Book Review: Capitalism, Democracy, and Ralph’s Pretty Good Grocery (1999) by John Mueller

This is a brief review I wrote on my phone for goodreads.

I came to this book by way of Mueller’s partial use of circus history to illustrate his points about capitalism. It’s an approach in which I see a lot of potential and hope to use in my own writing. The problem with it in this case is that the author appears to be a lousy historian. He leans heavily on examples from poor and biased sources, most notably the outdated and glorifying book Those Amazing Ringlings and their Circus by Gene Plowden (published by Caxton Printers of Caldwell, Idaho in 1967, hardly a reputable academic source) and P.T. Barnum’s own braggadocio-laden writings. Elsewhere, he makes bold statements with no citation at all. For example, he claims that “honest” showmen like the Ringlings grew “far richer than the cheats who had preceded them” (25). Oh yeah? Please prove that, sir. Particularly since it is central to your argument.

Mueller also seems to have but little grasp on Gilded Age and Progressive Era cultural history, assuming that word of mouth or personal experience were enough to keep patrons away from the “dishonest” circuses. Again, the author offers no source for the proclamation that before Barnum (whose role in deciding the content or business practices of “his” circus was probably minimal) “the entire industry was on the verge of extinction because its customers, through experience, no longer were foolish enough to attend” (25). But it was the circus itself that controlled its publicity in a society of disconnected urban centers, which is why glowing, personal accounts of even the worst circuses are easy to find. With an entire country to account for, the idea that ‘everyone had already been to that circus and got cheated’ is preposterous. In short (I’m writing this on my phone), there is much more underlying history to Mueller’s anecdotes than perhaps a political scientist like him would like to admit.

Even though the circus history examples are but a small part of the book overall, the author’s free use of anecdotal history does not bode well for the book’s core (in my view, outlandish) thesis that capitalism is under-appreciated and democracy is overly hyped.


Keeping History on the Downlow

This past week I got the chance to attend the annual conference of the National Council on Public History (NCPH).  While there, I attended a session called “Presenting Cops and Crime” led by FBI historian John Fox.  Also presenting were Laurie Baty of the U.S. DEA Museum in Virginia, John Butler, National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), Kristen Frederick-Frost, Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Barbara Osteika, ATF historian, and Rachel Penman from the Alcatraz East Crime Museum, now in Pigeon Forge, Tennessee.  The panel discussed, among other things, how we think about the history of crime in this country, and from whence do we get those (often sensationalized) perceptions?  Though the FBI has had its own historian for many years, other government entities, such as the ATF, have not.  In fact, Ms. Osteika is the first, and by her estimation, the last such professional.  It was an interesting panel, and led to some relatively heated discussion (by professional history conference standards).

During her presentation, Ms. Frederick-Frost shared that in her previous position with NIST, she was asked to write a history of Wilmer Souder, an Indiana farmer turned forensics expert active in the 1920s and ’30s.  This was to be an internal document meant only to enlighten modern NIST employees.  After her first effort was reviewed and returned by her superiors, she was shocked to find that it had been practically rewritten as laudatory and sensationalized puffery.  She refused to acquiesce to the changes, though I don’t recall the result of the incident.  What I do remember is what she said next (and this is paraphrasing, but very close, I believe): “Who can tell the story and how will it be told?  How do we create an appetite for a more complex story?”  That, I thought, was a provocative question, and it got me thinking about my own research on circus grift, illegal gambling, and political and private graft.

It also reminded me of my trip to the Chicago History Museum a couple of years ago.  I still have a photo on my phone of a text panel that rubbed me the wrong way.  It’s from an exhibit on “Gangland Chicago.” IMG_1310

I don’t know what the museum’s text writing process is like; perhaps this panel was the subject of ongoing contentious discussion.  But to me, “[Gangsters] bribed and threatened police and politicians, and corruption stifled reform” lets the police and politicians off pretty easy.  The complicity of those in power, both as consumers and beneficiaries in the bootlegger’s trade, certainly exacerbated the violence.

I admit that I haven’t come up against this kind of suppression in my own work as of yet, but others have.  When I received the research collection of the late author and professor John Hanners, it included some manuscripts that he had sent to the Circus History Fraternity on the subject of circus grift.  The drafts were returned to him with many of his findings refuted and denied.  But with newspapers and other sources now online and easily searchable, the evidence continues to pile up, and I’m here to collect it.  The monotonous bug in my ear muttering “write!  write!” continues to get louder and harder to ignore.  I know, and the research continues to show, that this is a complex and fascinating history with so much potential.  But again, who will listen?  Where is the audience?  Can an interesting, complex story still be accurate and also palatable?  The bug just said, “there’s only one way to find out.”


