Woodstock: the greatest American carnival of the 20th century. “The defining event of the 1960s,” if you believe Life Magazine. The one that all music festivals since aspire to be, but can never re-create.
Then ponder why Americans have music festivals, and why we like to append “-stock” or “-palooza” to the end of things to make them sound – well, more chaotic, free, and unplugged than they really are. Is this how we like to see ourselves? Why?
Also: don’t forget to write your course reflection paper by Friday, Dec 10th! (see the previous post for details)
After the Thanksgiving break, we’re moving from Atlantic boardwalk resorts and the cities which nurtured them, to “destination” amusements and resorts in the American heartland, reflecting on the commercialization and commodification of American leisure.
For Tues 11/30, read Aaron Shapiro’s article, “Up North on Vacation: Tourism and Resorts in Wisconsin’s North Woods, 1900-1945″
For Thursday 12/2, two articles about the imaginative, highly structured, amazingly successful artificial worlds created by Walt Disney – remembering the connection he had to the 1893 Columbian Exposition in Chicago. The articles are Richard Francaviglia, “History After Disney: The Significance of ‘Imagineered’ Historical Places” (The Public Historian) and “Michael Steiner, “Frontierland as Tomorrowland: Walt Disney and the Architectural Packaging of the Mythical West” (Montana: The Magazine of Western History).
Photo caption:“This is the sky above Disney World, which here substitutes for an image of the place itself. Disney World is the first copyrighted urban environment in history, a Forbidden City for postmodernity. Renowned for its litigiousness, the Walt Disney Company will permit no photograph of its property without prior approval of its use. Is there a better illustration of the contraction of the space of freedom represented by places like Disney World than this innocent sky?” –Michael Sorkin, “See You in Disneyland” (1992), photo by Gui Trento
Thursday’s discussion questions:
What does it say about Americans who claim the ethos of freedom but (choose to) acquiesce to the highly scripted Disney vacation experience—an experience which not only institutionalizes but celebrates certain forms of unfreedom (in the form of, for example, long lines, one-way trams, age/height restrictions, narrowing of options)—as the pinnacle of the vacation dream?
What’s the relationship of Disney’s ever-expanding realm of physical locations to its television, film, virtual, and imagined spaces? To put it another way, where is Disneyworld/land?
What are continuities between Disney World/Land/Kingdom and the older carnivalesque of the Barnum circus, the World Fair, or the anarchic boardwalk empire? What are discontinuities, in other words, what’s utterly new and different about Disney’s “imagineered” places and the way that people experience them?
As an urban utopia, how does Disney reimagine work and leisure?
Do you buy Francaviglia’s argument that Walt Disney is a gifted “applied popular historian”? Why or why not?
If, as Steiner argues, “people yearn for the things they annihilate,” discuss what it is Disney might have first annihilated, and then consciously created a yearning for.
“The [Disney] park’s attraction,” writes Steiner, “would be its vivid contrast to the outside world.” In what ways was this true when it opened, and in what different ways is it true now?
Next week – two sessions on great American seashore sites of amusement–particularly for the working class–at the beginning of the 20th century. For Tuesday 11/16, read the available pages of Jim Lilliefors’ book America’s Boardwalks on Google Books. As of the weekend, there were 36 pages you can read for free – all the chapter on Atlantic City’s boardwalk and about half of the chapter on Coney Island.
On Thursday 11/18, we’ll read an excerpt from Kathy Piess, Cheap Amusements about Coney Island as a destination for working-class immigrant New York women and how that place, and its delights, shaped the urban immigrant experience.
Bonus: the great silent film star Harold Lloyd goes to Coney Island:
On Tuesday, 11/2, you’ll turn in your paper (History Lab #5) on the novel Water for Elephants – we’ll screen a documentary about New Orleans, a city stereotyped by exoticism, vice, jazz, and hedonistic carnival–and more recently, a stark reminder of the persistence of underclass and residential segregation in American cities, and possibly even a harbinger of social conflict wrought by approaching climate change. For all these reasons and more, New Orleans is essential to American culture and makes a fascinating counterpoint to Las Vegas.
