Freak Show: Presenting Human Oddities for Amusement and Profit is the first of my City Lights books that I read and finished—and fairly quickly too, thanks to a tightly and clearly presented argument, and an engaging tone of frank interest, all of which bespeak an organized, liberal, and open mind.
A titillating topic, to be sure, and filled with many familiar images of Colonel Tom Thumb, Chang and Eng, the Hilton Sisters, and many other human oddities. But the book is not intended to be—nor is it—titillating. Nor is it self-righteous, like Frederick Drimmer’s Very Special People, nor lofty, like Leslie Fiedler’s Freaks. Instead, it is an intelligent, unusual, and highly measured look at the freak show that flourished for a century beginning in the 1840s.
Bogdan, a professor specializing in the cultural foundations of education and sociology at Syracuse University, got the idea for the book (which was first published in 1988) when he overheard his then ten-year-old son explain, in answer to a friend’s question about how you could tell in a certain movie who the good guys were, that “if they looked bad, they were bad.” Bogdan then envisioned a book illustrating the preconceptions and prejudices associated with disability. But his book quickly moved beyond this view as he learned more, and contextualized more, the world of the freak show.
What he has created is a fascinating look at the history and world of the freak show, a place where people who looked (or were made to look) different from the norm were exhibited. He explains the showmanship behind it all, and looks at the complicity of those who were exhibited in this showmanship. This was a livelihood, and in many cases, a means of independence—and in a few rare cases, a means to fortune and fame.
Doubtless, many were exploited for all or part of their careers. But he presents a rather matter-of-fact business world of hype and showmanship, wherein the freaks were largely less oppressed than liberated. Mostly, though, Bogdan shows the evolving perception of “freak” in a time of growing sophistication, education, and information. So where an exhibitor could once get away with putting feathers and masks on Harlem residents and calling them Ubangis or Wild Men of Borneo, or where the recipients of specific genetic deficiencies or birth defects could be displayed as a source of wonderment or fear, as scientific understanding—and human empathy—increased, such exhibits of necessity disappeared. This context explains why respectable doctors and scientists of the 1860s would visit a sideshow to see an Elephant Man or a Siamese twin—and why they would not a few decades later.
So essentially, knowledge killed the old standby sideshow acts.
Bogdan spends much of the book categorizing the means and methods of exhibiting the oddities presented as either “exotic” or “aggrandized”: simplistically put, as either the Other or like us, only smaller/taller/limbless, etc. And he explains how the promoters and the promoted conspired together to evoke that wonder or fear—and why pity has no place in the sideshow, and how as soon as a condition became understood as deserving of sympathy (mental retardation, e.g.), the exhibited moved from the sideshow to the asylum.
The unspoken question, of course, is which environment is more exploitative.
Overall, a highly thought-provoking and accessible book, which enriched my understanding not only of the freak show per se but also of the history of showbiz in America. The dime museum, the sideshow, the carnival, the circus, the county and world’s fairs—these were where Americans came to be entertained before vaudeville, movies, museums, and theme parks. They fulfilled a need, and gave rise to new forms of mass entertainment that use the self-same tools of promise and promotion that they had perfected.
In googling just now, I came across some intriguing related publications, sort of a “for further reading” on this topic: http://www.anathemabooks.com/freaks.shtml.