Wednesday, January 19, 2005

"American Studies: A Not So Unscientific Method”
Brian Attebery
So I’m at this party, and a drunken soldier comes up and starts talking to me. Long story short, he says, “You’re majoring in American Studies? When I was at Notre Dame, that was the major with the highest paid graduates!”

“No Kidding!” I said, foolishly assuming the best. “Yeah, those are the only courses the football players could pass. Hah ha ha ha ha.”

If that fool could read big words, he might have a field day with Attebery’s article, in which he summarizes Henry Nash Smith’s point of view that American Studies, by definition has to be unscientific. He also concurs with “Marxist-Freudian readings of American culture,” which argue that “no study of culture is strictly empirical.” But rather than muddying the waters, Attebery’s argument, I believe, strengthens the theory behind the discipline.

Attebery’s point is that the “feature of the past” American Studies tries to measure “is something particularly accessible through poetry and literary texts.” This, by its very nature, can’t be empirical research.

Leo Marx wrote to Smith that he thought it would be “possible to trace, using the literature as an index, the genesis of the American middle class simply in terms of its self-consciousness, or the consciousness of ‘middleness.’” That’s such an important idea. To me it almost sounds like he views literature as a cultural Rorschach test, a way to measure the inner workings through a certain type of abstract image. Marx was not as interested in the “historical and cultural context” of the literature as he was in the “‘consciousness’ that is formed by the something collective,” whatever “American-ness” there was.

Attebery even spells out Marx’s methodology, or “regimen” for analyzing culture. He wanted to “Isolate the use of industrial-technical themes, metaphors, images in the work of the writer.” Then, he wanted to see how these same themes “fit into the novel, story or poem.” After that, he examined the way the way the writer related his or her own “preoccupations, themes, concepts” with the way the characters behaved “toward the emerging machine age.” Finally, he planned to go back to the “works of art” and try to interpret them in the light of what he had surmised from his work. Attebery points out that Marx’s methodology was “circular,” rather than “an open spiral.”

Marx also dealt with the issue of whether to consider literature in terms of its historical context. Neither Marx nor Smith was inclined to think of literature as “exceptional, an isolated aesthetic object.” Rather, both scholars valued literature because they believed “it is more than ordinarily representative of its time and place.”

Marx and Smith used the methodology of myth and symbol as “interpretive tools to aid them in identifying the structures of thought used by nineteenth-century writers to sort out their own complex and contradictory environment.” One of the key disagreements with their methodology is that the critics are inclined to begin with a foregone conclusion and find evidence for whatever conclusion they believe.

Though Smith and Marx didn’t always agree, they did share the belief that: “The subject matter of American studies is the American mind or consciousness.” Also, “The method for studying this subject involves interpreting artifacts” such as literature. The next is that “the interpreter is himself a product of history.” Another is that the method isn’t flawed—it can “validated by interdisciplinarity.” Finally, they agreed that “literature has a special place in American studies because the literary text articulates its own theory about itself and its time and place.”

Attebery ends by saying that we don’t need to “apologize for American studies.” Instead, we can value it as a “different kind of science, one in which interpretation and cross-disciplinary validation replace prediction and experimental verification.”

Monday, January 17, 2005

“Humor as Rhetoric and Cultural Argument”

Stephen Smith’s 1993 essay from the Journal of American Culture argues that “humor is ‘a part of the interpretation of life’ (Leacock)” and that “humor is usually purposeful and often persuasive” (51). He believes, in fact, that humor is “one of the more effective means of argument and persuasion in popular culture” (51).

His argument, though lofty, is common sense, when I stop to reason it out. He cites Gary Fines argument, for example, that “humor can both build social cohesion by narratively establishing group norms and maintain social control through ridicule to enforce norms and punish deviance” (51). Step into any high school if you don’t believe him. A great popular culture example of this principle is the high school comedy film, which explicitly serves to ridicule those who deviate from the standard behaviors and appearances (thin, heterosexual, etc.). The fact that humor affects the behavior of others is a given, then. Noticing it goes back as far as Freud (though Smith doesn’t mention that here).

