5 Questions with Dr. Janet Davis

Today we bring you another incredibly fascinating and comprehensive interview with one of our illustrious faculty members, Dr. Janet Davis!

What have been your favorite projects to work on and why?

My favorite projects – that is a great question and it’s really almost impossible to answer, because I feel like the work that I have done essentially is unfinished because it constantly keeps coming back.  I’ve done a couple [of] projects related to the circus, but they continue to live in ways that are continually surprising…. What I did in [my] first book was to think about the ways in which a cultural form like the circus could help us understand, on the ground, the broader social, cultural, economic, political forces that might seem to be apart from lived experience – but how this community event, this ritual, brought things together in a way that both tells us something about society but also tells us something about how this cultural form changed over time…. The adoption of railroads, national expansion, all of these things played a very direct role in shaping how the circus evolved….

So anyway, this book really became [a means of] thinking about the circus as a way to recast and understand the story of the United States in the 19th century and the early 20th century – how we became Modern, essentially.  Thinking about ideas about gender, performance, thinking about labor and foreign policy – I mean how all of these ideas about the self, the other, community, nation, how they all collide in the performances and in the ways in which those performances were received.  AND the actual structure of the business itself, how it played into ideas about the Gilded Age, monopoly formation, cutting deals with railroads for the bigger shows, buying each other out – you know, all of these stories that we know from other settings in American life, like with J.P. Morgan and John Waugh and Carnegie and all of these kind of captains of industry in the 19th century.  We don’t associate someone like John Ringling or P.T. Barnum or James A. Bailey or Adam Forepaugh in that same list.

Adam Forepaugh!  Who’s that?

[laughs] He’s a butcher’s apprentice from Philadelphia who made a killing in the horse market during the Civil War!  He got into the horse business selling horses to the Union Army, so government contracts made him rich.

You don’t really think of government contracts for horses!

I know!  And that says something too about the move from animal to motor power.  Which actually kind of motivated my interest in thinking about how people’s ideas about animals were changing during this same period!  So that kind of flow from one project to the next is always, you know, very much connected….  And so, thinking about the circus got me thinking about animals, because animals and human muscle powered the circus in tandem with machines, you know, and this is [the] period of tranformation from animal muscle to motor power.  And initially, when I started doing this research, it was governed by a question of why things didn’t happen at the circus.  Why were seminude female bodies not subject to regulation and purity reform?  Why was it that people were much more concerned about the physical comfort of the animals?  What was going on?  So that’s what got me – a set of questions that led to other questions.  So, the research that started taking shape as a result of thinking about animals led me in a lot of different directions.  That I didn’t anticipate.  At all.  At first.  It was really – it’s been quite the journey!

And I should say I had an intermediate stop with a circus performer named Tiny Kline…. she died a couple of months before I was born, sad to say – I would have loved to have known her!  I feel like I do know her, because I’ve met members of her family and neighbors and such.  That was a project along the way where an archivist up in Wisconsin at the Circus World Museum said ‘Hey!  We’ve got this manuscript and it’s – we don’t know who sent it to us, we know that the person who wrote it is someone who exists in the historical record, she hung by her teeth at the circus, but we don’t have the statement of gift on file so we’re subject to all these copyright laws.  So, you know, you’re the person to do the, you know, to edit it, annotate it, and try to find all of the legal information to copyright so that we can publish it.’ And so that’s exactly what I did.  [I] luckily got ahold of her death records, all of her probate records from LA County.  It was so cool – it was like it told its own story…. And, so anyway, that became a project that I worked on while I was also thinking about animals.  That was all set… and then that project has also created this web of networks and people that I’ve gotten to know….

I’m going to go have lunch with a bunch of circus people on Saturday November 5th  – I’m going to give a talk down in Sarasota and then do a book signing and then have lunch, you know, essentially have a weekend all these very old old people…. One of the people I’m going to meet with is this guy named Ward Hall, who’s in his upper eighties now, and he last was running a Christian sideshow.  And he was running it out of South Carolina, you know, managing it – they’d hired him to run the show, and he’s someone who’s been in the business for like fifty, sixty years.  And he’s got that kind of flare of the barker, that kind of spieler, so yeah, but he’s vital as can be.  He wears polyester – white polyester – suits and like really bright colored ties, like royal blue shirt and tie.  Yeah.  He’s fantastic, so I’m really excited to see him and all the other showfolk!

How do you see your work fitting into larger conversations in the academy and contemporary society?  