Republican newspaper’s depiction of Democrat Thomas Taggart (right).  Taggart is wearing a suit of playing cards due to his association with casino owner–and later circus owner–Ed Ballard.

Nineteen Hundred and Seventeen

You may have noticed lately that a good many museums and libraries are commemorating the centennial of the United States’ entry into World War I in March of 1917.  I’ve actually been looking forward to this because, though I’m not a war buff of any stripe, The “war to end all wars” occurred smack dab in the middle of my favorite historical era.  So much changed with that eventual decision by President Wilson to enter the thorny, chaotic, and bloody conflict that had been consuming Europe for nearly three years.  Lately I’ve been reading the book March 1917; One the Brink of War and Revolution by Will Englund, so fittingly published earlier this year.  The book oscillates between events during that month in the U.S. and Russia, each country simultaneously approaching a jarring and pivotal historical moment.  It does a good job of describing the physical environment and making the reader feel like a contemporary observer.  That seems tough to do, but it’s an aspect that I’d like to add to my own writing.

At the Indiana Historical Society, our exhibits team put together a nice display of a few of our related collections items, and set up a station at which visitors can listen to oral histories of WWI veterans.  Not sure how successful that is, because I can’t imagine folks standing there (there are no chairs) and listening to any one of the three available interviews for very long.  In the library, our interns were assigned a case exhibit on the war as a part of their training in the reference department.  I helped a little bit with gathering the materials they’d need and offered some tips on formatting text and arranging the collections items they selected, but my role was very limited.  I was a little bit disappointed that I didn’t get to do this one because I know of some great items in the collection that I had wanted to feature.

However, the case displays are usually my responsibility, and we had no plan for the subject of the succeeding display.  I didn’t want to completely repeat the WWI theme, replacing the interns’ selected items and text with my own, so I needed a twist.

AFSC-logo-basicNot coincidentally, the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC) is also celebrating its centennial this year.  The AFSC was established by the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) to aid civilians impacted by the war and to help pacifist Quakers find an alternative service to being drafted into the military.  I have recently reprocessed the papers of a man from Converse, Indiana (near Peru), who served with the AFSC in France immediately after the war.  Chester E. Bundy kept a diary, detailing his journey to France from Indiana, and his service fixing bicycles in the French countryside.  His letters home, which he wrote about once a week using the diary as a reminder of events, are also included in the collection.  After a little bit of digging, I found enough additional  AFSC materials to flesh out the exhibit.  I’m proud to be featuring a peaceful and beneficial alternative to the war.  It certainly doesn’t hurt that my fiancée is a practicing Quaker!


Dithering about Writing about the Circus

For several months–in fact, ever since I finished my Masters thesis–I’ve been doing research and preparing to write an article about the relevance of circus grift to the study of U.S. History writ large.  I’ve read numerous books, taken pages and pages of notes, and have constructed (in my head) what I think is a powerful argument.  It’s centered around two men who were at the center of the circus workings in Peru, Indiana, and who were perhaps responsible for that town’s very survival.

The inspiration for this work is the fact that circus history, as far as it goes, does not like to acknowledge the aspect of grift.  Perhaps sure-thing gamblers who cheated farmers and high-rollers from coast to coast in order to keep their circuses afloat (as well as fund banks, interurban lines, etc.) sullies the kid-friendly and harmless reputation that the circus obtained after World War II.  Perhaps, as is usually the case, the circus history fraternity prefers to perpetuate the innocuous side of the circus because that’s the circus that they remember.  These men (they are invariably men) are not historians.

9D - 1928-1929 Concessions - Pete Mardo photo

Hagenbeck-Wallace concessions men, ca. 1928.  Pete Mardo photo.  I’d count my change if I were you.

Grift should not be hidden from the historical record, but highlighted.  This aspect of the circus is what makes circuses relevant to  history.  From Reconstruction to the Great Depression, grift, graft, gambling, and swindles were ubiquitous cultural practices for small-time entrepreneurs and fat cat politicians alike.  There is a clear and direct line from Ben E. Wallace to Warren G. Harding.  Looking at the big picture, circus grift was just one of the countless ways that city bosses profited from the exploitation of citizens.  It was routine and expected.  Gambling was also prevalent in America’s other favorite diversion, baseball.  The 1919 World Series fix is a well-known and studied occurrence.  To me, the proliferation of these swindlers, their reign, and ultimately their evolution into advertisers, salesmen, and self-help experts is the story of modern U. S. history after the Civil War.

