360 pp., 61/8 x 91/4, 8 color and 36 b&w illus., notes, bibl., index

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ISBN 0-8078-2724-X


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ISBN 0-8078-5399-2

Published: Fall 2002

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The Circus Age
Culture and Society under the American Big Top

by Janet M. Davis

Copyright (c) 2002 by the University of North Carolina Press. All rights reserved.




Chapter 1
Circus Day

On June 11, 1999, the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus crept into Austin, Texas, at dusk. Arriving at a downtown rail yard on that still, sultry evening, the circus quietly conveyed its animal stock to the nearby show site without any announcement to the public, in order to avoid traffic, insurance hassles, and most important, confrontations with animal rights activists.[1] The circus had been advertised in the local newspaper and on television, but the media paid little attention to its actual presence during its two-day stint. The Austin American-Statesman contained only one blurb about the circus, sandwiched next to a notice about a local traffic death: "Elephant dung for the taking: Bring your own shovel and a bucket today if you want to scoop up manure from the elephants owned by the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus."[2] The circus performed four times at the Erwin Center, an expansive, air-conditioned indoor arena at the University of Texas. In the blinding heat and sunshine, parents with small children streamed to the show from adjacent parking lots, grateful to enter the climate-controlled cool surrounding the circus. Meanwhile, the hustle and bustle of community life and commerce continued outside uninterrupted.

Yet a hundred years earlier, a large railroad circus shut a town down. Months before, people knew that it was coming: scores of "advance men" and billposters had already plastered all over dull barns, storefronts, and saloons thousands of vivid lithographs of wild animals and scantily clad performers emblazoned in splashes of peacock blue, orange, molten red, yellow, grass green, plum, and gold to advertise the upcoming show. In 1892 Adam Forepaugh's circus, for one, announced its impending presence in Philadelphia by mummifying an eight-story building with 4,938 lithographs, in addition to pasting thousands of other posters around the city.[3] In detail, local newspapers eagerly chronicled the circus's movement, along with complete information about its arrival time.

On "Circus Day" (as it was called in newspapers, memoirs, and show programs across the nation), shops closed their doors, schools canceled classes, and factories shut down. In 1907 the Board of Education in Bridgeport, Connecticut, voted to close the schools on Circus Day, and children in Paterson, New Jersey, successfully lobbied school authorities to dismiss classes.[4] When the Adam Forepaugh circus arrived in South Bend, Indiana, that same year, the Studebaker Wagon Works locked its doors so that its seven thousand employees could see the program.[5] Special trains offering discounted "excursion" fares transported rural circus-goers living within a fifty-mile radius of the show grounds. Roads became thick with people, horses, and wagons. A resident of Clifton, Arizona, remembered that when Buffalo Bill's Wild West came to town in 1913, some local farmers sold part of their hay and grain supply in order to take their entire families to the show.[6] Farmers traveled by horse and wagon twenty to forty miles and spent scant cash on novelty items like popcorn, cotton candy, and pink lemonade.[7] Known as "rubber necks" to circus workers, rural residents craned constantly to take it all in. Sherwood Anderson was mesmerized by Circus Day as a boy in Clyde, Ohio: "When a circus came to the town where Tar [Anderson] lived he got up early and went down to the grounds and saw everything, right from the start, saw the tent go up, the animals fed, everything."[8] In 1904 a newspaper in the mill town of Ashland, Wisconsin, near the shores of Lake Superior, noted the circus's impact: "All the roads brought in large train loads of people who came here to attend the circus and many people arrived last evening. All the mills on this side of the bay stopped work today noon and almost all business is at a standstill and everyone is taking the circus."[9]

The railroad circus overwhelmed large cities as well. When Barnum & Bailey opened its annual season in New York City in 1905, the route book reported that both the matinee and evening programs on March 24 at Madison Square Garden (where the self-styled "Greatest Show on Earth" traditionally opened each year) were "big," "packed." Many others were turned away. The next day, there was an "immense crush" at the doors when huge crowds were refused entry at the already overflowing arena.[10] The Ringling Bros. circus virtually shut down New Orleans in 1898. According to the Daily Picayune, "Last night the Ringling Bros.' Circus came near depopulating the city. It looked as if everybody had gone to the big show. If you wanted to see anybody you had only to look through the crowd, for they were all there."[11]

