Tuesday, June 26, 2007

The Circus Age

Title: The Circus Age: Culture and Society Under the American Big Top (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2002)

Author: Our own Janet Davis!

"This book argues that the turn of the century railroad circus was a powerful cultural icon of a new, modern nation-state" (10) - that the circus took shape in the way it did, where it did, because of the particular society in which it flourished. The circus represented the diversity and pleasure of the spectacle of a multitudinous America, but often in a way which reiterated cultural norms.


Circus Day:
Rich descriptions of the public spectacle that was a circus coming into town in "railroad circus" days, followed by a basic overview of the historical currents which fed into the phenomenon (immigration, "the search for order", racism, empire, expanding overseas markets, incorporation - see Alan Trachtenberg). Davis then describes the three largest railroad circuses upon which the book will focus (Barnum & Bailey, the Ringling Bros, and Adam Forepaugh & Sells Brothers), making a case for them as the three largest, most widely-traveled, and most influential of the circuses, and differentiating them from Wild West Shows (the circus was less historically minded, more eclectic in subject matter, and employed the definitive "big top" canvas covering).

This photo of Barnum & Bailey camels on a main street parade was found on a website called camelphotos.com. Cue the "I love the Internet" theme song.

The Circus as Historical and Cultural Process: This chapter dips back in time to the 1790s, describing the evolution of the circus during the 1800s as "a metonym for national expansion and infrastructural development" (12). (In other words, the railroad, Western expansion, and the circus were intimately linked.) This chapter also discusses, using cultural theory of Stuart Hall, Edward Said, and Judith Butler, how the different groups involved in the production of the circus came together to produce its "ideological content" (25). NB: On p 35, Davis discusses children's circus culture, including a circus toy set which modeled itself after TR's African safari of 1909.

These men were supposed to be "pearl divers from the Sandwich Islands" - an instance of American imperialism's absorption into circus-world.

Spectacular Labor
: This chapter "illuminates the thick, physical framework in which the circus produced its ideological content" (39) - in other words, how did it all get done, and how does this "how" help us understand what workers, supervisors, and spectators expected? Spectators who watched the circus were not only intrigued with the parts of the show specifically designated as performance. They also congregated to watch the set-up and strike of the tent, and were fascinated/repelled by the lives of circus performers. Davis argues that these performers created a social world apart from "regular life", and also that the tightly wound methods and processes of the circus (they had to be tight, to fit onto the railroad schedule) brought the industrial order of organization to small towns far away from factories.

Respectable Female Nudity
: Women were becoming more and more visible in the public sphere (see the "New Woman"), and the people who ran these circuses faced an interesting gender conundrum: what to do about their very visible female performers? In general, they tried to "reconfigure strong Euroamerican circus women into dainty, domestic ladies, and women of color into educational artifacts" (12). They did so with an eye to a subtle titillation of the viewer, playing with transgression, referring to sex obliquely, through "emphasis on female performers' lives, loves, and body-hugging tights" (85). Here is also a discussion of presentation of "untouched" tribes or "savages" in the circus context.

From the King of Beasts to Clowns in Drag: Masculinity in the circus and its contrasting meanings is the subject of this chapter, which holds that "performances...were sites of gender play that could provide audiences with liberating alternatives to disciplined lives of manly capital accumulation" (12). Although circus men were seen as exemplars of the athletic, "strenuous" ideal, they were also sometimes androgynous or dressed in drag - or, they were actually animals, dressed up as men. Here are examples of the animals' roles in particular tableaux, as well as the integration of evolutionary theory (chimpanzees used as examples of "Man, Previous to His Degeneration" [153]) and the emphasis placed on "ideal" or "alpha" specimens of megafauna (just like Carl Akeley and his Giant of Karisimbi). Men of color, even African-Americans, were often used as examples of apes or savages (182). Do hippos really have teeth that look like that?

Instruct the Minds of All Classes: Through the circus (and the Wild West show), American involvement in foreign countries was processed, naturalized, and contained. Episodes of foreign entanglement were re-broadcast in circus format, reenacted or dramatized. The overriding philosophy behind these representations was that circuses were "moral cheerleaders of expansionism" (194). Meanwhile, on a material level, animals and labor from overseas were used in performance, dramatizing the advantages of selective American extraction of talent and labor from foreign countries - however, Davis points out, the freakiness of these performers may have served to subtly uphold an anti-imperialist racial logic of exclusion (see Eric Love).

Looks like kind of a scary dream for a kid to have.

Legacies: From Las Vegas to the Bridges of Madison County: Contemporary analogues of circus culture, and some speculation as to what forms of culture may have taken its place.

In the Journal of American History, Don Wilmeth lauded the book for being "clearly written, persuasively argued, exhaustively documented", and wrote that it did an admirable job of completing its project of connecting the circus to the cultural history of the time. The book was also well-reviewed in non-scholarly pubs, including the NYT and the Times Literary Supplement.

Books to follow up on: Primary:
Peter Harkness, Andy the Acrobat; or, Out with the Greatest Show on Earth (1907); William Hornaday, The Minds and Manners of Wild Animals (1922); Harvey Root, Tommy with the Big Tents (1924).

Secondary: Harvey Green, Fit for America: Health, Fitness, Sport, and American Society (1986); Elizabeth Haiken, Venus Envy: A History of Cosmetic Surgery (1997); RJ Hoage and William A Deiss, New Worlds, New Animals: From Menagerie to Zoological Park in the Nineteenth Century (1996); Michael Kammen, American Culture, American Tastes: Social Change and the Twentieth Century (1999); Robert Kanigel, The One Best Way: Frederick Winslow Taylor and the Engima of Efficiency (1997); Charles Musser, The Emergence of Cinema: The American Screen to 1907 (1990); Patricia Vertinsky, The Eternally Wounded Woman: Women, Doctors, and Exercise in the Late Nineteenth Century (1990).

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