Saturday, November 2, 2013

Adam D. Shprintzen's "The Vegetarian Crusade"

Adam D. Shprintzen received his PhD in History with distinction from Loyola University Chicago in May 2011, where his studies focused on nineteenth century America. Currently, he serves as Digital and Archival Historian (see, Digital Encyclopedia of George Washington) at Mount Vernon, where he manages digital history projects as well as the institution's archival holdings.

Shprintzen applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Vegetarian Crusade: The Rise of an American Reform Movement, 1817-1921, and reported the following:
Cultural history serves as an important avenue of investigation in my new book, The Vegetarian Crusade. To understand the formation of the vegetarian movement in the United States in the nineteenth century, it is necessary to analyze both how vegetarians viewed themselves and how the group was visualized by society at large. Both factors shaped the development of the movement. Page 99 nicely summarizes popular views of vegetarians by the start of the Civil War, when the group was attacked as being both physically and ideologically weak. The rise of vegetarianism in the era directly before the Civil War (the American Vegetarian Society, the first national vegetarian organization, was formed in 1850) was noticed in many corners of American culture and society, celebrated by reformers and mocked by the mainstream press. The growing vegetarian movement even grabbed the attention of the American music industry.

Oh! Wasn't she fond of her greens! was a composition first published in 1860 by the New York firm H. De Marsan and subsequent versions were in circulation until at least 1869. The song relays a story of courtship from the perspective of the male courtier. The narrator seeks the affections of a young woman named Jane Bell who surpassed all other women in the courtier's eyes. Unfortunately, he also came to find out that she was a vegetarian. The song notes the peculiarity of the courtship, filled with picnics of garden sorrel and breakfasts of watercress. The last verse exposes the complex relationship between vegetarianism and gender roles:

Now, we are married, and settled in life, The old gal behaves very kind;
And, when I go home of a night, There plenty of greens I can find.
Since marriage, she's taken to meat..How wonderful strange it seems!
And sometimes, by the way of a treat, She has a little fat meat with her greens.

The song is clear in its implications. Once the woman was tamed and settled, she no longer adhered strictly to her vegetarian diet, long associated with radical politics including women's rights and suffrage. Now a respectable married woman the "old gal behaves very kind" including disassociation from her political past.

Vegetarians faced harsh attacks during this time period, though this would not always remain the case. By the late 1890s vegetarianism was embraced by mainstream society. How and why did this shift occur? The Vegetarian Crusade attempts to answer this question.
Learn more about the book and author at Adam D. Shprintzen's website.

--Marshal Zeringue