on the other hand, Macdonald goes on, “is imposed from above.”2 Its creation and dissemination are controlled by capitalists who “exploit the cultural needs of the masses in order to make a profit and/or to maintain their class-rule.”3 Popular culture, then, acts as “an instrument of political domination.”4 In this way, popular culture becomes the vehicle for the imposition of cultural homogeneity and the maintenance of hegemony.

The growth of the concept of “whiteness” in opposition to the ostensibly existentially opposed concept of “blackness” during the Gilded Ages provides one clear example of a case in which popular culture served this function. Richard L. Hughes, a historian whose work has focused on the history of American culture and society, has pointed out how the creation and dissemination of stereotypes about blacks created a sense of unity among the white audiences who viewed minstrel shows. According to Hughes, portrayals of blacks in popular culture “contributed to the growing sense of ‘whiteness’ among an ethnically diverse population in the urban North and … to a sense of a unique, albeit problematic, American national identity.”5 Blacks were often portrayed in minstrel shows and other venues of popular culture in ways that were comically over-the-top. Black characters were often bumbling, hopelessly ignorant, and obsessed with sex. An audience at a minstrel show might consist of individuals who were immigrants or the children of immigrants from such diverse nations as Italy, Poland, and England, nations with different languages, religious beliefs, and cultural traditions. The black, as he was portrayed in caricature at the minstrel show, presented such an obvious contrast with anything that any of them would consider normal or acceptable, however, that the contrast created a sense of unity among those of European descent. Thus, the concept of “whiteness” came to encompass a broad swathe of people with little else in common than ancestors who had come from the same continent and who now defined themselves in opposition to the similarly fabricated concept of “blackness.”

One ironic feature of popular culture, in the light of its functions and effects as a vehicle for white solidarity and black marginalization, is that many of the elements of popular culture derived from earlier expressions of black folk culture. Ragtime, for example, a form of music and dance that was particularly popular among young people during the Gilded Age, was derived from black folk music and dance. In other words, the origins of ragtime were in what Dwight Macdonald identified as genuine folk art; it was the product of people whose social status isolated them from the cultivated aesthetics of High Culture but who simultaneously felt the need for artistic expression. This authentic folk culture, however, was transformed into popular culture through its appropriation and adaptation by whites. Ragtime’s origins in black culture served both to attract the attention and cultivate the awe of white youths as well as to excite the repugnance of members of older generations. Ragtime was seen as shocking, immoral, and even dangerous.6 The lyrics of ragtime songs, as its detractors never tired of pointing out, included such themes as “‘hot town,’ ‘warm babies,’ and ‘blear-eyed coons’ armed with ‘blood-letting razors’” as well as other topics similarly offensive to bourgeois tastes.7 In addition, the dances associated with these songs often involved jerking movements of the hips and close contact between dance partners of opposite genders, which appeared lascivious and immoral in contrast with the more tame and subdued dances common among previous generations of the American bourgeoisie. All of these elements as well as their origins in African and African-American culture were viewed, according to Ellen M. Litwicki, a professor of American history, as a potential source of “moral depravity” for white youth who partook of popular culture.8 This identification of black culture with immorality was also used as a means by which to reinforce stereotypes of blacks and propagate racism, reinforcing the established atmosphere of subjugation and marginalization.

Reactions among African-Americans to the acquisition and transformation of black folk culture by white capitalists whose product was primarily targeted to audiences of white youth varied. Some African-Americans sought to work within the new milieu that was afforded to them by popular culture in order to secure a modicum of social respectability and a means of wealth acquisition that was not formerly available to them. Ernest Hogan, for instance, an African-American man who was one of the founding figures of ragtime, built his career on writing songs that portrayed stereotypes of blacks. One of his most popular songs, for instance, declared in its title that “All Coons Look Alike to Me.”9 Shortly before his death in 1909, Hogan expressed some ambivalence about his role in creating ragtime and about that song in particular. “With nothing but time on my hands now, I often wonder if I was right or wrong,” he told a friend.10 He concluded that in spite of the negative stereotypes such songs helped to propagate, the popularization of black folk culture which he played such an important role in was, in the end, a great boon to the culture itself, which “would have been lost to the world” had it not been popularized, as well as to the many black songwriters whose careers he made possible.11

Other African-Americans, however, particularly those of the middle class, viewed ragtime, along with minstrelsy and vaudeville, in overwhelmingly negative terms. According to historian Matthew Mooney in his survey of responses to American popular music in the first quarter of the twentieth century, “popular music in all its permutations was often subject to sweeping condemnations by … arbiters of Black middle-class propriety.”12 Black members of the bourgeoisie saw popular culture as a vehicle for “demeaning racial stereotypes” which served to undermine the progress that African-Americans had made since the Civil War and emancipation.13 In response to the new popular culture, the African-American bourgeoisie sought to displace blame for the creation and popularization of such musical forms as ragtime from blacks alone to the uncultured in general, black and white alike.14 They also sought to cultivate an appreciation for and African-American participation in venues of High Culture, such as more respectable forms of music and performance like opera. In large part, the vociferous opposition to popular culture espoused by many in the black bourgeoisie arose from a desire to minimize differences between themselves and whites by distancing themselves from supposedly low-class blacks and from traditional black culture. In so doing, they hoped to attain the measure of social respectability that might result from identification with the values and mores of the white bourgeoisie and thereby uplift the black race in general. A noteworthy similarly between those African-American bourgeois who opposed popular culture and those African-Americans such as Ernest Hogan who actively participated in it is that each attributes its respective stance on the issue to the desire of blacks to enter the American mainstream by attaining prestige and wealth. In spite of the divergence in approaches, the motivation was essentially identical for both parties.

