erik lundegaard

Wednesday July 07, 2021

What's the Matter with Kansas? Evelyn Nesbit

I spent July 4 weekend rereading E.L. Doctorow's “Ragtime,” as is my patriotic duty, and this passage stuck out for me in a way it hadn't before. It's about Evelyn Nesbit, whom you can consider a through line for sex, movies, even Internet ads. It's also about why working class people vote the way they vote. Doctorow voiced it in 1975, before they truly began to vote that way. 

Her testimony created the first sex goddess in American History. Two elements of the society realized this. The first was the business community, specifically a group of accountants and cloak and suit manufactures who also dabbled in the exhibition of moving pictures, or picture shows as they were called. Some of these men saw the way Evelyn's face on the front page of a newspaper sold out editions. They realized that there was a process of magnification by which news events established certain individuals in the public consciousness as larger than life. There were the individuals who represented on desirable human characteristic to the exclusion of all others. The businessmen wondered if they could create such individuals not from accidents of news events but from the deliberate manufactures of their own medium. If they could, more people would pay money for the picture shows. Thus did Evelyn provide the inspiration for the concept of the movie star system and the model for every sex goddess from Theda Bara to Marilyn Monroe. The second group of people to perceive Evelyn's importance was made up of various trade union leaders, anarchists and socialists, who correctly prophesied that she would in the long run be a greater threat to the workingman's interests than mine owners or steel manufactures. In Seattle, for instance, Emma Goldman spoke to an I.W.W. local and cited Evelyn Nesbit as a daughter of the working class whose life lesson in the way of all daughters and sisters of poor men were used for the pleasure of the wealthy. The men in her audience guffawed and shouted out lewd remarks and broke into laughter. There were militant worker, too, unionists with a radical awareness of their situation. Goldman sent off a letter to Evelyn: I am often asked the question How can the masses permit themselves to be exploited by the few. The answer is by being persuaded to identify with them. Carrying his newspaper with your picture the laborer goes home to his wife, an exhausted workhorse with the veins standing out in her legs, and he dreams not of justice but of being rich.“

What's the matter with Kansas? Evelyn Nesbit.

I'm curious about the first part, actually, the movie stuff, the idea that stars were manufactured by would-be moguls rather than by audiences. So much of what I've read about the nascent days of the industry make it seem the producers were caught unaware, too. Oh, they like the actors? They want to know who they are? They'll go back if we promote their names? Let's get on that. A pretty face launches more than a new movie these days. She's in all those Internet ads, too, and on social media avatars. Even journalism. For the latest tragic event, see if you can't get a shot of a pretty girl on the scene crying about it. I see this over and over again. She's there to catch your eye. And it works—over and over again. 

Anyway, everyone should read ”Ragtime."

Posted at 10:46 AM on Wednesday July 07, 2021 in category Books  
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