Sure.  Thinking about contemporary society both in the academy and outside the academy, you know, is really really important to me as a scholar, and also as a kind of thinking about why my work could matter.  It’s a big question!  But I do really want to write in a way that people who are, you know, just the elusive ‘general reader’ might relate to.  And so I think that these questions of inclusion and exclusion and American exceptionalism – we see that term all the time.  I mean, the other night Mitt Romney on the news hour was going on about American exceptionalism, and a lot of the candidates use this as a way to try to differentiate themselves from the ostensibly more self-critical policies of the Obama administration.  And you know, so thinking about some of these things that seem to be so far away historically are not….

So the book I’m writing right now, the Conclusion/ Epilogue is going to deal with Hurricane Katrina and then Michael Vick, to think about these issues of animal welfare…. In the case of Katrina, [I’m looking at] the battles that emerged over ownership and pets and questions of care.  The American SPCA and other animal wefare groups came down to New Orleans and rescued animals that were wandering the streets.  [With] a lot of the animals that they rescued, first and foremost, residents in some of these neighborhoods that were so devastated were forbidden from taking their pets with them when they were evacuated.  You know, the helicopter pilot would say we can’t take it, we don’t have room for your German Shepard or whatever.  So these residents were faced with horrible, horrible choices, so animals were left behind.  So the SPCAs often were making comments about how, well, people who owned these animals before really have lost the right to own them now because it’s clear that they did not receive good care.  You know, so again it’s this kind of making assumptions about people’s ability to be good animal stewards.  And how freighted economically and racially that is.  And so that’s one piece of it.

And then the second piece of it relates to the Michael Vick dogfighting case.  And how is it that, again, the kind of racial politics and class politics of dogfighting and athletics – how they’re all playing out in this figure of Michael Vick.  I don’t like dogfighting at all, I think it’s gross, and I don’t like what he did!  And so that’s not to say that I approve of what he’s doing.  But I find it very culturally revealing that as a country, as media, we’ve spent so much time on that terrible situation as opposed to millions and billions of animals that are factory farmed every day.  You know?

The abstractness of that reality, versus someone who is engaged in dogfighting.  Again, not something I like, but again, the ways in which people’s relationships with animals and their uses of animals really provide us with a lens into social fractures and the really charged politics of race and gender and class in America.  And that animals are very much a part of that, you know, defining these politics.  I’m really fundamentally interested in how a consideration of what these activists called “the least among us” – what does that do to the social and cultural landscape of our country when you place the least among us at the center of your analysis, and how does that, ultimately, reveal and play into other sites of contestation of American life.

Are there other projects, people, or things that have inspired your work?

Yes! So as an undergraduate, my advisor Eleanor Zelliot, she was a South Asian historian and she was so dedicated to her students, and also to the people she worked with in South Asia.  She’s a real model of integrity, and her scholarship is so accessible and lovely, and… she writes about the Dalit movement and Dalit activists in India.  Dr. Atmedkhir, who led a group of untouchables, you know they became Buddhists to try to escape the kind of paralyzing realities of caste in India and forging ahead in a way.  And so the social justice component to her work is really inspirational, and [so is] the way she lives her life.  So she’s great.  And my advisor as a graduate student, Linda Gordon, same thing….  I mean she’s written a lot of books: Woman’s Body, Woman’s Right, which is about abortion;  she wrote Heroes of Their Own Lives, which  is about domestic violence, she wrote The Great Arizona Orphan Abduction, she just wrote a biography of Dorothea Lange, she’s written about welfare.  She’s a woman’s historian but also someone who really lives what she writes about in a way that always amazes me.  The energy of these people!  So I love her work, and she writes, again, really accessibly, and that to me is super important.  So these are people directly connected to my work.

[Also,] a couple of people in graduate school, Paul Boyer and Tom McCormick.  Paul Boyer is a cultural historian and an intellectual historian; Tom McCormick is a diplomatic historian; they both – their work is so fantastic.  Paul’s written really widely; Tom has written about the China market in the American imagination in the 19th century, and he has a really wide interdisciplinary frame for studying diplomatic history.  So you know, so all these people educated me.  And there were a lot of other people as an undergraduate who were really responsible for my education too.  Paul Bonner, Deep Provo – you know, they were all just super important in teaching me how to write, to communicate, and think about the past and to make sense of it.

And my own mama!  Very very much at the center of deveoping who I am!  She was not a writer, she was an activist, and a great community citizen…. She was trained as a teacher, but when she married my father she became a stay-at-home mom.  She had kids really close together and then many years later had me, the tail end of the caboose.  My siblings never to this day let me forget that!  So she was trained as a teacher and deeply deeply dedicated to teaching.  She was such a great – loved it.  But when she wasn’t teaching, she was really involved in community work.  So she founded, with a couple of friends, La Lecha League in Hawaii right after I was born – she was very active in that.  When we moved to Wisconsin she was active in school politics and the school board, [and] she helped found a free school in Madison.  She was very much an intellectual searcher.  Raised in ranch country in California, and from a very conservative family, big time conservative, and really was always an intellectual explorer.  She read widely and just was so interested in the world of ideas.

