The history of the circus may go back to the public spectacles in ancient Rome and to the itinerant performers who astonished crowds at medieval European fairs, but no one disputes the father of the modern circus[mdash]English cavalry officer Philip Astley, who capitalized on the horsemanship skills he gleaned during the Seven Years' War to open a riding school in London in 1768. In the evenings, he and his students performed to cheering audiences; he quickly expanded the shows to include clowns, acrobats, and jugglers. Astley's brainchild spread quickly through the Old World and the New, but the American traveling circus did not come into its own until 1871, when Phineas Taylor Barnum teamed up with William Cameron Coup to establish P. T. Barnum's Great Traveling Museum, Menagerie & Circus.
As a literary setting, the circus and its kin, the sideshow and the carnival, offer dazzling glamour, heartpounding drama, and grime and hardship carefully hidden from view. It is also a home to the grotesque and the fantastic. "Literature is one of the most interesting and significant expressions of humanity," claimed P. T. Barnum, and below we've assembled a small selection of titles that explore this entrancing world.
THE CIRCUS IN AMERICA
The Circus Age
Culture and Society under the American Big Top
By Janet M. Davis (2002)
During its heyday in the early 1900s, the circus brought everyday life to a screeching halt. When the trains pulled in, banks and stores closed, factories shut down, and classes were dismissed so that everyone could see the show. In this readable and provocative book, Janet Davis, an associate professor of American Studies at the University of Texas at Austin, uses reports, anecdotes, and illustrations to exemplify the traveling circus as a bastion of changing morals and attitudes that had an enormous cultural impact on early 20th-century America. "Whether you're looking at the circus's business operations and the way they used transportation developments like the railroad to superb advantage, or at gender and race issues," Davis observes, "the circus was a real cultural barometer."
LIFE UNDER THE BIG TOP
By Katherine Dunn (1989)
National Book Award finalist
Traveling carnival owners Al and Lily Binewski find themselves in dire financial straits when several of their acts run off. To save the family business, they decide to breed their own freak show using experimental drugs and radiation. The first child to survive, malicious, manipulative "Arturo the Aqua-Boy," has an outsized ego and flippers instead of limbs. Joining him are Siamese twins Electra and Iphigenia; an albino, hunchbacked...