On Circus Day, thousands of spectators spilled into the streets to watch the free parade (fig. 1). Barnum & Bailey's New York City parade in 1891 had 400 horses, 16 elephants, 1,000 circus performers, and copious animals from the menagerie. This living sensory mass of color, sound, and odor proceeded slowly down Fifth Avenue, weaving through congested Manhattan until it reached Madison Square Garden.[12] The scene was equally grand in provincial towns. In 1904 a filmmaker captured brief, grainy images of Barnum & Bailey's parade in Waterloo, Iowa, on celluloid: thick crowds, jiggling dromedaries, zebra herds, a forty-horse hitch, a military band, intricate, gilded "cage" wagons, each housing panting feline predators, smiling, waving women dressed in gauzy, kimonolike gowns atop the elephants, and a calliope at the rear of this moving expanse.[13] Knowing that throngs of people watched the parade from second- and third-story windows, the John Robinson circus built fancy tin roofs on its wagons (called "cottage cages") with brightly painted designs that could be viewed from above.[14]

* * *

Long, winding lines at the ticket wagon greeted audience members who had not purchased their tickets in advance. Warren S. Patrick, treasurer of the Walter L. Main circus, remarked that selling 8,000 to 9,000 tickets in forty minutes (approximately 1,000 others had been sold in advance) was tough on his hands. "My mental calculation is invariably right; but now and then my fingers, after a severe strain, may drop one or two [quarters], too many or too little."[15] Inside the show grounds, crowds wandered around gawking at the enormous tented city that could stretch across ten acres (fig. 2). Along the noisy midway, candy "butchers" (vendors) sold lemonade, palm frond fans, sausages, and roasted peanuts. Remembering Circus Day in his hometown of Galesburg, Illinois, Carl Sandburg vividly recalled the midway men who beckoned audiences with "oily tongue" to play games of chance for cheap prizes: "Only ten cents for a ring and the cane you ring is the cane you get."[16] An hour before each big-top production, masses of people gathered at the sideshow tent lined with colorful banners depicting the Fat Lady, the Skeleton Man, the Dog-Faced Boy, and the others inside. A velvety-voiced spieler (or talker) lured patrons to part with a dime and come inside during the "blow off," a tantalizing outdoor display of seminude women flexing their muscles, a "living picture gallery" tattoo artist, or perhaps a rousing rendition of skin snapping by the Elastic Skin Man. During the "blow off," some spielers even quietly intimated that audiences might see nude women at the adjacent "Gentlemen Only" "cooch" show.

* * *

Once inside the menagerie tent attached to the big top, spectators saw big cats and bears lounge, eat chunks of meat, and pace in their cages, while llamas, giraffes, educated pigs, horses, chimpanzees, and peacocks fidgeted nearby. The lively strains of the brass circus band—including operatic selections, marches, and plantation melodies—told the milling audience members that it was time to head inside the big top for the main program. Candy butchers shouted and scurried around the cavernous big top, a massive canvas space propped aloft by huge poles and ropes that could hold over 10,000 people (fig. 3). A grand, paradelike entry processional of animals and performers marked the start of the main program. Approximately twenty to twenty-five other acts followed. An international constellation of players worked simultaneously on three rings and two stages. At a typical Ringling Bros. show, performers heralded from twenty-two countries, including Persia, Japan, and Italy; fifty clowns cavorted around the serious acts in vignettes of intentional chaos.[17] The athletic prowess of these sleek, muscular bodies was startling. As a boy in rural Iowa, the writer Hamlin Garland observed that "the stark majesty of the acrobats subdued us into silent worship."[18] Mark Twain's Huck Finn echoed this sentiment as he solemnly watched big-top feats in a small Arkansas community: "It was a powerful fine sight; I never see anything so lovely . . . the men looking ever so tall and airy and straight . . . and every lady's rose-leafy dress flapping soft and silky around her hips, and she looking like the most loveliest parasol."[19] The big-top program ended with a series of rousing horse races on the arena's outer hippodrome track.

