Sideshow U. S. A.: Freaks and the American Cultural Imagination / Edition 1

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A staple of American popular culture during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the freak show seemed to vanish after the Second World War. But as Rachel Adams reveals in Sideshow U.S.A., images of the freak show, with its combination of the grotesque, the horrific, and the amusing, stubbornly reappeared in literature and the arts. Freak shows, she contends, have survived because of their capacity for reinvention. Empty of any inherent meaning, the freak's body becomes a stage for playing out some of the twentieth century's most pressing social and political concerns, from debates about race, empire, and immigration, to anxiety about gender, and controversies over taste and public standards of decency.

Sideshow U.S.A. begins by revisiting the terror and fascination the original freak shows provided for their audiences, as well as exploring the motivations of those who sought fame and profit in the business of human exhibition. With this history in mind, Adams turns from live entertainment to more mediated forms of cultural expression: the films of Tod Browning, the photography of Diane Arbus, the criticism of Leslie Fiedler, and the fiction Carson McCullers, Toni Morrison, and Katherine Dunn. Taken up in these works of art and literature, the freak serves as a metaphor for fundamental questions about self and other, identity and difference, and provides a window onto a once vital form of popular culture.

Adams's study concludes with a revealing look at the revival of the freak show as live performance in the late 1980s and the 1990s. Celebrated by some, the freak show's recent return is less welcome to those who have traditionally been its victims. At the beginning of a new century, Adams sees it as a form of living history, a testament to the vibrancy and inventiveness of American popular culture, as well as its capacity for cruelty and injustice.

"Because of its subject matter, this interesting and complex study is provocative, as well as thought-provoking."—Virginia Quarterly Review

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
"I feel my spine tingle and my heart leap as I relive the wonder of seeing for the first time my most private nightmares on public display out there," wrote 1960s and '70s social and literary critic Leslie Fiedler about the "freak show." Adams, assistant professor of English at Columbia University, explores this common critical perception of the "freak" including, over the centuries, carnival performers, people with physiological disabilities, hippies, people who blur gender conventions and people from radically different, non-Western cultures as distorted visions, or metaphors, of viewers' inner fears. In this wide-ranging, wonderfully imaginative and often startlingly provocative analysis of U.S. representations, displays and marketing of "otherness," Adams exposes the dark side of the mainstream. Documenting the traditional sideshow with sensitivity and shrewd examples, she expands into such diverse phenomena as Carson McCullers's use of "freaks" as a metaphor for nonconformist sexuality in Member of the Wedding, Diane Arbus's disturbing photography and the treatment of freakishness in Toni Morrison's Beloved. While frequently uncovering shocking facts in 1906, a Batwa Pygmy from Central Africa named Ota Benga shared a cage with an orangutan at the Bronx Zoo Adams's prodigious research also renders witty, insightful and original readings of such cultural artifacts as Tod Browning's 1932 film, Freaks; Katherine Dunn's 1983 novel, Geek Love; and Fiedler's 1978 analysis of Browning's movie, also called Freaks. A final chapter deals with how postmodern counterculture attempts to reclaim the idea of the freak Jennifer Miller, head of Circus Amok, calls herself a woman with a beard, not a"bearded lady," and gives feminist lectures during her act bringing all of Adams's themes to an intellectually, politically and emotionally satisfying conclusion. B&w photos. (Dec.) Forecast: This smart, academic book is a natural for students of the sociology of deviance, but it should have a life outside of academic circles, too. It has the quirkiness to receive substantial mainstream press attention, and if other major review outlets endorse it, it could be one of the press's biggest books. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780226005393
  • Publisher: University of Chicago Press
  • Publication date: 12/28/2001
  • Edition description: 1
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 296
  • Sales rank: 1,477,675
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Rachel Adams is an assistant professor of English at Columbia University.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

1. Overture: Recovering Otis

Act One

2. Freaks of Culture: Institutions, Publics, and the Subject of Ethnographic Knowledge
3. Sideshow Cinema

Act Two

4. "A mixture of delicious and freak": The Queer Fiction of Carson McCullers
5. Freak Photography
6. From Sideshow to the Streets: Performing the "Secret Self"

Act Three

7. The Black Look and the "spectacle of whitefolks": Wildness in Toni Morrison's Beloved
8. Maternal Impressions

Epilogue: Live from New York


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