Headshot Billy Acree

William Acree

Associate Vice Dean of Graduate Education
Professor of Spanish, American Culture Studies (Affiliate) and Performing Arts (Affiliate)
Co-Director, Incubator for Transdisciplinary Futures
PhD, University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
BA, Berry College
research interests:
  • Cultural History
  • Popular & Material Culture
  • Global Street Cultures
  • Public Space & State Formation
  • Afro-Latin America
  • Public Humanities
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    • Washington University
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    • One Brookings Drive
    • St. Louis, MO 63130-4899
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    William Acree is a transdisciplinary scholar whose research and teaching explore the cultural history of Latin America, the enduring impacts of everyday experiences, and the ways cultural goods and activities inflect public life, politics, and identities. He served previously as the Co-director of the Center for the Study of Race, Ethnicity & Equity and as the Dean’s Fellow for Graduate Education Initiatives. Acree co-directs the Incubator for Transdisciplinary Futures, an Arts & Sciences strategic plan signature initiative.

    Acree’s work has engaged the cultural history of reading, delved into the extravagant, playful, and always surprising world of popular performance, studied the almost forgotten lives of Afro-Latin American writers and thinkers, and followed the emergence of modern popular culture in Latin America. His new project traces the deep history and pervasive influence of street cultures. Linking all these areas is Acree’s persistent interest in the quotidian and lasting impact of what are often ephemeral cultural activities and products. 

    He began developing this line of research first in Everyday Reading: Print Culture and Collective Identity in the Río de la Plata (1780-1910) (Vanderbilt University Press; Argentine edition with Prometeo Editorial), which received the Southern Cone Studies Section 2013 Humanities Book Award of the Latin American Studies Association.

    More recently, this focus on everyday life took him to the circus, the world of extravagant showmen & women, and the stages of popular theater. His new book—Staging Frontiers: The Making of Modern Popular Culture in Argentina & Uruguay (University of New Mexico Press Diálogo Series)—centers on social interactions at entertainment venues, the impacts performances had beyond their places of representation, and on the Creole drama phenomenon that shaped modern popular culture in Argentina & Uruguay.

    Just what was this “Creole” drama phenomenon? Beginning in the 1880s traveling performers put on short plays at circus shows (usually consisting of acrobatic tricks and music) in the countryside, small towns, and later port capitals. While drawing from previous strains of popular culture, these shows were distinct: they staged local content, where native-sons were the heroes, and the tensions between rural life and modernization played out on stage. Almost as soon as they began, these dramas became the main attraction of the circus and one of the most popular forms of entertainment in the late 1800s, resulting in the emergence of a theater-going public and a vibrant cultural marketplace.

    Acree is currently following stories of street life in Latin America. Thanks to a Collaborative Research Seed Grant from the Center for the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis he has started developing the web portal Mapping Street Cultures in Modern Latin(x) America (link coming soon). From street food vendors to mass mobilizations, public spectacles to iconic figures, and from marvels of urban design to transportation systems for moving millions, in the streets you can find it all. That’s precisely what the Street Cultures project is about.

    William Acree received his BA from Berry College and his PhD from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. His research has been supported by the National Endowment for the Humanities, a J. William Fulbright Scholar award, a Fulbright-Hays Doctoral Dissertation Research Fellowship, and grants from the Mellon and Tinker Foundations.

    Collaborative Work

    Selected Journal Articles

    Hold That Thought Podcast

    Good Gaucho Gone Bad: The Creole Drama

    In the 1880s, a new kind of performance became the craze in Argentina and Uruguay. These wild "Creole dramas" glorified country life and the occasionally violent exploits of gauchos*, or Argentinian cowboys. In addition to being hugely fun to watch, the stories appealed to audiences experiencing rapid modernization and waves of immigration.

    Staging Frontiers: The Making of Modern Popular Culture in Argentina & Uruguay

    Staging Frontiers: The Making of Modern Popular Culture in Argentina & Uruguay

    Swashbuckling tales of valiant gauchos roaming Argentina and Uruguay were nineteenth-century bestsellers. But when these stories jumped from the page to the circus stage and beyond, their cultural, economic, and political influence revolutionized popular culture and daily life. In this engaging book, William Acree delivers a deep history of Latin American popular entertainment that culminates in a rich exploration of circus culture and dramas that celebrated the countryside. Among the most dominant urban and rural attractions on the eve of the twentieth century, these performances were central to how Argentines, Uruguayans, and immigrants came together across lines of social class, ethnic identity, and race as demographic and economic transformations reshaped everyday experience. Acree offers a revealing portrait of itinerant circus performers and the ways they rubbed shoulders with ranch hands, urban workers, and the upper classes to cheer their heroes and jeer their villains. Ultimately, “Staging Frontiers” tells the story of the surprising and enduring impact leisure and entertainment had on the increasingly expansive marketplace of culture.

    Everyday Reading: Print Culture and Collective Identity in the Rio de la Plata, 1780-1910

    Everyday Reading: Print Culture and Collective Identity in the Rio de la Plata, 1780-1910

    Starting in the late nineteenth century, the region of South America known as the Rio de la Plata (containing modern-day Uruguay and Argentina) boasted the highest literacy rates in Latin America. In Everyday Reading, William Acree explores the history, events, and culture that gave rise to the region's remarkable progress. With a specific focus on its print culture, in the form of newspapers, political advertisements and documents, schoolbooks, and even stamps and currency, Acree creates a portrait of a literary culture that permeated every aspect of life.