American Egyptomania Search



The Book of Famous Queens (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell, Company), 1888

Cleopatra was one of American Egyptomania’s most popular subjects. Sexy, scandalous, powerful, and tragic, the myths and legends of Cleopatra’s life made her a perennial favorite for writers and artists who wanted to indulge in subject matter otherwise taboo for the nineteenth century. Tales of her sexual intrigues, decadent lifestyle, political bedrooming, and eventual suicide were staples of her reputation long before the 1800s, but nineteenth-century Americans were no less interested in her because of her long life as an icon of attractive transgression.

Women writers, however, were in an especially interesting place regarding their take on the infamous queen: on the one hand, she was a powerful and determined female ruler, who forged alliances with foreign governments and governed an empire – and therefore was suitable as a role model for women and girls alike – but on the other, she was seen as extremely improper and unladylike, being defined by her sexual aggressiveness and her scandalous and transgressive nature.

And even placing sex aside, for Americans in the nineteenth century, Cleopatra had an identity which made her even more problematic: she was seen as a problem for racial purity. There were many traditions of representing Cleopatra as racially mixed: Shakespeare, for example, famously referred to her as “tawny,” and one of the most popular ways to explain her contradictory nature – regal yet sexually improper – was to point to her mixed status. An Egyptian of Greek ancestry, debates over the “true nature” of Cleopatra’s family line were minefields of racial theorizing: if she was worthy of nineteenth-century worship, she must have been white, but if she was truly decadent and animalistic, she must have been “tainted” by mixed blood.

Nowhere are these debates clearer than in texts written by people who felt they had to take a strong stand on the issue of Cleopatra’s race, and no one took a stronger stand than Lydia Hoyt Farmer. Like several other woman writers, Farmer wrote a biography of Cleopatra and included it in a collection of other biographies of famous women, plainly intended to serve as role models for “proper” young children. Farmer in fact produced a number of such collections; this selection is taken from her 1888 Book of Famous Queens. This selection is an excerpt from her longer chapter on Cleopatra, but has been included here to highlight Farmer’s attempt to rescue Cleopatra from charges of not being white.

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From a painting by Thomas Sully. Metropolitan Museum of Art.

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