But I do not know how to proceed.  I guess the problem is that I don’t know who my audience is.  I don’t know where to submit such a paper, thus I can’t tell just what kind of paper it should be.  It makes a huge difference.  Should I try to shake things up over at the Circus Historical Society’s journal Bandwagon?  Should I try to relate it to more modern times and tailor it to the Midwest Popular Culture Association?  What about focusing on the Peru aspect for the Indiana Historical Society’s publication Traces?  How would that be received?  I just don’t know how to write it.  That’s led to continuing research, and at this point, I think I could write a book.  At least I have enough material for a book.  But wouldn’t that be skipping a crucial step of being published in a journal?

Speaking of the IHS, in November I was hired there as a collections assistant in reference services.  It’s a great place, and a good job for me right now, although I know that I’m capable of much more than my current responsibilities require of me.  I’d like to work more directly with the collection like I did as a volunteer there.  Still, I get to work on exhibits and am gaining all sorts of experiences just working in an office/library/historical society.  And I’ve technically been published on the blog over there, so that counts, right?

Reflections on researching the American circus

Perhaps you still imagine a circus to be solely a place of spangles and tinsel and gold and lace; of blaring bands and funny clowns; of beautiful equestriennes and sleek, graceful “rosinbacks”; of swirling, fairylike aerialists, and shimmering beauty everywhere?  That’s only the veneer!  A circus is a fighting machine of grueling work, of long, hard hours which begin in the grey of dawn and do not cease until the last torch has been extinguished down at the railroad yards late at night; a thing which fights constantly for its very life against the demons of adversity, of accident, of fire and flood and storm; a great, primitive, determined organization that meets defeat every day, yet will not recognize it; that faces disaster time and again during its season, and yet refuses to countenance it; a place where death stalks for those who paint the bright hues of that veneer which is shown to the public,–a driving, dogged, almost desperate thing which forces its way forward, through the sheer grit and determination of the men and women who can laugh in the face of fatigue, bodily discomfort, and sometimes in the leering features of Death itself!  That’s a circus!

This quote from the 1923 book Under the Big Top by Courtney Riley Cooper, while demonstrating its own form of romanticism, describes part of what makes the early twentieth century circus so fascinating to me.  The “great, primitive, determined organization” that balanced along the ever-shrinking fringes of society while using cutting-edge corporate techniques of organization formed a complex dichotomy representative of American society at that time.  While most circus antiquarians focus on the managers and performers under canvas, it is the laborers and confidence men associated with the shows that draw me in.

Hobos and other migrant laborers, along with experienced bosses (and hordes of local boys eager for free passes) made up the labor force that made the traveling railroad circus possible.  I anticipate that the hunt for the cultural ins and outs of these folks will be a lifelong interest of mine.  That’s fortunate, since recollections from this slice of society are hard to come by.  Many were illiterate and left no written evidence, and most probably never thought of their time on the circus as worthy of preserving.  Circus work was but one of the many temporary jobs taken on their way to a harvest somewhere or a factory job in the city.  The memoirs of hobos Jim Tully (Beggars of Life [1924]) and Jack Black (You Can’t Win [1927]), both republished by anarchist publishers AK Press, are currently at the top of my to-read list.  I’m similarly optimistic about Frank Tobias Higbie’s book Indispensable Outcasts: Hobo Workers and Community in the American Midwest, 1880-1930 (2003).  The thought that I’ve already written my Master’s thesis, partially on circus labor, without ever thinking of, letalone consulting any literature on hobos seems cause for embarrassment now.  Google books tells me that Tully mentions the circus specifically, and I look forward to the interpretive possibilities advanced by Higbie.  I am particularly interested in possible hobo involvement in the IWW, since Joe McKennon states that many circus workers were wobblies in his book, Horse Dung Trail.

