Last Updated 14 Apr 2020

Harry Houdini’s Affect on the American Identity

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Breaking bonds in mid-air, slipping chains with a smile: Harry Houdini's greatest talent was not in performing illusions, but making any obstacle seem irrelevant (Rothstein). Life in the early 1900s was depressing and filled with extremely strenuous work. While watching Houdini, fans throughout America and Europe were dazzled by his escapism and were given a sense of hope as a result of his exploits. Nothing on Earth could hold Houdini a prisoner; every illusion achieved the impossible.

To immigrants, he was an example of the freedom that came with the American dream. The magical achievements of Harry Houdini evoked a sense of limitless power and imagination that helped to inflate a belief in a limitless America. There are certain arguments, however, that must be considered when examining Houdini’s contributions to the American identity. Like all illusionists, Houdini made the impossible appear to be not only possible, but easy to accomplish. As a result, many children attempted to emulate his intricate escapes, ending up injured or worse.

In addition, those who believed in a limitless sense of the possible, using Houdini’s magic as a symbol for freedom from boundaries, were disappointed by the realization that the American dream was not easily attained. Contrary to this speculation, Houdini’s contributions to the American identity were overall positive because he gave hope for a new life. Even to this day his name is known for magic and inspiration. Harry Houdini was born in the late 1800s with the birth name of Ehrich Weisz. The early twentieth century marked an era of both beginnings and endings.

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Americans of this time period had yet to make their mark in the world, and were very impressionable. Life for children of the early 1900s was work and school, so when they heard about the magic man, and saw Houdini, they gained a sense of imagination that had been deprived of them. Fans saw new possibilities once Harry Houdini came into the picture; innovations in the arts and entertainment gave a strong sense of national pride among the population as a whole. Houdini demonstrated the power to overcome bondage, to dissolve material obstacles, to confound expectations.

The yearning that magic awakened in audiences was no less vital in himself. Even today’s most amazing magicians, like David Blaine, are still inspired by Harry Houdini. Blaine is the Harry Houdini of the current generation and as Blaine watched a video of Houdini performing an illusion he said "It's almost beautiful -- the beautiful struggle. " (Barron). Today, Houdini’s legacy lives on and hardly any magicians today do not owe Harry Houdini a debt. Houdini elevated the magic arts to a phenomenon and invented an entirely new category of magic: the escape act. And as a result, Harry Houdini’s name is synonymous with escapes.

His ability to get out of seemingly impossible situations made him a legend in his own time. Impossible illusions shocked crowds, the most famous being eating needles, being buried alive, escaping from a torture cell, and dangling upside-down trapped in a straight jacket. All his escape illusions made people believe that nothing could hold them back; they were free and realized it was possible to “escape” from any trouble with which they were faced (Magical History). ''Nothing on Earth can hold Houdini a prisoner'' read a sign from 1906, and by 1917, America seemed prepared to believe it.

Houdini was publicly proclaiming the possibility of liberation. Was this, as the exhibition points out, the immigrant's fantasy as well? It must have been thrilling to watch an enactment of such transcendence, and not just of social obstacles, of course, but of spiritual ones, as well. The poor and the downtrodden embodied his acts with a kind of reverence. Even death is overcome by Houdini's powers” (Rothstein). According to one of Houdini’s reviewers, immigrants in the early 1900s came to America and saw Harry Houdini as an example of the American dream and then molded their view of what it means to be American to the magic of Houdini.

The American dream includes a promise of the possibility of prosperity and success and it is implied that freedom is the key to that success. Harry Houdini’s death-defying escapes during his life time fascinated audiences, particularly the many European immigrants. He inspired his audiences primarily because he was, at one time, a struggling immigrant himself. To them, he was the embodiment of the American dream. Immigrants watched Houdini and felt confident in making individual choices without the prior restrictions that limit people according to their class, caste, religion, race, or ethnicity.

By doing things that were seen by all as impossible, Houdini gave people a feeling of invincibility contributed to the American identity. Although Harry Houdini’s achievements occurred in the past, his legend lives on more than 80 years after his death. Still considered the greatest and most well known magician of all time, Houdini’s legacy for magic, performance and dramatics endures. After witnessing his amazing illusions, people’s imaginations soared and they saw limitless possibilities in the United States that molded the American identity.

During Houdini’s lifetime, he put a face to the idea of freedom and even today, if asked what it means to be an American, the word freedom will always be discussed. And since then, the feelings of freedom and possibility have been passed down through the generations and directly affect the nation and what it means to be an American. If men like Harry Houdini had not existed, then hope for a new life might have remained a dream for many. Houdini and his illusions became an icon for hope, and his legacy has remained an important thread in the tapestry of the American identity.

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