Smith moves, then, more specifically to the idea of Southern humor. Citing C. Vann Woodward’s essay on “The Irony of Southern History,” Smith explains the “ironic society” of the South. “[P]articipants in an ironic situation are rarely conscious of the irony, else they would not become its victims,” says Smith (52). Another writer, Olsen, says that “Irony is a state of mind [...] that assumes the presence of a meaning behind or under a given text” (qtd. in Smith 52).

The argument from there is to prove that the South is an ironic society. Smith moves on to describe the literary history of the South (in brief). He attempts to “identify the unique characteristics of contemporary Southern humor, illuminate the distinctive new rhetoric of the new ‘local color’ writers and distinguish it from that of their literary progenitors” (54). In order to do so, Smith examines the work of five contemporary Southern writers who exemplify the characteristics of Southern writing.

South Carolina writer, William Price Fox writes of Doug Broome, characteristic of the “anti-heroes frequently found in contemporary Southern humor” (54). Another characteristic is interaction with a Black character on equal terms (55). Smith describes Southern culture as “constituted by the unique traditions and rituals of the region,” identifying Labor Day as “the highest of holy days” (55). He explains that one Fox novel describes “four [...] sacred rites—dancing, dying, dining and drive-ins” (55). As a narrator, Fox toys with Southern “conservative conformity.” Smith says that “[r]ather than poking fun at the deviants to demonstrate social superiority, as did the early local color writers, Fox and the other contemporary writers of humor” are more likely to construct “a vision of a more tolerant society” (55).

Another writer is Larry L. King (obviously not the fish-faced CNN interviewer), who, notably he says has the same sense of “place” and “people” as Fox. Like other Southern writers, King “writes in first person and identifies with the common folk” (56). The tension is that one always reluctantly must admit to being part redneck, but the ideal would be to be a Good Ol’ Boy. Smith quotes King’s novel, when the protagonist says he still doesn’t like “being called a Redneck…especially when you know in your genes and in the dirty back roads of your mind that you are one—despite having spent years trying not to be” (56). He draws a distinction between “’a Neck of the true plastic Jesus-on-the-dashboard and the pink-rubber-haircurlers-in-the-supermarket variety’ and a higher life from known as a Good Ol’ Boy” (56).

By comparison, columnist Lewis Grizzard’s writing, says Smith, might be “the best example of the rhetoric of Southern humor” because he tends to value the “folks who overcome overwhelming odds” over “the morally superior stance of the Old South Whigs and the New South Bourbons” (56).

Another of the five writers, Florence King, grew up in the Ballston area, right around the corner from here. He describes her stories and narratives as leaning “toward subtle irony” but with some “full-frontal satire” as well, since she wields “her weapon sometimes as a scalpel but more often as a machete” (58). Smith says that Southern women use the language differently than men for four reasons: First, because, traditionally, “writing was work that required no heavy lifting [...] so it came to be seen as women’s work.” Second, “the Pert Plague” made Southern women better storytellers. Third, women are better equipped to handle “the special contradictions of Southern culture.” For example Southern women are expected to “be frigid, passionate, sweet, bitchy, and scatterbrained—all at the same time” (58). Fourth, because they’re used to making conversation at boring debutante balls, their facility with language exceeds men’s. Apparently, Smith is arguing that King’s work demonstrates these principals (though I don’t recall her, for example, attending cotillions in her autobiography).

However, King does define Southern-ness after a fashion, when she says, “Southerners have a genius for psychological alchemy….If something intolerable cannot be changed, driven away, or shot, they will not only tolerate it but take pride in it. Conformists to the end, they nonetheless feel affection for any eccentric.” King says that calling someone an eccentric “is the nicest thing any Southerner can say about one of their own” (qtd. in Smith 59).

Finally, Smith discusses Molly Ivins, the famous Texas columnist, saying that Ivins qualifies as a new Southern regionalist because she observes the rules of new Southern rhetoric. Rather than seeing the region as “a homogenous and monolithic culture,” she views Texas as “a mosaic of cultures [...] black, Chicano, Southern, freak, suburban, and shitkicker (Shitkicker is dominant)” (qtd. in Smith 59).

Smith points out that Ivins uses humor to poke fun at some of the most serious issues in Southern culture. She argues that “[r]ace might be the key to understanding the changing order of Southern society,” saying “Once you figure out they are lying to you about race, you start to question everything” (60).