Thursday 11/4 will be a wider-lens look at Mardi Gras in American culture more generally. Choose two of these three articles (read all three if you want, but make sure to read at least two) and prepare for a student-led discussion about Mardi Gras in (and outside of) New Orleans. These are big files, so I’m file-sharing them this week only – they’ll be unavailable after next week. Once you open the PDF, you can choose to save it to your own hard drive if you like, to be able to refer to it again.
Anthony J. Stanonis, “Through a Purple (Green and Gold) Haze: New Orleans Mardi Gras in the American Imagination,” Southern Cultures, Summer 2008, 109-131.
Aileen Ribiero, “The Old and New Worlds of Mardi Gras,” History Today, February 1986, 32-35.
Reid Mitchell, “Carnival and Katrina,” Journal of American History, December 2007, 789-794
This week and next week we’re reading Sara Gruen’s novel, Water for Elephants.
We’re mining it for ideas on how to construct a successful historical novel
We’re looking at it for what we can learn about circuses in the 1930s
We’re critiquing her research and her writing, weighing how aesthetically successful & historically authentic the novel is
Along the way, you’re working on History Lab #5 using this novel, possibly taking up one of the suggested questions for analysis, or developing your own question on a historical aspect of the book.
Finally, we’re making progress on our own novel–especially on the early chapters, perhaps putting our “idle” writers to work as researchers for the “active” writers & reversing those roles when the early chapters are done. We’ve created a character who’s a foil to P. T. Barnum, a fire-juggler and beloved comic performer, a veteran of the Crimean War from St. Petersburg named Dimitri Tarsov, stage name “Tosser.”
This week’s something of a light one. You have the scholarly article “autopsy” due on Tuesday 10/19, and in class we’ll screen a documentary about Las Vegas that aired on PBS recently. We’ve been talking about traveling entertainments and about the development of amusement as a (very lucrative) American business industry. With this film, we begin a conversation about two places in the US (Las Vegas and New Orleans) that have excess, entertainment, guilty pleasures, and vice/fraud as their main reasons for existence. Both cities, ironically, are built in places where a city really shouldn’t be built–in other words, these places are constructed on fantasy and risk to begin with, and both definitely have a carnival vibe. We’ll look at New Orleans later in the term, and also at other “stationary” amusements like Coney Island, Atlantic City and its famous boardwalk, and the worlds of Disney.
On Thursday 10/21, we’ll return to Janet Davis’s book on the Circus Age, and see how she ends the story. As the “great age” of the traveling railroad circus ended, what happened to this thriving industry? What has its legacybeen in American history and culture (besides the persistence of the “Greatest Show on Earth” circuses, albeit in very truncated form, and marketed–as you saw in Worcester–primarily to small children)?
Over the next week or so, we’ll be beginning to read and discuss Sara Greun’s novel, Water for Elephants. It’s new historical fiction, but set in the 1930s at the twilight of the traveling show & during the Great Depression. The novel alternates between the protagonist’s memories of having been a circus veterinarian & the lover of a bareback rider, and his present-day life as an elderly resident in a retirement home. You’ll no doubt recognize some of Davis’s and Bogdan’s themes in this novel, as well as prose images drawn from the Wisconsin Historical Society’s photographic collection on the circus and from the Ringling and/or Barnum Museums and archives. The novel may help serve as a model or inspiration as you write your own chapters this coming month. (By the way, there’s a major feature film of this novel in production now. The release is in April; it stars Robert Pattinson and Reese Witherspoon – fan site with film info here). You’ll do your 5th History Lab exploring how novels work as historical sources & what value they might have for people interested in the past – it’s due on Tuesday 11/2, so I’d recommend starting the novel well ahead of time.
This week you’re working on your Primary Source History Lab – remember the modifications are that you can use either Barnum’s autobiography chapter “The American Museum in Ruins,” or the Atlantic Monthly article “My Visit to the Gorilla” as your first source (replacing the Wisconsin Circus Lore bit), and then you should use one of the personal narratives found on Sideshow World sidebar “Preserving the Past” as your second source.
