Emily Banta, Rutgers University
MCEAS Consortium Fellow
“Sovereign Pleasures: Comic Play in Antebellum America”
Sovereign Pleasures assembles an archive of early American comic performance to develop a new account of the democratic public sphere. In the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, theatrical and extra-theatrical forms of comic entertainment — for example, local stage comedies, minstrel dance challenges, pseudonymous print humor, comic novels, and carnivalesque processions — encouraged playful participation from their audiences, fostering vibrant and unruly publics. I show how these forms of comic play linked public demands for amusement to practices of popular sovereignty and political dissent, arguing that the social pleasures they generated were instrumental to the political struggles of early experiments in democratic governance. Engaging with scholarship on early American performance culture, critical studies of the democratic public sphere, and theories of comedy and play, my dissertation reconstructs a repertoire of comic fun to illustrate how the volatile playfulness of antebellum public life informed the agonism of its politics. An article drawn from the first chapter of this project was published in the Fall 2020 issue of American Literature.