Monthly Archives: January 2016

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?