* * *

The mammoth circus audience was also part of the spectacle, as thousands of "strangers" from around a county streamed into town. Big cities overflowed. Provincial communities became temporary cities, complete with anonymous, pushing crowds. Fred Roys of New York compared the religious revivals of his youth to Circus Day. "Them religious revivals they used to have . . . they was great doin's. When I was a kid we used to look forward to 'em like we did the circus. Sometimes they was as good as a circus."[20] Newspapers focused on the crowd as a defining element of Circus Day. In 1890 one journalist described the "show" of nearly ten thousand people from around a county filing into Barnum & Bailey's big top: "It was the biggest crowd of people ever in one tent in the city. A great sea of faces stretched out in every direction, representing all of the country thirty miles around. To see so many people was the best part of the 'performance.'"[21] Newspapers provided detailed lists of trains bringing specific numbers of people from outlying communities to the circus.[22]

Yet the sheer physical presence of a circus and its swirling masses was often bewildering. When Ringling Bros. played at Mount Pleasant, Iowa, on a steamy summer day in 1894, the huge throng became confused: "Pandemonium reigned and it seemed as if everybody was panic stricken. Families were parted, children screamingly hunted for parents, and parents distractedly hunted for children. Almost everyone was drenched to the skin and many a toilet was hopelessly ruined. Fortunately no one was hurt and the damage to the property little or nothing."[23]

Furthermore, the thousands of patrons tightly packed under the canvas tents were vulnerable in bad weather. The "blow down," or severe storm, was common. At Adam Forepaugh's 1893 date in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, audience members were trapped under the heavy big top after a gale force wind collapsed the tent.[24] That same summer, in River Falls, Wisconsin, seven people were killed after lighting struck one of the center poles at the Ringling Bros. circus.[25] When a windstorm "swayed and rocked" the big top at the Ringling Bros.' stint in Sherman, Texas, in 1900, spectators were so jittery that many of the more than 10,000 there "made a wild rush to get out."[26] Tornadoes, hail, wind storms, torrential rain, and knee-deep mud were some of the weather hazards that could abruptly end the program. But these attendant weather-related dangers were also part of the jarring excitement on Circus Day.

* * *

This diverse, elephantine community disruption otherwise known as Circus Day reached its peak at a turbulent historical moment. In 1903 ninety-eight circuses and menageries—the highest number in U.S. history—traveled the nation. At least thirty-eight of these rumbled by rail, and several journeyed coast to coast in a single season.[27] The historian Robert Wiebe characterizes this era as a time when a provincial "nation of loosely connected islands" was giving way to an anonymous, modern, urban, industrial society. Speculative investments in land and capital, the formation of large corporations, and accelerated industrialization defined the burgeoning post-Civil War economy. The proliferation of national railroad networks, the spread of the telegraph and telephone, the rise of the unscrupulous Gilded Age "robber baron," and the stirrings of the nascent automobile industry all helped destabilize an older, provincial way of life. Consequently, Wiebe argues that a "search for order" animated the Progressive project of corporate regulation and urban reform.[28]

The face of the nation also changed rapidly during this era. From 1890 to 1924, about 23 million immigrants poured into the United States hoping to find prosperity in the nation's expanding industrial economy.[29] The federal census of 1890 declared that the frontier had officially "closed," for there was no longer a clear line between settlement and wilderness in the trans-Mississippi West. By 1920 the U.S. census revealed that 51 percent of the population lived in cities with more than 2,500 residents. In the early twentieth century, the manufacturing output of the United States now exceeded that of Great Britain, Germany, and France combined.[30] Some Americans, like Edward Bellamy (Looking Backward, 1888), held great faith in the eventual utopian promise of industrial society. Henry Ford envisioned the automobile as a democratic symbol for the "great multitude," produced by efficient, well-mannered workers on an assembly line, whose productivity and thrift would also make them good car buyers.[31]

Yet this enthusiasm was hardly universal. Sherwood Anderson despaired that industrial development was strangling the nation's spiritual life: "The land was filled with gods but they were new gods and their images, standing on every street of every town and city, were cast in iron and steel. The factory had become America's church and duplicates of it stood everywhere, on almost every street of every city belching black incense into the sky."[32] While observing the New York skyline in 1904, Henry Adams noted pessimistically that New York City was becoming a powder keg of change: "The city had an air and movement of hysteria, and the citizens were crying, in every accent of anger. . . . Prosperity never before imagined, power never yet wielded by man, speed never reached by anything but a meteor, had made the world irritable nervous, querulous, unreasonable and afraid."[33]

