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History Prof Traces Life of Idiosyncratic Character

Posted on February 19th, 2009

Elisha Kent Kane was an enigmatic figure in the annuals of American history – a sickly Philadelphia physician of the 19th century who transformed himself into an Arctic explorer and best-selling author.

Mark Metzler Sawin
Mark Metzler Sawin

Now, a new book by Mark Metzler Sawin, associate professor of history, sheds new light on Kane through his cultural biography, Raising Kane: Elisha Kent Kane and the Culture of Fame in Antebellum America.

Dr. Sawin, who joined the EMU faculty in 2001, is on sabbatical for the 2008-09 academic year. He is currently serving as a Fulbright scholar on the faculty of philosophy at the University of Zagreb in the central European nation of Croatia. During his year in the capital city, he is teaching American cultural studies courses and helping launch a PhD program in American studies. He will return to Harrisonburg in July 2009.

The 350-page paperback examines how Elisha Kent Kane used his family’s influence with the burgeoning popular press to promote himself, turning his globe-traveling adventures into best-selling books that inspired and thrilled the nation in the years leading up to the Civil War.

Hero of the Age

“At the time of his untimely death in 1857, Kane was the hero of the age,” Sawin said. “The nation mourned his death via a funeral procession that lasted nearly a month as his casket wound from New Orleans to Philadelphia in a funeral procession that is, to date, second only to Abraham Lincoln’s.”

Sawin’s book examines how Kane methodologically constructed his fame, but also the price this fame exacted, preventing him from marrying the woman he loved and ultimately, and ironically, leading to him being largely forgotten withing a generation after his death.

“Following Kane’s exploits from the Mexican War through his Arctic adventures and ill-fated romance with the Spiritualist medium Margaret Fox, Mark Sawin ties this singular figure into the main currents of mid-nineteenth century popular culture, opening a new vista on the meanings of masculinity, celebrity, and heroism,” notes reviewer Robert S. Cox of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

“This work comprises two initiatives: a new and exhaustive research work into the life and accomplishments of a remarkable adventurer, as well as a sociological analysis of popular perceptions of Kane’s work and feats,” noted Charles O. Cowing, chairman of the Elisha Kent Kane Historical Society.

Sawin said of his book, “Kane is a fascinating and wonderfully-flawed character. His reckless exploits, unabashed self-promotion and tumultuous love affair with spirit-rapper Maggie Fox sound more like fiction than fact. I just hope my book conveys this remarkable life in a way that engages readers as much a Kane’s letters, journals, and life have engrossed my attention over the past decade.”

“My goal was to shed a bit of light on this tumultuous and exciting era of US history,” Sawin added. “It was the age of the American Literary Renaissance, of the rise of the popular press and of massive and aggressive Manifest Destiny, all of which addressed and helped fuel the internal conflicts that ultimately led to the Civil War.”

Sawin received his PhD in American studies from the University of Texas at Austin. He is past president of the Middle-Atlantic American Studies Association and is currently beginning work on Ned Buntline, a popular 19th author who wrote over 140 “best-selling” pulp-novels, including a series of Westerns that launched the career of William “Buffalo Bill” Cody.

Sawin’s current book, published by the American Philosophical Society, Philadelphia, is available from the EMU bookstore and other book outlets and from Amazon.com.

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