Smith decided to write about these new Southern writers to prove that “the rhetoric of contemporary Southern humor was quite different from that of the past” (62). Applying Bakhtin’s ideas about language, he points out that these writers “provide an effective [...] heteroglossia that lets their characters speak for themselves in their own language” (62). In addition, unlike earlier writers who were conscious or unconscious racists, they “enthusiastically side with their characters in challenging the hegemony of the prevailing hierarchy of class and race” (62).

Sunday, January 16, 2005

Sideshow U.S.A.:
Freaks and the American Cultural Imagination
Rachel Adams

So you’re at the pulled-pork part of the street fair along the North Carolina border. Or, let’s say you’re about to buy a trunkful of illegal fireworks. All the little booths have the same merchandise at roughly the same price. Then your buddy says, “Holy smokes, that one over there has a cashier that’s a bearded lady.” The premise of this book is that you’d go to the booth with the bearded lady because Americans are fascinated by freaks, so fascinated that they display them as cruelly as they do zoo animals. And when a freak isn’t available, they invent one so that people can ooh and aah and feel comforted to know that their own oddities are, well, normal.

Adams points out the significance of our obsession with freaks, notable in a country that seems to be based on acceptance of individuality. It seems contradictory then, to display and gawk at freaks. Are freak shows a celebration of independence or a nudge toward conformity (2)?

Adams looks at the idea of freakishness from a number of perspectives, including the historical, pointing out an important idea that I think applies not just specifically to freakishness but also to other important parts of popular culture. She says that “freakishness is a historically variable quality,” noting that at one time freakishness might have denoted “divine meaning,” whereas “by the nineteenth century freaks had no inherent significance” (5).

Adams deals in her first chapter with the issue of the sideshow “Africans” displayed like zoo animal freaks. Doing so was a way of acting out racism, or in Adams’s words demonstrating a struggle “over cultural authority” (32). The circus show people created a spectacle of “ethnographic freaks” under the pretense of educating people about “African wild men” (32). These side show workers would be fed raw meat and told to grunt and groan as though they could not speak. Ota Benga was one such creation; he had to share a cage with an orangutan. Others, like Ishi, were Native Americans, displayed to huge crowds as missing links to cavemen or the last remaining members of their tribe.

The following chapter is devoted entirely to Tod Browning’s Freaks. I’ve never understood the world’s fascination with that movie. It doesn’t strike me as particularly funny, and I don’t enjoy watching it for its sideshow interest, as I think many viewers do. Probably the best way to view the film is as a story involving human beings—and in part, I think that’s what Adams is getting at in this chapter. She talks about a stage play later created of the film that doesn’t give that same honor to the performers as true humans. One of the most interesting things about this film—which is I think what Browning intended—is the tension the viewer (at least the thinking one) must necessarily feel. Polite people are told not to look at or laugh at the freaks, yet the film requires us to stare. What are we to do?

Adams explains my sentiments in a far more scholarly manner. She says that the photography addresses the capacity these “freaks” have for “the dynamics of normative movement” (68). The film toys with freakishness of size and sexuality of its performers. Most importantly, it includes the audience, reaching out to say you’re “one of us” (85).

The next section deals with “The Queer Fiction of Carson McCullers.” I didn’t realize before I read it that Carson McCullers had been a bisexual woman who was more often in a “triangular” relationship with two men than any other (but she also was with women).

Adams argues that McCullers’s fiction is “populated by freaks” with disabilities that interfere with the formation of “identity” (89). Adams says McCullers connects queer and freaks in her writing, saying that while queer generally refers to “acts that cannot be referred to as heterosexual”, freaks refers to “beings who make all kinds of queer tendencies visible on the body’s surfaces” (90). Both freaks and queers suffer in her stories because they don’t fit in socially. These freaks can be seen, says Adams, as “aspects of the self” (91). They are produced not by nature but by the judgments of the community (91). Adams gives as examples characters in Clock without Hands and Member of the Wedding.

