Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Booknotes: Touring the Antebellum South with an English Opera Company

New Arrival:
Touring the Antebellum South with an English Opera Company: Anton Reiff’s Riverboat Travel Journal edited by Michael Burden (LSU Press, 2020).

From the description: "The diary of Anton Reiff Jr. (c. 1830–1916) is one of only a handful of primary sources to offer a firsthand account of antebellum riverboat travel in the American South." That's surprising to read as I would have thought there would be a great many surviving accounts given how it was such a common and vital mode of travel. "The Pyne and Harrison Opera Troupe, a company run by English sisters Susan and Louisa Pyne and their business partner, tenor William Harrison, hired Reiff, then freelancing in New York, to serve as musical director and conductor for the company’s American itinerary. The grueling tour began in November 1855 in Boston and then proceeded to New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, and Cincinnati, where, after a three-week engagement, the company boarded a paddle steamer bound for New Orleans. It was at that point that Reiff started to keep his diary."

Opera scholar Michael Burden transcribes and annotates the diary while also providing a chapter-length introduction as well as a brief roster of the other performers in Reiff's Pyne and Harrison Troupe. More from the description: "Reiff’s diary presents an extraordinarily rare view of life with a foreign opera company as it traveled the country by river and rail. Surprisingly, Reiff comments little on the Pyne-Harrison performances themselves, although he does visit the theaters in the river towns, including New Orleans, where he spends evenings both at the French Opera and at the Gaiety. Instead, Reiff focuses his attention on other passengers, on the mechanics of the journey, on the landscape, and on events he encounters, including the 1856 Mardi Gras and the unveiling of the statue of Andrew Jackson in New Orleans's Jackson Square."

The part of the tour covered by the diary lasted from January 1856 through May of that year. From what I can gather from the tour map, prominent stops along the Mississippi and Ohio rivers included New Orleans, Natchez, Memphis, Cairo, St. Louis, Louisville, Evansville, and Wheeling. There was also a sidetrip by rail to Indianapolis and eastern stops at Washington D.C., Richmond, Baltimore, and Philadelphia, with a final performance from part of the troupe in New York City on May 24.

According to Burden, the 142-page original diary (self-titled "Scenes in the Back Woods") is "fluent," emphasizes "people, places, and present events," and is frequently accented with the writer's maps and drawings (some or all of which are reproduced in the volume). "Reiff is clearly captivated by the river towns and their residents, including the enslaved, whom he encountered whenever the boat tied up. Running throughout the journal is a thread of anxiety, for, apart from the typical dangers of a river trip, the winter of 1855–1856 was one of the coldest of the century, and the steamer had difficulties with river ice."

The Reiff diary has been frequently used as a source by scholars, but this volume represents the first time it has been published in full. Touring the Antebellum South with an English Opera Company "will have broad appeal to historians and other readers interested in antebellum riverboat travel, highbrow entertainment, and the people and places of the South."

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