Periodic panics and depressions in 1873, 1893, and 1907 magnified this "irritable, nervous, querulous" milieu. From 1881 to 1905, approximately 7 million workers participated in 37,000 strikes to protest low wages and dangerous conditions across the nation, from Homestead, Pennsylvania (1892), to Coeur d'Alene, Idaho (1899).[34] In How the Other Half Lives (1890), Jacob Riis's stark photographs documented devastating scenes of urban poverty and grinding factory work. Scattered across the Great Plains and the South, Populists formed the People's Party in 1892, ran candidates for national office, and lobbied for federal price supports, standardized shipping charges, and the free coinage of silver as a way to protect the small farmer gouged by railroad companies and grain elevator operators favoring corporate agricultural producers. Even seven years after the Panic of 1893 amid relative prosperity, national unemployment levels stood at a sobering 12 percent.[35]

At the turn of the century, five transcontinental railroads now crisscrossed the country; mass-produced "safety" bicycles were omnipresent, and crawling gasoline-powered cars dotted the nation; electric street cars clanged their way through congested cities, newly illuminated with glowing electric lights.[36] (In Cleveland in 1886, the circus owner Walter L. Main and his father were able to buy twenty horses at the rock-bottom price of $200 for their new circus[37] because the city was replacing its horse-drawn streetcars with electric trolleys.)[38] In an era of accelerated overseas immigration and rural migration to U.S. cities, a polyglot urban culture took shape in which growing numbers of women worked outside the home and participated in a shared work and leisure culture with men.[39] Between 1870 and 1910 the number of women working for wages doubled from 4 to 8 million (a rise from 13 to 23 percent of the total workforce).[40] Women also entered public life through their participation in Progressive Era reform movements, which challenged nineteenth-century Victorian notions of "private" and "public" spheres. As a sign of the times, the suffrage leader Charlotte Perkins Gilman in her polemic Women and Economics (1898) advocated a system of state-supported childcare so that mothers could work outside the home. Some men, however, feared that the new urban industrial economy was rendering their bodies, brains, and authority useless. As an architect of a therapeutic "strenuous life," Theodore Roosevelt advocated vigorous exercise and "extreme" experiences in the wilderness.

The rise of the American overseas empire also defined this period of upheaval. The 1890s heralded the arrival of what the historian Emily Rosenberg has termed the "promotional state," when the government, in conjunction with private industry, aggressively sought new overseas markets for American surplus goods. Policymakers and business leaders viewed this "crisis of overproduction" as the cause of depression and labor strife in the 1890s and argued that new overseas markets would be a safety valve for domestic ills.[41] As part of its stated mission of promoting democratic self-determination in Cuba and the Philippines, the United States vanquished the decrepit Spanish empire in the four-month Spanish-American War in 1898, thereby gaining new overseas possessions previously belonging to Spain—including Haiti, Puerto Rico, Guam, the Philippines, and Cuba.

Racism, particularly in the form of social Darwinism, was an integral ideological component of empire building. The new overseas empire grew in tandem with the rise of Jim Crow segregation, disenfranchisement, and lynching at home. Race riots charred the urban landscape in Wilmington, North Carolina, in 1896 and Atlanta in 1906, among other places. Critics of overseas expansion noted the inconsistencies of the Republican Party's position as the architect of both Reconstruction and U.S. imperialism. The Boston Evening Transcript observed that Southern race policy was paradoxically "now the policy of the Administration of the very party which carried the country into and through a civil war to free the slave."[42]

Race-thinking shaped contemporary interpretations of domestic demographic trends as well. Although Euroamerican fertility rates had fallen steadily since the late eighteenth century, this demographic reality did not become a "crisis" until the turn of the century, when the flood of immigrant "others" reached record numbers. In 1901 the sociologist Edward Ross coined the term "race suicide," which quickly became a popular expression of native-born anxiety. Euroamericans often saw these newly arrived millions as fecund aliens who threatened to turn the native-born into a racial minority, potentially stripped of their political and social power.

