Date Awarded


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (Ph.D.)


American Studies


Robert A Gross


This dissertation explores notions of self-invention and performance in mid-nineteenth century America by examining the life and writings of actress and poet, Adah Isaacs Menken, from roughly 1835 to 1868. During America's Civil War years, Menken became an international star in the controversial title role of Mazeppa, an equestrian play. at the climax, soldiers forcibly stripped Mazeppa (Menken) to reveal her body in a costume suggestive of nudity. The soldiers tied her to a horse and sent her careening up a steep mountain into the theatre rafters. This provocative "breeches part" allowed Menken to pursue unusual freedoms for a woman of her time as she faced a public that both celebrated and demonized her physical display.;Menken maintained a complex relationship with the public that hinged upon constantly shifting identities; she wore men's clothing while emphasizing her reputation as a femme fatale, formed intellectual friendships though she perpetuated low-brow drama, and claimed African, Jewish, Irish, Spanish and British ancestry. Dime novels and Bohemian literature suggested alternative routes for a woman to fulfill her aspirations, and Menken used their tropes to explore gender and sexual identity both on and off the stage. An aspiring poet, she also used her fame to befriend some of the most famous writers of her age, including Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Charles Swinburne, Alexandre Dumas, and Walt Whitman. When she died in 1868, she left a volume of poetry, Infelicia, that has gone in and out of print for over a century.;Menken's writing and correspondence allows us to examine not only Menken but the world in which she tried to meet her aspirations. This biographical dissertation functions as a study of mid-nineteenth century America as Menken traveled from New Orleans to Cincinnati, New York, and California. Her final years in Europe also enable us to explore how Americans judged their importance in the larger culture of the western world. This dissertation adds to the history of African-Americans, Jews, and women, explores Victorian notions of gender and sexuality, and contributes to our understanding of nineteenth-century American popular culture.



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