In “Freak Photography,” Adams connects the photography of Diane Arbus with Carson McCullers’s fiction, saying that Arbus’s photographs of “freaks” is “motivated by a knowing appreciation for the waning popular culture of sideshows in America (112). Some of the other contemporary work with “freak” photography is interesting because it parodies the work of original sideshow photographers—as well as that of fashion photographers—by showing “freaks” in poses traditionally reserved for fashion models. Zoe Leonard’s Pin-up #1 (Jennifer Miller does Marilyn Monroe) is a good example; a bearded lady lays nude in a provocative S-pose….beautiful until one notices her beard (136). The photograph draws attention to one’s expectation about beauty.

Another interesting chapter is “From the Sideshow to the Streets: Performing the ‘Secret Self.’” Here, Adams talks about the term freak as it is applied to hippies, the Woodstock scene, drug culture, sex, etc. She discusses the way the term derived its positive connotation from a negative one. Adams also discusses Geek Love.

I don’t think the American fascination with freaks is unique; other cultures do it as well. Maybe it’s just an interesting phenomen. Ho hum.

Thursday, January 13, 2005

Brief? Hell!
A Brief History of American Culture
Robert Crunden

Does a historian decide one day, “well, I guess for that next book, I’ll write a little history of American culture? Shouldn’t take me too long. Then I’ll play a couple of sets of tennis and then start the next one…”

Truthfully—isn’t it a trifle presumptuous to imply that all of American culture from its inception can be distilled into just over 300 pages? Well, it’s as impressive as can be to begin with. The rest of us wouldn’t know where to begin. Obviously, Robert Crunden does. In order to be able to finish—and get those two sets of tennis in before lunch time—he had to limit his definition of culture from the wide one that I’m thinking of as I write this (language, customs, dress, music, fashions, religions, fads, etc.) to a very narrow one that seems to be primarily political. Yet, not even he admits that. In the beginning he states that his purpose isn’t to join into any sort of discipline-based theoretical debate on the definition of the word, but he does say “I define culture as creative achievements at any level: classical music as well as commercial innovation, much-admired novels as well as intricate thrillers” (ix). That definition is noteworthy, because it identifies him to those of us in the know as accepting of low culture as well as traditional high culture. But it also seems to suggest that he’s going to take a wide view of culture and look at more than the political world. He specifies further, then, that his definition of American culture is “a peculiar mixture of Christianity, capitalism, and democracy in that order” (ix). So he uses those specific ideas as a lens for looking at America. The result is (for me anyway) a little disappointing.

Nonetheless, the scope is still pretty impressive, starting as it does in merry old England in the late 1500s. Crunden says that really, “American Civilization began in the England of Queen Elizabeth I” (xv). He describes the climate at the time, the lack of freedom of worship that caused “religious disputes” of sufficient stature that they were willing to undertake such a dangerous journey.

In the next section on Boston in the late seventeenth century, Crunden describes John Winthrop, calling him “the most important political figure to make the transition to America” (3). His “city on a hill” metaphor “marked the beginning of American exceptionalism and gave the colony a foreign policy even before it had a town” (4). Crunden says “Anne Hutchinson deserves mention because she was the first woman of importance in America” (7). Roger Williams was also important because he was opposed to mixing religious oaths with secular, state-oriented activities such as swearing-into office. His influence is still felt in that regard.

The second chapter deals with Philadelphia in the late eighteenth century, where Franklin and Cotton Mather are discussed. In chapter three Crunden discusses Virginia, around the same time. It’s not surprising to learn that “Virginia was the first of the colonies to have a permanent settlement but slow to develop a civilized culture” (40).

The book impressively breaks down history into small periods of fifty years or fewer and singles out two or three important figures per period, within a special political (and sometimes literary theme.

Maybe I'll confirm my bias here, but I think the book would have been richer with some discussion of what else was happening culturally. I think to limit the definition of culture the way he did limited the interest of the book. Ho hum.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Graff’s essay, “Promise of American Literature Studies,” from Professing Literature: An Institutional History takes up some of the issues John T and I talked about today. The question Graff tries to answer by writing it is why the study of American literature never became interdisciplinary when it seemed ever poised on doing so. He talks about the changes that took place in various institutions that adopted study of the literature and asks specifically, “Why, when conditions seemed ripe for the creation of a study of culture that would overcome the old compartmentalizations and fragmentations, did such a study not materialize?”

