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Dan Rice: The Most Famous Man You've Never Heard Of

by David Carlyon

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441426,715 (3.25)None
"Dan Rice, alone in the world as a boy, had tried whatever came to hand. He was a pig presenter, strongman, lecturer, comic singer, and blackface performer. Then he joined the glittering world of circus and quickly rose to prominence as a talking clown, tossing out quips, quoting Shakespeare, singing about bloomers, and feuding with Horace Greeley. He named his own circus "Dan Rice's Great Show" and labeled himself the Great American Humorist. The spitting image of Uncle Sam in a striped suit, top hat, and goatee, Rice spoke on issues of the day till he became one of the most famous men in America, probably seen by more people than anyone else at the time. That fame propelled him to several campaigns for public office, including a brief run for president." "So what happened? Why have so few people heard of Dan Rice? Rice rose to prominence because he was supremely adept at engaging audiences in what was then a bubbling public stew of participation. Circus, theater, minstrelsy, and lectures overlapped with politics, and crowds roared out with their boisterous opinions. Rice took that energy and tossed it back, dazzling audiences. But polite society, propelled by a vague urge of "refinement," increasingly deemed robust amusements inappropriate. The raucous antebellum blend of performers and audiences and forms began to split along a new performance hierarchy of high and low. Though Rice had pitched refinement too, circus was soon seen as essentially lowbrow, good only for children, simple jokes, and nostalgia. In that changed world, Rice's hearty connection with a noisy, participatory audience came to seem crude, and worse, a civic threat. Rice, famous for adult jokes, violent feuds, and cutting satire, became sentimentalized as Old Uncle Dan, friend to little children." "In Dan Rice: The Most Famous Man You've Never Heard Of David Carlyon weaves a rich portrait of a turbulent time that raised one ambitious, creative man to glorious heights and then, embarrassed by its enthusiasm, buried him in sentimentality until it forgot him. It is a brilliant, detailed cultural history of the mid-nineteenth century - its intoxicating theater, its turbulent circus, its wild politics, and its bigger-than-life personalities."--Jacket.… (more)

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Fascinating trip with one of the most well-known and interesting Americans of the 19th century. Anyone alive during the period 1850-1870 would have heard of Dan Rice, he was the Johnny Carson of his time as notable as Lincoln. Rice ran for President in 1878. This is a quality biography well researched and reliable. Its listed at 500+ pages but the text portion is 416, with a picture about every 3rd page. I think the fact that he was an in-person spontaneous crowd entertainer of magnetic charisma, before audio/visual and scripts; it's difficult to really grasp what made him so great without seeing him in person. Reading his dialog transcripts are flat, painfully so, you had to have been there in person. I wish Carlyon had taken more artistic efforts to convey what a circus was like, what Dan was like, more time is spent on controversy and conflict with his professional peers than what actually made him so appealing. There are occasional hints of what sound like fascinating episodes in his life that never get developed. It often feels like Carlyon spent months pouring over newspaper microfiche collections, following Dan's life through the newspaper controversies (which may very well be the only way) - but as Carlyon says, Rice knew that controversy sells! One of the strengths of the book is its examination of the changing zeitgeist of America in the 19th century - this is important to understand why an entertainer is a star one decade, and yesterdays news the next, even though nothing had changed - as Dan said one day to the crowd: "What did I do wrong?", Carlyon, through the story of Rice, does a good job of conveying the changing character and nature of America between the 1840s and 1880s. This is also vital work for any student of Mark Twain or fan of Huckleberry Finn. ( )
  Stbalbach | Jul 5, 2006 |
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