Another book that has recently pushed me deeper into my circus analysis is Karen Halttunen’s Confidence Men and Painted Women: A Study of Middle-Class Culture in America, 1830-1870 (1982).  This book, particularly the chapters about middle class fears of the sly and well-dressed confidence men in an increasingly urbanized nation, lend another seemingly vital aspect to the work I’ve already done.  Unfortunately I came across this book too late to obtain it and use it in my thesis.  Confidence Men describes the way in which these tricksters had to remain mobile and had no permanent homes, no families.  In other words, it describes the circus without specifically mentioning it.  The book also explains how nineteenth century fears eventually gave way to the acceptance and even promotion of dishonesty and hypocrisy in business.  Halttunen’s interpretation therefore forms the perfect preface to the study of my favorite research subjects, Benjamin Wallace and Jerry Mugivan–two grifters who made fortunes in the circus business by applying long-established swindling practices to a large-scale corporate enterprise.

Admittedly, I’ve done very little archival research for this project.  I imagine most historians always wish that they could do more.  Most of my primary source material for my thesis came from Billboard or the Sutherland papers that were sent to me.  I very much look forward to doing more archival digging on these subjects and the possibilities that await me.

Review: “Showman: The Life and Music of Perry George Lowery” by Clifford Edward Watkins (University Press of Mississippi/Jackson), 2003

“By this time the United States had experienced a generous exposure to jazz and blues in the somewhat indecorous context of the sideshow annex.” (203)

“P. G. Lowery was idolized by his contemporary musicians, and there is ample evidence that the ‘Lowery school’ was a primary factor in the development of modern African American popular music and jazz.” (207)

“Phonograph records have long been the major jumping-off point for blues and jazz scholarship.  The fact that Lowery and his band made no recordings has had a profound effect on the place he has been accorded in American music history.” (207)

These quotes from the book Ragged But Right: Black Traveling Shows, “Coon Songs,” and the Dark Pathway to Blues and Jazz by Lynn Abbott and Doug Seroff (2007) intrigued me enough to seek out further reading about P.G. Lowery–sideshow bandmaster and supposed key architect of jazz.  I was pleasantly surprised to find that a biography had been written in 2003, and I wasted little time ordering the book.  Lowery was a fixture in circus sideshows for over forty years, and I had hope that the book would contain some intriguing insights into the culture of both circus/vaudeville workers and black America in the 1920s and ’30s.

However, by the end of the book’s first chapter, a familiar disappointment began to creep into my subconscious.  Like so many other published works related to the circus, Showman is but a superficial glance off the surface of a subject of unfathomable depth.  Since I’ve voiced many of these gripes in a past review, I will try to keep this brief.

The author mentions that Lowery was a part of a “turn away from minstrelsy,” (63) and that he produced an unexpectedly sophisticated and respectable entertainment suitable for the mixed offerings of the vaudeville stage.  Here an in-depth look at the minstrel tradition in the United States as well as a discussion of the rise of vaudeville in the early twentieth century would seem appropriate, if not essential.  Even a cursory look at David Nasaw’s Going Out: The Rise and Fall of Public Amusements (1999) could provide some context.  Similarly, the particulars of circus sideshow bands and their significance is barely hinted at.  Lowery’s innovations, whatever they might have been, remain obscure.

Similarly, the American Federation of Musicians union trouble in the late 1930s is entirely overlooked.  Surely Lowery experienced this upheaval towards the end of his career.  It would seem necessary to discuss events that had such far-reaching implications to his profession, particularly in a book which mentions those that do not, such as blowdowns and illnesses.  In a particularly awkward passage, the author seems to suggest that the Great Depression was over by 1940.  Even though the Depression’s effects on the entertainment industry are not previously a part of Watkins’ narrative, he writes, “People were becoming more likely to spend money for entertainment as they moved further away from the Great Depression of a decade ago, and the show did well during the 1940 season” (125).

The book’s sloppiness is further evidenced by the author’s inconsistency when referring to the Hagenbeck-Wallace Circus.  Though publications often confused the title, particularly in the early days of the combine, the fact remains that the show was never “Wallace-Hagenbeck,” or any other of the jumbled permutations used in the book.  Benjamin Wallace deliberately placed Hagenbeck’s name before his own due to the reputation that it brought.  This may seem like a small point that only circus buffs would bother with, but the author should at the very least choose a title and use it consistently instead of flip-flopping.

The book’s merit is that it effectively demonstrates the dual life of a circus employee, working on the circus during the summer months and finding alternative venues for the winter.  But from my perspective, Showman is fundamentally only half of a book.  It is a consolidation of many years of primary source material (specifically one source: The Indianapolis Freeman) on an admittedly important subject, but with no interpretation from secondary sources.  What does it mean?  Why is Lowery important?  How was the world different when his career ended?  Readers can only speculate.