Graff begins, as do many of the other essayists I’ve read, by tracing the history of the field. He says that the notion of interdisciplinary study isn’t new, that by the mid-twentieth century Northrop Frye already protested the many “determinisms in criticism,” such as Marxism, Freudianism, Existentialism, and the like. But Graff says that Frye was wrong to infer that such “conceptual framework[s]” were new, citing Stanley Edgar Hyman’s 1948 survey, which “characterized [...] the organized use of non-literary techniques and bodies of knowledge to obtain insights into literature.” In other words, bringing in theories outside literature to understand the literature was nothing new. But Frye’s work itself, with its “system of myths, modes, and genres,” says Graff, “would make it possible to blur distinctions among literature, religion, popular entertainment, and advertising as expressions of common patterns of mythic identification.” Now, this idea is important as a feature of American studies because it ignores the old focus on high culture and sanctions consideration of elements like popular entertainment and advertising as reasonable areas of study to learn about culture; it expands the idea of culture beyond what people in an ivy-covered building think about.

Come to think of it, this connects to the article about Bakhtin and heteroglossia that I complained the other day was so difficult to understand. Bakhtin says that his novelization theory means that the text written in any number of situations is worthy of study. The traditional novel is an obvious case, but the advertisement text of a copy writer and the text of a Harlequin romance are equally valid as well. That’s the nature of popular culture study.

Anyway, so in the mid-twentieth century, as Randall Jarrell put it, critics became “much better armed than they used to be” with tools of interdisciplinarity. Earlier, in the 1930s, Parrington “thought of scholarship as a science and of criticism as inherently subjectivist.” But it took the next generation of theorists (like Fiedler, Marx, Lewis, Smith, and Matthiessen) to develop the idea of “a literary work as a microcosm of collective psychology or myth” and to make “New Criticism into a method of cultural analysis.”

The theorists saw the literature in terms of “thematic dualisms” such as “’Adamic’ innocence versus tragic experience (Lewis); frontier versus city (Smith); pastoral ‘middle landscape’ versus industrial machine (Marx); and male fellowship versus acceptance of social and sexual experience (Fiedler).” The only theorist of the group that was political at all was Matthiessen, who, says Graff, “managed to transform the organic social conservatism of Eliot and the Agrarians into a celebration of the democratic spirit.” His book, American Renaissance, “fused cultural criticism and academic literary history with the New Criticism’s method of explication and its themes of complexity, paradox, and tragic vision.” While Graff observes that it may be weak in its “prolix” analyses of some texts, one of its great strengths is “confronting American literature not only as an academic field but as a problem of cultural destiny.” Matthiessen thought that “American culture’s greatest weakness ‘has continued to be that our so-called educated class knows so little of the country and the people of which it is nominally part.” That idea has a great relevance to the idea of regionalism that John T and I were talking about today. It reminds me of my many international students who think all of America is as diverse and cosmopolitan as the D.C. Metro area and NYC. The East Coast is such a tiny part of the Culture. It’s amazing that that myth has persisted even until the present.

The result of this cultural weakness, though, has been one contributing factor, it seems, to the downfall of the study of American culture—that is that “the theorists’ generalizations about ‘American literature’ rested on a very limited number of works [...] the same number of authors and titles – the contents of a year’s course in the American classics.” Citing Berthoff, Graff says that by ignoring what doesn’t fit on a list of pre-conceived notions, we have “concocted in many cases a language that at its best is cultist and at its worst is jargon.”

Another flaw that’s led to the weakness of the study of our culture has been, as Nina Baym put it, the fact that the current theories of American literature would have one believe that “literature [...] is essentially male.” While that might have worked while women were more effectively marginalized, it’s hard to apply that rule these days.

Finally, though, the discipline itself was marginalized—as other essayists I’ve mentioned have noted. To add it “to the existing departments, which did not have to adapt to them, quarrel with them, or recognize their existence to any sustained degree” was the kiss of death. So that answers the question of why American Studies has never been fully legitimized as the study of a culture. This is actually a very useful article because it began to help with some of the forming ideas I’m having about a paper.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

"Bakhtin and Popular Culture”
Mikita Hoy

Good readers make predictions about what they are about to read. See if you can make a prediction about Hoy’s article from its subtitle: “Heterglottal Novelization.” Doesn’t that sound exciting?

