Traveling Showmen: the American Circus before the Civil War by Stuart Thayer (A Review)

Hello, all.  I’ve decided to try and use this blog to keep up my writing during the summer.  I’ll be updating with book reviews and other interesting tidbits as I approach my thesis year.



     Traveling Showmen: the American Circus before the Civil War by Stuart Thayer is a slim volume that the author all but admits was written from memory. In the appendix, Thayer writes, “It is possible that 30 years of research into this one not overly-complicated subject could well lead one to feel that he knew something about it” (123). Though I am not familiar with Thayer’s other works, including the prestigious three-volume Annals of the American Circus, 1793-1860, I would like to suggest that the subject is perhaps more complicated than Thayer acknowledges. Like the overwhelming majority of historical works on circus, Thayer’s book is too insular, too inflexible. It rarely acknowledges U.S. history as a whole, even when events external to the realm of circuses had acute effects on it. Thayer’s book therefore bolsters the nostalgic, antiquarian pattern now prevailing in circus writing. The result is a book which feels more like a guide book for starting a circus c. 1850 than a work of serious historical scholarship.
In terms of content, Thayer seems unwilling to venture outside of the circus antiquarian bubble to explicate developments therein. Chief among his historical omissions are discussions about the nature of the rural economy in the nineteenth century and the improvement rhetoric surrounding the Second Great Awakening.
Though Thayer indicates that the Panic of 1837 caused the downfall of the Zoological Institute (a group of cooperating menagerie owners that Thayer consistently labels “actually a corporation” without explaining further), he attributes the overall decline of traveling menageries after that year to their “static nature.” “How often will the public pay to see a tiger confined to a small cage?” He asks. “… Or a cage full of busy monkeys, no matter how entertaining? A lion is forever a lion and is not going to transform itself. (5)” I would argue that economic conditions affected more than just menagerie owners. The Panic would certainly have had a strong effect on their patrons as well, leading to the overall decline. Thayer also ignores the concurrent pattern of menageries being absorbed by circuses as a possible explanation of the declining number of menageries.
Though absent from the narrative, the assertion that these traveling shows exhibited mostly in rural areas is helpfully illustrated in an appendix. Thayer casually refers to the “hum-drum” village life as a factor in the traveling showman’s success. (36) In the preface he writes, “[The oncoming circus caravan] carried a promise that, for a time at least, there would be something different from the routine of village life” (ix). He relates an old trouper’s “interesting comment” that “stopping at a farmhouse to ask directions was often fruitless, because rural people in those days seldom ventured more than a few miles from home” (49).
In another part of the book, Thayer announces that “Old Bet,” the second elephant ever to be exhibited in the United States, was shot to death by a farmer in 1821 for unknown reasons (7). John Culhane, a circus historian contemporary to Mr. Thayer, provides the answer: according to the diary of the Rev. Dr. William Bently, the elephant was shot “because he took money from those who could not afford to spend it” (Culhane, The American Circus, 20.) This intriguing anecdote provides further rationale for including a discussion of the household economy of small yeoman farmers in the early nineteenth century. Such analysis would help give the book the historical relevance it lacks.
Thayer also repeatedly refers to moral objections to the circus that were often raised by clergy. At one point, he attributes these to “the mores of the Puritans, the Quakers, and their like” (8). In fact, the Protestant religious fervor of the nineteenth century was a reaction against Puritanism. The swelling of individualism and democratic feeling during the Second Great Awakening resulted in widespread condemnation of amusements. Thayer asserts that unlike the “European” theatre, nativists did not demonstrate against the circus because it “had no intellectual agenda, no political ends, no moral attitudes.” (111). However, circuses of this time period often did include political orations and opinions. Talking clowns like Dan Rice frequently soliloquized about local and national scandals, and blackface minstrels, common in antebellum circuses, often sang comic songs about topical political concerns. For an example, an 1846 review of the Great National Circus, for example, praised the equestrian skills of rider Charles J. Rogers, who performed a “piece on the Oregon question, in which he represented the Pilgrim Fathers, John Bull, Brother Jonathan, and the Gladiator” (Louisville Morning Courier and American Democrat, Aug. 21, 1846).
There is no doubt that Thayer has done his research. The compilation of names, facts and figures that make up the book seem to attest to that. What are missing are citations. Thayer once again acknowledges this problem in his postscript. However, the lack of citations makes Thayer’s extensive research nearly useless to subsequent scholars. It creates an intellectual “dead end” in which citations of his book become fairly meaningless–reliant on his “thirty years of research” as an adequate source. In effect, he asks us to just “take his word for it.”  Traveling Showmen does not convey an overall sense of what the circus was, what it represents, or where it came from. Instead, the book serves as an impressive compilation of research of limited usefulness.


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