And then later in life, before she passed on, she really was involved in community and civil rights struggles in Madison.  And she went back to school when my mom and dad’s marriage fell apart and she actually got a business degree, a Master’s in Business, [which was] very much rooted again in a community sense of how development works.  She did elderly housing studies – I mean, thinking systemically about communities and how they function, and how important location, not from a kind of commercial perspective but from a social perspective, really was.  She did a lot of pro bono work too, with her skills as someone who analyzed space and development issues and public policy.  And then she was on every board she possibly could.  She was just so involved, I mean she was the president of the YWCA for a while.  She was kind of a whirlwind, she really was!  So she really was inspirational to me.

What is your background as a scholar, and how does this background inform your current teaching and research?  And I actually would like to know how you neded up in South Asian Studies of all things!

[laughs] Well!  Yeah, so when I entered college I was very much thinking I would major in psychology or actually I was thinking about medical school – I was thinking about the sciences because I really liked the sciences in high school.  But I got to Carleton College, and psychology at Carleton was really neuropsychology, and so when I got to college – and I loved English in high school, too.  So, funny thing was that in college I discovered history.  I had always read history outside of school, but I hated it in high school, I thought it was so boring, so, you know, just like plodding along.  But in college, the history I got was the history that I loved to read on my own, because it was much more interdisciplinary the way that they approached it….

So South Asia happened by accident.  I knew I wanted to go away my junior year… the logical choice would be to go spend a year in Germany, because I took German in college and high school and such, but I thought ‘I want to go someplace that is completely out of my comfort zone.’ So I actually thought about going to Yugoslavia.  There was a program there.  It would have been so interesting – and again, this was all prompted by ignorance, I knew nothing about Yugoslavia, and I also assumed that it would exist forever, because I was a child of the Cold War, but of course – dissolved. Anyway, so I chose India.

And we had a semester of prep prior… and then off we went to India and lived with families….  I really realized being there that I loved doing research.  I’d always thought about journalism as a possible career, but it really got me thinking about Wow!  Doing research.  I think I mentioned this project I did on a group of women who were priestesses, who were using the Vedas and doing things that traditionally were outside the proper dictates of Hindu womanhood.  But what I found in doing this research is they were ultimately reinforcing ideas of traditional womanhood.  You know, cultural nationalism.  And they were also part of the BJP party, this Baratia Janata party, which is this right-wing political party that is now fallen out of favor in India, but they were a big deal in the late 80s, 90s, and really until pretty recently…. So when I got back I wrote an honors thesis as a Senior on Indian art and thinking about colonialism, indigenous art, but also colonial art – you know, it was big and long, but it was really exciting!  We had to have an outside reader, so this guy from Berkeley read my honors thesis, we had a defense, it was very formal.  Super formal!  I know!  And I expected that this was what life was like!

And so, anyway, that’s how I got into South Asia, and I entered grad school a few years later in South Asia.  I took time off – I was a flight attendant for a few years, but I always assumed ‘Yeah I’ll go back into South Asian history, and that’ll be it!’…. And the South Asia program I ended up going into [was] Madison – they gave me the most money, you know, so that’s kinda what decided it…. [But] the history program in South Asia was very not a good place for women.  Everyone left.  All the women left…. I was there for a while, it was very much this mind of benign neglect, you know, you just go off and do your work.  But it was pretty bad…. [One of the two] South Asianists in the program, he actually – I remember turning in a paper and he said ‘uh, well I haven’t read it, but’ – and I was just calling to confirm, this was before email, in the early 90s – and I said ‘Oh, I just slipped my paper under your door, and I just wanted to confirm that you received it.’  And he said yes, ‘I have not read it yet, but I have given it the requisite A.  There is the woman’s A, there is the black student A’ – he said this to me.  I am not kidding you.

So – it was so amazing, so deeply, like, revealing about the kind of gender racial politics of that program and why people left, why women left.  And so anyway, I left too!…  [I] was lucky enough to get into a class with Linda Gordon – on Social Movements!  It was so fabulous.  It was a great class.  I mean, she was such a great mentor and teacher, and in the end I ended up working with her and switching into the US program, writing – you know, discovering the circus – actually which I had even discovered while I was in South Asian history, but realizing that WOW!  Yeah, and that there’s all this South Asian colonial kind of representation in these circus parades and what’s going on.  So anyway, that led me to switch fields and I was an Americanist.