“Oral History Review” Reading Reflection

“How Edgar Tolson Made It: Oral Sources and Folk Art’s Success” by Julia S. Ardery.  The Oral History Review, Vol. 23, No. 2 (Winter, 1996), pp. 1-18.

In the 1970s, “twentieth century folk and outsider art” emerged as the most recent movement to shake up the avant-garde art world.  In this article, Julia Ardery explains the vital role that recorded interviews with the artists played in the movement’s “development and accreditation.”  She highlights Edgar Tolson, a Campton, Kentucky man who took up whittling after suffering a debilitating stroke at the age of 53.  Tolson would eventually become a darling of the art world, whose sculptures sold for thousands of dollars apiece in the 1990s.

How does this happen?  According to Ardery, regional arts organizations, drunk on the flowing teat of the National Endowment for the Arts, used folk art to “project a non-elitist vision of the arts and to boost local pride.”  By the late ’70s, however, critical discussions of folk art began appearing in art journals.  Since very few galleries displayed it, art collectors began to journey into the hinterland to seek out folk art and its creators.  In Tolson’s case, it was AmeriCorps who brought his work into the mainstream lime light.  VISTA workers collecting examples of folk crafts took some of Tolson’s handiwork to the Smithsonian.  Tolson himself was eventually invited to be a part of the Smithsonian’s Festival of American Folklife, where he demonstrated his craft on the Capitol Mall.  Folk artists like Tolson were “living proof that the nation’s vernacular arts traditions had survived industrialization and mass production.”

In general, these folk artists were not invited to Washington to represent a presumably “lost culture”, but they were often interviewed by venturesome art collectors.  Ardery notes that interviewing “has functioned as folklore’s primary means both for documenting cultural practices and for establishing their ‘folkness,’ their place within a tradition.”  Exposing the power of objects to tell a story, collectors Werner and Karen Guntersheimer explained, “We’re interested in their stories….We love it when we can find something where there is some sort of a narrative around the person or the object that intrigues us.”   In time, Ardery writes, “Oral history became part of the collecting experience.”  In a way, the interview provided authentication for the collector.  Another collector stated rather coldly, “It’s much more fun for me to collect living artists when I can meet them and decide whether I think they’re truly naive or primitive.”

In researching Tolson, who passed away in 1984, Ardery conducted interviews with his surviving family and art world contacts to supplement existing recordings done by collectors from 1971 to 1982.  She relates an interesting pattern of Tolson’s changing attitudes about his work over that time.  Whereas he initially described his carvings as something that was “always in me,” but that “I never would fool with it till I got knocked out of work”, in later interviews he describes them as “a lost art, gone.”  In conducting her own interviews, Ardery found that some narrators were only willing to share their true assessments of Tolson’s work after the recorder had been turned off.  “Edgar’s things were ugly!” one declared.  On the record, however, she believes that the recorded interview, especially on the subject of art, “tends especially toward drama and celebration rather than apathy and indifference.”

In the case of this particular article, the word “history” as included in “oral history” is largely incidental.  There is never any mention of the recordings being archived, and the author routinely lumps “oral histories” together with any recorded conversation as sources of equal merit.  Nor is the end goal (as muddled as it seems to be), to write any sort of history.  In this article the recordings seem merely to be a component of the art piece–as testament to the artist’s ignorance of established methods of aesthetic or critique.  The interviews Ardery conducted seem to have been a product of her own curiosity about Tolson, and she used them much in the same way that a journalist would in researching a local human interest story.

However, in the sense that oral histories and the oral tradition have “cultivated a field of folk art appreciation”, I can relate.  Richard Cándida Smith wrote that oral histories can “inject history back into an artist’s career and, more importantly, inject the career back into a broader understanding of history.”  During my time at the Pacific Northwest College of Art in Portland, Oregon, Morgan Walker led a class on the History of Printmaking in which he spun fascinating anecdotes about the lives of the artists whose work we were studying.  That was when I began to see works of art, and indeed all artifacts of material culture, as history.  I realized that the artworks I had been conditioned to think of as entries in a particular category or genre were also artifacts of a human life.  The oral tradition can have a powerful effect on how we see the world around us.  The rise of folk art is but one unique example of that.