Such prestige and wealth was also the motivation for those Native Americans who chose to participate in popular culture venues which presented the stereotype of the Indian as a warlike savage. Included among Native Americans who participated in Wild West shows, for example, are such prominent figures as Sitting Bull and Black Elk.15 According to Litwicki, the stereotyped roles in which Native Americans were depicted in the Wild West shows and which such Native American participants in those shows took part in “while degrading in many respects, were never as completely negative as those African Americans had to work within.”16 Indeed, unlike their black counterparts in minstrelsy and vaudeville who were forced to behave in ways that were entirely the product of white imaginations and which distorted the nature of black culture to an extreme degree, Native Americans were often able and delighted in the opportunity to share authentic representations of their heritage and lifestyle with white audiences, including their prowess as “warriors, riders, marksmen, and hunters” as well as traditional “dances, songs, and other aspects of their cultures.”17 Nonetheless, however, Native Americans were subject to the same disfiguring white consciousness as African-Americans and were expected to behave in stereotyped ways. Through their representations in popular culture, both Native Americans and African-Americans were dehumanized, stripped of individuality and personality, and replaced with caricatures that met white expectations, reinforced white superiority, and justified the continued marginalization of these groups in their exclusion from bourgeois respectability. This subjugation and marginalization frequently determined the course of government policy. The Wild West shows’ depictions of Native Americans as savages and their culture as backwards and primitive, for example, justified the continued attempts by the federal government to eradicate their traditional ways of life, cultural traditions, and tribal units by removing tribes from their ancestral homelands and children from their families, forcing young Native Americans to receive propagandistic education in which they were encouraged to act in accordance with white social expectations, and encouraging Native Americans to adopt the agricultural lifestyle of rural white farmers.18

Similarly, the stereotyped depictions of blacks in popular culture as comically ignorant, ugly, immoral, and sexually promiscuous and the idea of a “blackness” which differed ontologically and stood opposed existentially to “whiteness” which these depictions created and perpetuated justified the exclusion of African-Americans from the white mainstream of American society as well as the separation of blacks from whites more generally. This exclusion and separation was made law with the Supreme Court decision in Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) that gave federal sanction to segregation as a constitutional practice.19

The origins, content, and effect of popular culture in the Gilded Age presents an important comparison with that of more recent American popular culture. Hip hop music, for instance, presents an insightful parallel to the story of ragtime. Just as ragtime emerged from black folk art, hip hop music began as a genuinely folk cultural form among African-American youth in impoverished urban centers. Just as ragtime was adopted, digested, and popularized by the incipient popular culture industry of the late nineteenth century, hip hop similarly became a product of popular culture at the hands of bourgeois, and generally white, capitalists. Both were viewed as repellent by parents and others of older generations because of their perceived immoral content and link with the criminality associated with black culture, both were consumed by eager white youths, and both served to bring a measure of fame, wealth, and even respectability to certain African-American individuals involved in their production while simultaneously reinforcing stereotypes of African-Americans more generally. In addition to this clear parallel between ragtime and hip hop, depictions of other marginal groups in contemporary popular culture also present interesting and insightful comparisons. Just as depictions of Native Americans in popular culture served to justify their exclusion from the mainstream of American society and the systematic destruction of their traditional way of life at the hands of the federal government, depictions of Hispanics in contemporary popular culture often reinforce stereotypes of Hispanics as ignorant, religious to the point of superstition, linked to the criminal drug trade, and, in the case of women, extremely sexualized. These depictions, in turn, influence laws and policies pertinent to, for example, immigration and education.

The impact that stereotyped depictions can have on laws, on lives, and on the individual psyches of members of marginalized and subjugated groups as well as on those of their hegemons should be carefully considered by the producers, distributors, and consumers of popular culture. The nearly ubiquitous presence of popular culture today makes a thorough examination of the influence of its content all the more important. Such an examination is most properly conducted in the light of the insights that can be afforded by an understanding of the origins of American popular culture in the Gilded Age and its perpetual use since that time as a tool for the creation of a false cultural homogeneity and the imposition of a cultural hegemony which is far more the product of the imaginations and aspirations of the moneyed classes and establishment power structure than an authentic democratic movement in aesthetics.


1 Dwight Macdonald, “A Theory of Mass Culture,” in John Storey, ed., Cultural Theory and Popular Culture: A Reader (Harlow: Prentice Hall, 1998), 23.

2 Ibid.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Richard L. Hughes, “Minstrel Music: The Sounds and Images of Race in Antebellum America,” The History Teacher 40:1 (Nov. 2006): 29.

6 Rebecca Edwards, New Spirits: Americans in the “Gilded Age,” 1865-1905 (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2011), 118.

7 “Musical Impurity,” Etude (January 1900): 16.

8 Ellen M. Litwicki, “The Influence of Commerce Technology, and Race on Popular Culture in the Gilded Age,” in Charles W. Calhoun, The Gilded Age: Perspectives on the Origins of Modern America (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2007), 194.

9 Ibid., 196.

10 Karen Sotiropoulos, Staging Race: Black Performers in Turn of the Century America (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2008), 118.

11 Ibid., 120.

12 Matthew Mooney, “An ‘Invasion of Vulgarity’: American Popular Music and Modernity in Print Media Discourse, 1900-1925,” in Leslie Wilson, ed., Americana: Readings in Popular Culture (Hollywood and Los Angeles: Press Americana, 2010), 7.

13 Ibid.

14 Ibid., 8.

15 Litwicki, 202.

16 Ibid.

17 Ibid.

18 Edmund J. Danziger Jr., “Native American Resistance and Accommodation during the Late Nineteenth Century,” in Calhoun, Gilded Age, 180.

19 Leslie H. Fishel Jr., “The African-American Experience,” in Calhoun, Gilded Age, 157.