For this Tuesday, we will discuss the first two chapters of Janet Davis’s book, The Circus Age: Cultural and Society Under the American Big Top (up to p. 36). Chapter One, “Circus Day,” describes how the big traveling circuses of the late 19th and early 20th centuries arrived in towns, set up, paraded, performed, and how local people learned about and responded to their arrival.
In Chapter Two, Davis introduces the scholarly and theoretical questions her book will be concerned with, and what she calls the “ideological content” of the circus (25). Is the ideological content she identifies the same, or different, from Bogdan’s analysis of the freak show as cultural spectacle? Be prepared to describe Davis’s conclusions with respect to the circus as a HISTORICAL process and as a CULTURAL one – and keep in mind the ways that these processes intersected with, overlapped, or contradicted those of the freak show and other forms of American amusements.
On Thursday, we will discuss the Big E – most of us have had the chance to attend, and if you haven’t, then please spend some time exploring it virtually through its website and through any relevant Youtube or Flickr uploads.
By the way, (how’s this for coincidence??) – the Ringling Brothers Barnum & Bailey Circus “Red Tour” is coming to Worcester THIS WEEKEND. Opening night is Thursday the 7th; tickets are as cheap as $16.50. Tickets/Info, circus website here (be warned, loud & annoying automatic music, turn your sound down if you’re in the library!).
Here’s the blurb on the show – how’s this for hype?
“Through the mystery of magic and the mastery of skill, audiences will be spellbound as Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey presents ZING ZANG ZOOM, a thrill-filled, mind-blowing circus spectacular where family fun is no illusion.
Magical Zingmaster Alex and his assistant, the alluring Levitytia, lead audiences through a kaleidoscope of color and imagery revealing extraordinary worlds of fantasy, flight and phenomena that celebrates the uplifting spirit of the circus and wards off a cynical Mr. Gravity and his team of ‘heavies’ who try to bring everyone down.
Be mesmerized when a four-ton elephant disappears before your eyes, and a gravity-inducing nemesis transforms across species into a ferocious tiger. Stand in awe as two formidable, female human cannonballs are blasted through the air in a daring, awe-inspiring display of bravery. Become electrified as the dangerous double wheel of steel, the gasp-inducing high wire and soaring gigantic swings defy both gravity and logic.
Fun-filled magic merges with traditional circus arts to create a world of infinite possibilities where apprentice illusionists levitate their parents with a wave of a wand, and audience spirits keep rising as the high flying circus is (literally) turned upside down. Perhaps the most magical of all, watch in amazement as an incomparable array of exotic animals including a herd of majestic Asian elephants, magnificent Bengal tigers and elegant Arabian and Friesian horses join forced with our human performers to create an experience that will surprise and delight Children of All Ages, rendering us speechless and reminding us that the magic of The Greatest Show on Earth lives forever in our hearts and imaginations.”
Whew! Barnum would be proud.
BONUS: Lions attack their trainers in a Ukranian circus & at MGM Vegas (“Luckily an American family was there to get it all on tape”). Note how the (strangely underdressed) news correspondent noted the additional pathos of the little girl “leaving her doll” at the circus, as if the attack itself wasn’t bad enough.
On Tuesday 9/28 we will discuss the rest of Robert Bodgan’s book Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit. I know that sounds like a lot, but much of the second half is somewhat repetitive because he goes through several case studies of how particular exhibits presented themselves or were advertised by others and so those chapters should go quickly.
Read for, and be ready to talk about in class, the main chronology and timeline of these different kinds of exhibits – when do they first appear and when (AND WHY) did they die out?
Also consider -
How does the social construction of the concept of “freak” change over time?
Who were some of the country’s most famous, notable, or notorious freaks or freak promoters?
If you were at the fair on Friday, did you see any echoes of these performances or modes of presentation at the Big E?
What does Bogdan mean by the “sociology of deviance and disability” and how can that scholarly perspective help us make sense of these performers and their venues?