The Magician Who Was the First Black Celebrity in America

hodgson_final_coverJohn Hodgson is the author of Richard Potter: America’s First Black Celebrity.  Hodgson has published an excerpt of his book over at Salon.  Here is a taste:

He was very, very good at what he did. For many years he was the foremost ventriloquist in America, and the most celebrated magician as well. Indeed, he was the most famous American entertainer of any kind: there was no actor or vocalist or musician in the country who could even come close to Richard Potter’s renown. It wasn’t just secondhand fame, either, the kind that could be spread by stories from the daily newspapers of the large East Coast cities and republished as entertaining filler in the weeklies of remote little towns, rumors from a wonderful world that the provincial readers were unlikely ever to experience—George Frederick Cooke taking the stage in the role of Iago, the sea serpent again appearing off Cape Ann, the Pig of Knowledge doing arithmetic. While Richard Potter always made his home in New England, his tours took him across the length and breadth of the nation. Wherever you lived in America, even if you had not yourself attended at least one of his exhibitions, you probably knew people, perhaps even many people, who had. When he died, in 1835, he had become a national icon.

Fame comes in various flavors, of course. As a showman, Richard Potter could not expect to achieve the kind of recognition traditionally reserved for prominent politicians, military leaders, or eminent writers. Moreover, even the formal theater at this time still suffered some degree of disrepute across wide swaths of American culture; more populist forms of entertainment, like Potter’s, incurred that kind of cultural condescension and disapproval to an even greater degree. Many Americans disapproved of such amusements in and of themselves, associating them with dissipation, frivolity, and “juggling” (knavish trickery), and many others who openly enjoyed them nevertheless felt that their professors were not entirely respectable. But enjoy those entertainments people certainly did; and Richard Potter himself contributed enormously to the long, gradual process of making American showmanship respectable. . . .

Read the rest here.

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