The Irish Dave Chapelle of the 1910s? (model abstract)

[Note: this is my own model abstract of Soper’s article, for purposes of contrast with the two weaker examples from the databases. All the others tagged “model abstract” were written by students and posted with their permission. – PT]

Soper, Kerry. “From Swarthy Ape to Sympathetic Everyman and Subversive Trickster: The Development of Irish Caricature in American Comic Strips between 1890 and 1920.” Journal of American Studies 39.2 (August 2005): 257‐296.

Abstracted by Phillip Troutman

Soper challenges the popular and scholarly conventional wisdom that early twentieth‐century ethnic caricatures were nothing more than blatantly and demeaningly racist in intent and effect. Instead, drawing on recent studies in caricature, minstrelsy, and African‐American popular culture, Soper argues that stereotypes carried meanings that were multilayered, multivalent, and unstable. He researches Irish stereotypes in newspaper and magazine comic strips between 1890 and 1920, revealing six distinctive but often overlapping categories: the “inferior, animalistic, racial type”; the “cultural scapegoat”; “the laughable ethnic fool”; “the clever or wise fool”; the “’useful other’ in the romantic sense”; and “the heroic, subversive trickster” (258). He closely follows three case studies—Frederick Opper’s Happy Hooligan, Richard Outcault’s Yellow Kid, and George McManus’s Jiggs—to chronicle a trend towards greater complexity and subversion. He explains this dramatic change by way of three historical developments. First, the format evolved from single-panel gag comics to long‐running multi‐panel series, where character development—and therefore reader identification—were increasingly important; to sustain interest over time, readers needed to sypathize with the characters, not just laugh at them. Second, the shift from local papers to national syndication created an increasingly diverse readership, including more Irish‐Americas, and comics now had to play to a broader middle-ground audience. Third, Irish-American cartoonists themselves eventually found commercial success, sometimes using Irish stereotypes to critique the dominant white culture. In his conclusion, Soper briefly addressses the larger question of whether racist caricatures can ever be fully redeemed. He critiques the “cultural amnesia or naivety” characterizing the unthinking proliferation of racial stereotypes in popular culture; instead, he calls instead for a self‐conscious “revival of playfully ambivalent genres of ethnic comedy” (296).  [272 words]

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