Indeed, Hoy’s article delivers on the promise of its subtitle. Her point is to discuss Bakhtin’s theories, since they are useful to apply in interpreting popular culture. His idea of heteroglossia, meaning that a single word can represent many meanings, is applied to popular culture and is the focus of this article.

Hoy discusses Bakhtin’s idea that “the novel is the key form of” the present because of its ability to adapt its language to various situations—from “high culture” to “low” or “popular” culture” (765-766). Hoy argues that Bakhtin’s system of analysis applies not just to novels, but also to “magazines, comedy, advertisements, popular music, art, and fashion, since in their continual interchange and deliberate fusion of high and low styles, politics, parody and pastiche, comic strip and literature, haut couture and street fashion, they constitute a singular shifting dialogism whose rich carnival of discourse” is a part of that sense of “novelness” (766). It sounds to me like what he’s talking about when he says “novelness” is just an overwrought definition of Postmodernity. I’m still left with the “so what?” question. But let’s read on.

Next, Hoy takes up the idea of “Bakhtin and Genre.” She says that Bahktin doesn’t stop at the idea of styles such as “politics, parody, and pastiche” (766). Also important to analysis is whether “the author/artist/designer is Russian or Polish, Jewish or Catholic, male or female,” etc. For Bakhtin, it’s impossible to “identify specific genres beyond” something like “generic wholes,” since apparently too many diverse situations exist among authors. This connects back to the idea of heteroglossia: language cannot be “a static, communicable representation of the speaker’s intention, but a system bearing the weight of centuries of intention” (767). Further, language can be seen as “negating the uniqueness of personal experience” (767). By way of explaining, Hoy cites Sartre in Being and Nothingness: “the ‘meaning’ of my expression always escapes me. I never know if I signify what I wish to signify… As soon as I express myself, I can only guess at the meaning of what I express” (767).

If one were to think of that in specific relationship to the question of whether a place can influence the behavior (like the sense of humor) of a person, Bakhtin’s ideas would seem to support an argument against that fact—if he’s saying that there’s no such thing as a collective idea, then that would prove me wrong, wouldn’t it?

Hoy says that we can see evidence of heteroglossia commonly in popular culture magazines such as Arena and The Face. Unfortunately, these are European magazines, we’re not familiar with. What seems to be important about what she’s saying though is that the “heteroglottal novelization” at work in these magazines takes place when they “obliterate the distinctions, on the written page and, it is suggested, in youth society, between igh-artistic noncommercial and mass-pop-consumerist, between street and Parisian fashions, art and advertising, pop and nonpop, poetry and lyrics, comic strip and literature, the marginal and the mainstream” (768). So that’s what Bakhtin calls HN and what we call the study of pop culture.

In the section on “Popular Culture and Carnival,” Hoy says that the “kind of ironic, self-reflecting parody of the dialogism inherent in language is often the style of the traditional fool, who mocks others’ uses of words by using them himself” (770). Hoy gives the example of Shakespeare’s Fool in King Lear. I’m thinking of John Stewart on the Daily Show.

She goes on to discuss the politicization of carnival, specifically way “the cruder, more bawdy, brawling, more obviously mocking forms of carnival bring everything down to a single level.” Here the example is “the wave of new American comedians epitomized by Andrew Dice Clay, whose ‘Comedy of Hate’ consists in ritualistic abuse of audience members” (773). She connects his comedy with folklore and other old methods, calling it “a carnivalesque performance which realizes the theories of the textual and the linguistic carnivalesque” (773).

Similarly, many punk rockers, says Hoy, built their acts around annoying others. She talks about how political carnivalization “revolves around the destruction of images sacred in other, different, often opposing cultural levels and dialogues” (774). That’s definitely what punk rock was about—but it also sounds a little like dark comedy, particularly when she goes on to say that it “smacks a great deal of Bakhtin’s carnivalesque version of deah, which he applies particularly to Rabelaisian burlesque (‘in…the grotesque [clownish] portrayal of death, the image of death itself takes on humorous aspects…)” (774).

So, Hoy’s article is dry, but it deals with some important aspects of Bakhtin’s theories.