* * *

The railroad circus provides a vivid cultural window into this era's complex and volatile web of historical changes. This book argues that the turn-of-the-century railroad circus was a powerful cultural icon of a new, modern nation-state. This vast, cosmopolitan cultural form was the product of the same economic and social forces that were transforming other areas of American life. That is to say, the railroad circus was a cultural artifact of what Alan Trachtenberg has aptly called "incorporation."[43] Its immensity, pervasiveness, and live immediacy transformed diversity—indeed history—into spectacle, and helped consolidate the nation's identity as a modern industrial society and world power. The railroad circus represented a "human menagerie" (a term popularized by P. T. Barnum) of racial diversity, gender difference, bodily variety, animalized human beings, and humanized animals that audiences were unlikely to see anywhere else.

But the circus's celebration of diversity was often illusionary, because the circus used normative ideologies of gender, racial hierarchy, and individual mobility to explain social transformations and human difference. At first glance, this is a problematic claim because the nomadic circus traveled on the fringes of community life—in fact, as subsequent chapters will demonstrate, its workers consciously felt that they were a breed apart from the rest of society. Indeed, performers themselves embraced cultural diversity within this international, multiracial "traveling town." Still, the circus clearly promulgated the major social currents of the day. As the semiotician Paul Bouissac has written: "[The circus] is a kind of mirror in which the culture is reflected, condensed and at the same time transcended; perhaps the circus seems to stand outside the culture only because it is at its very center."[44]

This book will focus on the largest railroad circuses because these speedy, if ungainly, three-ring shows had much wider cultural exposure than small, plodding, horse-drawn wagon shows. Little wagon circuses traveled regionally, primarily in rural areas, while the biggest railroad outfits (possessing over fifty railroad cars) such as Barnum & Bailey, the Ringling Bros., and Adam Forepaugh & Sells Brothers bridged rural and urban, roaring across the entire nation in a single season. These railroad circuses frequently employed over 1,000 people and hundreds of animals. This book will include railroad Wild West shows as part of its analysis of the circus because both amusements took place in an arena surrounded by an audience, were financed by the same investors (James A. Bailey, for one), had a similar division of labor, and overlapped considerably in their content at the turn of the century: some Wild West shows had a sideshow, and many circuses featured Wild West acts with "cowboys" and Native Americans (plate 1). In addition, Wild West shows had trick riding acts that strongly resembled circus stunts, and contained an international conglomeration of talent, including acrobats.

But there were important differences between the circus and Wild West shows. Unlike the circus, Wild West shows generally took place in an open air arena (usually a baseball field, a racetrack, or a driving park) because an errant spray of lead from the shooting acts could shred a circus big top. Only the grandstand was covered by canvas. And, as the historian Joy Kasson contends, William F. "Buffalo Bill" Cody was always obsessed with realism in his efforts to create an "authentic" popular portrait of the nation's frontier past and present, even though he did so through myth and melodrama.[45] Circus impresarios, on the other hand, aimed to amuse, tantalize, educate, and perplex their audiences with a jarring mix of the real—"genuine" exotic human and animal acts—and the pointedly unnatural—educated dogs, boxing elephants, or human "iron jaw" acts in which performers dangled from the heights by their teeth. Because this book is primarily concerned with the circus, its treatment of the Wild West is, by necessity, limited to the ways that Wild West shows intersect structurally and ideologically with the circus. Other scholars have given the Wild West much fuller treatment on its own terms.46

Tracing the circus's development from its arrival in the United States in the early 1790s to its maturation in the late nineteenth century, chapter 2 will suggest that the evolution of the circus during the nineteenth century is a cultural metonym for national expansion and infrastructural development. At the height of its physical maturation at the dawn of the twentieth century, the railroad circus provides a complex case of cultural and ideological production because multiple groups participated in crafting its contradictory meanings: owners, managers, laborers, performers, animals, and audience members.

Chapter 3 demonstrates that the railroad circus's physical production processes were an important part of its cultural power. Circus exhibitions of labor—from advertising the show months in advance to the physical set-up and disassembly of the tented city—were just as potent to audiences as the incredible bodily stunts on the scripted program. The railroad circus functioned as a "traveling company town." Its intricate social system and bonds of solidarity among circus employees enhanced the outfit's distance from the outside world. In general, workers abided by strict rules of conduct that maximized production and helped the circus adhere to tight railroad schedules, thus giving its far-flung audiences an intimate look at the logistics and ideology of the new industrial order.

