The Evangelist and the Impresario: Religion, Entertainment, and Cultural Politics in America, 1884-1914

Kathryn J. Oberdeck

Research output: Book/Report/Conference proceedingBook


What is culture and who has the authority to define it? If culture is comprised of hierarchies, who determines what their standards should be, and how? What are the stakes involved in conceiving some forms of culture as good and others as bad? These may sound like questions from late-twentieth-century American culture wars, but they were already in vigorous dispute a century ago. In The Evangelist and the Impresario, Kathryn Oberdeck explores how a broad range of Americans addressed these questions at the vibrant intersection of religion, vaudeville, and class politics at the turn of the twentieth century.

The Evangelist and the Impresario focuses on the intriguing careers of two remarkable public figures: Irish-born socialist Alexander Irvine and Italian-American entertainment mogul Sylvester Poli. Using these two characters as "tour guides," Oberdeck leads readers through a period of upheaval in America's intellectual history when religion and entertainment combined to produce critical cultural debate. The narrative follows Irvine's career as Protestant minister, socialist activist, popular author, and vaudeville actor and Poli's success as a theatrical entrepreneur with a circuit of East Coast vaudeville houses. Examining the varied connections the two men made across the Atlantic and the United States, Oberdeck traces the way Irvine drew on the formulas and themes of Poli's entertainment world to develop novel, popular approaches to evangelism and class politics.

As both men sought audiences across lines of class as well as race, ethnicity, and gender, the author contends, their careers demonstrate how these intersecting dimensions of social difference informed definitive debates about cultural standards among ordinary Americans. Irvine, Poli, and their audiences in theater, religion, and working-class politics pondered these differences in ways that helped to reformulate cultural hierarchies of Protestant uplift and Darwinian struggle into concepts of cultural pluralism. Thus, far from simply recounting biographies, Oberdeck traces cultural trajectories, mapping alliances that shaped the careers of two men whose engagement with popular audiences helped to transform intellectual arguments taking place in the twentieth-century public sphere.

By charting connections across their converging paths, this stimulating book shows how Irvine, Poli, and the communities they addressed challenged the cultural vocabularies of class distinction in their era. In the process, it reveals how entertainment audiences, trade-unionist church-goers, working-class mothers, and immigrant thespians, along with cultural elites, helped to shape the terms of twentieth-century cultural debate.
Original languageEnglish (US)
Place of PublicationBaltimore
PublisherJohns Hopkins University Press
Number of pages448
ISBN (Print)9780801860607
StatePublished - 1999

Publication series

NameNew Studies in American Intellectual and Cultural History


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