The Circus Age: Culture and Society under the American Big Top

The Circus Age: Culture and Society under the American Big Top

The Circus Age: Culture and Society under the American Big Top

The Circus Age: Culture and Society under the American Big Top

Excerpt

I discovered the topic of this book at Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry on a brisk March day in 1990. While I wandered amid pickled slices of the human body, a giant, ceaselessly swinging pendulum, a dimly lit Main Street in Chicago (circa 1910), a walk-in submarine, and airplanes through the ages, I came upon a photographic display of turn-of-the-twentiethcentury American circus parades. It mesmerized me. I was a new graduate student in modern South Asian history at the time and keenly interested in the ways that the British had used indigenous art, architecture, and pageantry to consolidate their colonial authority in India. Strongly influenced by Edward Said's landmark treatise, Orientalism, I wanted to study the relationship between British Indian culture (specifically popular culture) and politics. Yet here, in these grainy black-and-white photographs of provincial American main streets—complete with clapboard houses and tidy picket fences—were gigantic crowds gazing with giddy pleasure at camels, caged tigers, and elaborately caparisoned elephants topped with fake South Asian mahouts and howdahs. In short, these pictures of American circus parades contained a strikingly similar web of orientalist images that I had seen in British representations of South Asia. What did this seemingly apropos circus orientalism reveal about turn-of-the-century American culture? What did the circus tell its audiences about empire in a nation where empire—ostensibly—did not exist? Why was this circus display at the Museum of Science and Industry of all places? Over the next two years, these persistent questions led me into a graduate program in U.S. history where I (much) later completed a doctoral dissertation that became the basis for this book.

Before I encountered the circus at the Museum of Science and Industry, I had had little contact with this cultural form. During childhood, I had seen a few shows, and even played "Fearless Fanny, the Lion Tamer" as a high school student in a local children's theater production. But that was it. I simply regarded the circus as a beguiling childhood pleasure, rendered complete with pink lemonade and peanuts. Ernest Hemingway once wrote that the circus "is the only ageless delight that you can buy for money." The circus scholar Marcello Truzzi defines the circus as a "traveling and . . .

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