Chapter 4 explores the contradictions embedded in the labor of circus women. The growing visibility of the female performer mirrored the rise of women's visibility in public life, as suffrage activists, consumers, temperance reformers, and participants in sports and leisure. Yet showmen were uneasy about the radical potential of these "New Women." Consequently, they deployed a number of strategies to reconfigure strong Euroamerican circus women into dainty, domestic ladies, and women of color into educational artifacts. But impresarios also promoted female propriety with a wink, subtly reminding audiences that the circus was an excellent place to see seminude women.

Chapter 5 elucidates how exhibitions of male gender could both reinforce and subvert social norms. Although circus press agents advertised Euroamerican male big-top players as ideal modern men, actual performances were sites of gender play that could provide audiences with liberating alternatives to disciplined lives of manly capital accumulation. Animal acts, often scripted as male, helped define human constructions of male gender. Male audiences also engaged in transgressive masculine fanfare by using Circus Day as an opportunity for drinking and ritualized violence.

The railroad circus was at its most au courant in its celebration of America's emerging role as a global power. Chapter 6 analyzes how circus and Wild West spectacles (dramatizations of allegories, or reenactments of contemporary and historical events) helped naturalize for American consumers the entanglements of the United States in remote countries. During the Spanish-American War era, small-town newspapers breathlessly covered war, revolution, and America's military presence in faraway locales. The circus brought these distant episodes home. It also participated in foreign relations on a different plane: as an international business buying animals and hiring people from overseas. These logistics were animated by the same jingoistic Weltanschauung that marked the vast staged spectacles under canvas.

No other amusement saturated consumers like the circus at the turn of the century. Neither vaudeville, movies, amusement parks, nor dance halls equaled the circus's immediate physical presence—that is to say, towns did not shut down in their midst. These popular forms were integrated into local economies and local systems of surveillance, while the railroad circus was an ephemeral community ritual invading from without. Contemporary international expositions capitalized on the public's fascination with distant cultures through ethnological village displays along the midway, but one had to travel to a large city such as Chicago, Atlanta, Omaha, Buffalo, or St. Louis in order to experience a world's fair. The traveling circus, in contrast, came to one's doorstep. Disconnected from daily life, the nomadic circus had a distance from community ties that enhanced its ability to serve as a national and even international popular form, because American railroad shows traveled overseas. Adeline Blakeley, an ex-slave, identified the railroad circus as a national popular form while telling her life story to an interviewer for the Works Progress Administration's Federal Writers' Project: "I remember once Barnum & Bailey were coming to Fort Smith [Arkansas]. We were going down . . . but Bud [her employer's child] got sick and we couldn't go. When Helen [her employer at the turn of the century] and I went to California, we all saw the same circus together. . . . There we were . . . seeing the show we had planned to see way back in Arkansas."[47]

The peripatetic fin-de-siécle circus reached virtually all Americans. It educated and challenged people, irrespective of their ability to read or their distance from the metropolis. Its live visual presence made it a popular forum on science, race-thinking, gender ideologies, U.S. foreign relations, and national identity. Hamlin Garland remarked:

[The circus] was our brief season of imaginative life. In one day—in a part of one day—we gained a thousand new conceptions of the world and of human nature. It was an embodiment of all that was skillful and beautiful in manly action. It was a compendium of biologic research but more important still, it brought to our ears the latest band pieces and taught us the most popular songs. It furnished us with jokes. It relieved our dullness. It gave us something to talk about. . . . We always went home wearied with excitement, and dusty and fretful—but content. We had seen it. We had grasped as much of it as anybody and could remember it as well as the best. Next day as we resumed work in the field the memory of its splendors went with us like a golden cloud.48

Like vaudeville, the chain store, the "cheap nickel dump," and the amusement park, the circus helped consolidate a shared national leisure culture at the turn of the century. But in contrast to these mostly urban forms of entertainment, the circus was ubiquitous in all regions of the nation, small towns and urban centers alike: from New York City to Modesto, California, to Greenville, Texas, to New Orleans, to Butte, Montana, to Mazomanie, Wisconsin . . . and on and on. Circus Day disrupted daily life thoroughly, normalized abnormality, and destabilized the familiar right at home, day after day, town after town.


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