Wednesday, January 05, 2005

"From the King of Beasts to Clowns in Drag”

“…is a chapter from Janet Davis’s book, The Circus Age: Culture & Society Under the American Big Top, one that doesn’t really deliver on its title. Her premise is that “the world of the circus [is] one of the male gender flux, with androgynous acrobats, gender-bending clowns, players in drag, and animals dressed as men” (143). The zoo, as a site of “athletic [...] manliness,” was created to appeal to men and boys. Davis describes specific elements of the circus and then proves how they are particularly appealing the masculine interests.

Her thesis is certainly not something that one might puzzle out on her own, but after reading it, I’m convinced and not surprised in the least. She describes, for example, how “men [...] sought to reclaim their authority by fortifying the body: they participated in alternative models of male power such as basketball and wrestling or embraced ‘primitive cultural practices, specifically living in the wilderness or hunting wild game” (144). When I read this passage I thought about what are now called “x-treme sports” or vehicles marketed as “off-road” or “outback.” It takes no explanation for us to understand that they’re aimed at men, that they appeal primarily (if not exclusively) to men.

So these pursuits are not new. Davis describes older pursuits—like “Youthful counterparts to the back-to-nature movement like the Boy Scouts of America, the Sons of Daniel Boone, and the Woodcraft Indians.” The first one, obviously, is more familiar to us in modern times than the last ones, but we can still gather what the groups were about. She observes that these groups “enabled white boys to assume a temporary nonwhite identity as they dressed up as Native Americans and learned indigenous crafts and camping and survival skills. These organizations paradoxically helped heighten boys’ own sense of manly whiteness through the act of what Phillip Deloria succinctly calls ‘playing Indian’” (146). John Muir was his own special man’s man, “quietly staging his own remarkable death-defying bodily feats: he walked across much of the United States, fasted constantly and climbed the snow-covered Sierras clad in a woolen shirt, denim pants, and thin shoes” (146).

So, it’s not surprising, says Davis, that in what she calls our “nascent celebrity culture,” early heroes were not men but “adult animal males—Jumbo the elephant, Chiko the ‘gorilla,’ and Rajah the man-eating tiger” (148). These were animals connected “to the ‘masculine’ wilderness” (148). And in their performances, the animals tended to be humanized; they wore dresses and performed human acts. Not only that, but alongside the “humanized animals” were “animalized humans,” so, according to Davis, the situation “highlighted this ambiguity of modern people’s position within the natural world” (152).

It was around this time, not incidentally, that animal welfare became a big issue. Davis blames it lightly on the growing popularity at the time of the theory of evolution. She says that since “evolutionary theory linked human beings and animals to shared biological origins, some circus audience members saw the caged animal as an enslaved human being” (153). I think she’s really off the mark here. That simply isn’t the only reason why people would protest the use of animals in the circus. Animal cruelty is so undeniably apparent in the circus. It doesn’t take a preoccupation with evolution to notice that.

One of the most interesting cases Daily makes between the circus and masculinity is in telling of the children’s books P.T. Barnum wrote, which featured as protagonists young boys “who tracked, captured, or killed wild beasts” (155). His stories capitalized on a cultural myth of sorts, of a young man who could save a crazed circus animal gone berserk at a circus performance. The circus was built around the hunt-n-save fantasies of men and boys. That’s not the only explanation of the animal-gone-wild myth, though. Elsewhere, Davis mentions it in the context of the “curtailed” animal’s being a metaphor for the lynched black man.

Davis finally gets to the point about the drag performers. As early as the 1840s, comedian Robert Stickney performed “The Frolics of My Granny,” dressed as an old woman with a boy on her shoulders (only to be revealed as a single person in a convincing costume. Another performer did “Biddy O’Flaherty.” What’s interesting is that in the mid- and late-nineteenth century, these “’fairies,’ ‘inverts,’ ‘female impersonators,’ and ‘traders’ were more broadly accepted in the first third of the twentieth century than in subsequent decades, in part because contemporary scientific and popular constructions of an intermediate ‘third-sex’ made homosexuals less threatening to male codes” (169).

Well, that’s about enough. More is said—she discusses other fine points, here, but the most important thing to know is her main point, that the circus was devised as a male event.