If you had to describe American Studies in one sentence, what would you say?

American Studies: is the interdisciplinary exploration of American culture and society!

What projects would you like to work on in the future, and what directions are you heading?

So, other projects.  After I finish this book on animals, I’m actually developing a project with an editor right now on looking at the summer of 1975.  In ‘75, there’s several things that happen.  One is that the Vietnam War is finally over in spring of ‘75.  And then you have this bungled rescue mission off the coast, the Mayaguez mission in ‘75, [where] a bunch of US merchant marines [are] killed.  And then you also have the 30th anniversary of the ending of World War II, and, to top it all off, it’s the summer that Jaws is released.  So I’m really interested in placing all of these things into conversation with each other.  What I’m arguing in this project is that there is a kind of paradigm shift…. the way to deal with Vietnam, first of all, is to remember World War II.  And secondly, Jaws is central to both projects in its own weird way, in terms of fear, hysteria, no one’s safe in the water.  There is also a kind of unravlling of the American labor movement – not specific to that summer, but it’s ongoing.  And it’s also the rise of Spielberg, it’s his first big summer blockbuster… and he’s like a World War II industry himself.  The movie itself has  a lot of World War II stuff, but it’s kind of this remembering and forgetting politics that helps to shape kind of the future direction of America.  It’s kind of a think piece.  It’s not going to be a really long book, it going to be more of a meditation on that particular time period and how it’s a turning point.

So anyway…I’ve got a lot of different projects going, kind of percolating.  Another one is actually a transnational comparative history of cows. There’s a whole big pile of sources at the British Library dealing with cow riots in the late 19th century in India all around the politics of cow protection, Hindu politics of cow protection and how they clash with Muslim residents who use bodies of cows, you know, for food and leather and what have you.  I’m interested in that relationship also in the United States, and also in England – there’s all this kind of nationalistic politics surrounding cows.  So, you know, it’s a very kind of weird project but it’ll be really fun to do.

And so then the other project I’m really interested in doing is one that deals with the Vietnam War era, in America, but from the vantage [point] of selected small communities.  What does the war at home look like in the place where I lived during grad school, Merrill, Wisconsin?  Small, small town, they make windows and doors – actually the frames.  It’s an old paper mill town and no one goes there, it’s absolutely invisible on the cultural radar.  But what is it like there?  You know, we see universities, we see big cities in the anti-war movement.  What is it like in a lot of these places where so much of the military labor comes from – what was the war like?  So I’m really, you know, I want to do a kind of community study.

And then I want to write about Hawaii!  Because that’s where I’m from.  There’s a whole rich animal history in Hawaii, too, so I’m really kind of interested in writing an animal welfare history in Hawaii…. The Hawaiian legislature just issued legislation on cockfighting recently, declaring it to be a cultural heritage, but not legal – ha!  So anyway.  I would love to do work in Hawaii, both as an environmental history but also as a social reform history.  And then the last project I want to do – I’d love to write kind of an ecological version of On the Road: thinking about the ecology along these highways, thinking about the interfacing of the environment with roadways.  Kind of [like] Stegner, John McPhee, you know, these are people who write about environments – Annie Dillard, I think.  Culturally interfacing with these places, these nowhere-lands.

So anyway, those are some ideas!  I mean, there’s a lot of other stuff I can’t wait to write about too!  But anyway.  Some of this won’t happen, I’m sure.  But – and actually, fiction, too.  That’s the other thing – when I finally get promoted to full professor that’s – I’ve got several stories in my head.  I’m kind of thinking I’ll just do it along the way – it’s all here, I’ve just got to get it all out.  I’ve got – I think there’s a couple of good stories.  My kids think so, they’re like ‘Mom!  Just write your book about bees!  C’mon!  Mom!  Do that!  You’re writing about animals all the time!  Write that other story!’ … And then also a circus book – I’ll probably return to the circus in the Cold War and beyond – kind of looking at the New World Order through the lens of transnational flows of people and performers and how that works…. And then the very last thing I’ll probably do even sooner is a biography of a guy named Frank Buck, who was an animal dealer, and he captured his animals without anaesthesia or tranquilizers, and he’s from Texas, and he became quite a big deal in the Depression.  ‘Bring em back alive:’ he would bring back those animals he caught.  And they would not be dead!  [laughs]

Dr. Davis is an associate professor of American Studies and History here at UT, and has been with us since 1998. Her books include The Circus Age: Culture and Society under the American Big Top and Circus Queen and Tinker Bell: The Memoir of Tiny Kline

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