The circus age: culture & society under the American big top

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University of North Carolina Press, Sep 23, 2002 - History - 329 pages
6 Reviews
A century ago, daily life ground to a halt when the circus rolled into town. Across America, banks closed, schools canceled classes, farmers left their fields, and factories shut down so that everyone could go to the show. In this entertaining and provocative book, Janet Davis links the flowering of the early-twentieth-century American railroad circus to such broader historical developments as the rise of big business, the breakdown of separate spheres for men and women, and the genesis of the United States' overseas empire. In the process, she casts the circus as a powerful force in consolidating the nation's identity as a modern industrial society and world power. Davis explores the multiple "shows" that took place under the big top, from scripted performances to exhibitions of laborers assembling and tearing down tents to impromptu spectacles of audiences brawling, acrobats falling, and animals rampaging. Turning Victorian notions of gender, race, and nationhood topsy-turvy, the circus brought its vision of a rapidly changing world to spectators--rural as well as urban--across the nation. Even today, Davis contends, the influence of the circus continues to resonate in popular representations of gender, race, and the wider world.

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Review: The Circus Age: Culture and Society Under the American Big Top

User Review  - Carmen - Goodreads

There was a lot of very interesting information, and some very intriguing arguments in this book; but, it often felt like the author was giving too much information with too little direction. This ruined an otherwise very enjoyable read for me. Read full review

Review: The Circus Age: Culture and Society Under the American Big Top

User Review  - Courtney - Goodreads

Easy to understand, not too jargony if you're unfamiliar with any referenced theories or concepts. Historical context is laid out simply. Some authors assume their audience is somewhat scholarly but ... Read full review


Circus Day
Hillside view of show grounds at Red Wing Minn Ringling Bros 1915
Barnum Bailey bigtop interior from advertisement in route book for tent maker 1904

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About the author (2002)

Janet M. Davis is assistant professor of American studies and history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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