Faculty Research: Dr. Janet Davis pens NYTimes editorial on elephants in the circus


We’re pleased to share with you all the news that Dr. Janet Davis, one of our core faculty members, published an editorial in the New York Times this past Sunday. She describes the history of elephants in the circus in light of Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus’s announcement that their traveling elephant performers would be retiring by 2018.

See an excerpt below; the full editorial can be found here.

Elephants have been wildly popular in this country since 1796, when the first one arrived on American soil. Jacob Crowninshield, a ship’s captain from Salem, Mass., landed in New York City with a two-year-old Asian female from Calcutta. He sold the “Crowninshield Elephant” to an enterprising showman for $10,000. Thousands of eager Americans, including President John Adams, flocked to see the animal in taverns and courtyards, where audiences, fascinated by her trunk’s dexterity, plied her with gingerbread and wine. She and her keeper plodded from Rhode Island to New Orleans under cover of darkness for the next nine years because her owner was fearful of giving spectators a “free” look.

Americans at the time were particularly receptive to the Crowninshield Elephant and the many others who followed her, in part, because of nationalistic myth: Thomas Jefferson believed that flesh-eating elephantine mammoths roamed the American West, and he expressly ordered Lewis and Clark to look for one on their trans-Mississippi expedition. Performing elephants gave live, physical form to Jefferson’s notion of the American mammoth.

But that’s not all! Janet also contributed her expertise to this recent CNN piece on the circus’s decision. See that article here.

Faculty Research: Janet Davis Interviewed in Spirit Magazine


Hey there, sports fans! We’d like to alert you to the fact that Dr. Janet Davis was recently interviewed for a lengthy piece on a young man’s work in the circus in Spirit Magazine, the in-flight magazine for Southwest Airlines. Take a look at the excerpt below and click here to read the full piece.

Jesse’s challenge is more complex: In going to college, he was encouraged to step beyond a community in which he already knew his place. “All of a sudden you’ve got to rebuild, you know? And find your identity,” he says. In high school, he was a big man on campus—the star jock, a promising scholar, the circus kid, a rural success story. At SMU, among the children of Dallas’ elite? “It seemed like the kids there were entitled to be there. One’s mom is the CEO of Victoria’s Secret. He lived in my dorm. I was like, ‘Your mom owns Victoria’s Secret?’ It’s heavy-duty; heavy-duty people. And I was like,’‘My dad owns a circus.”‘

Plenty of college kids plow through these crises of self and set a course for their adult lives. If Jesse were just another boy shocked to discover that his strutting high school persona amounted to nothing in college, he might have toughed it out. But the circus offered an escape from the disorientation SMU stirred in him; it gave him a purpose. In bailing, Jesse wasn’t running away to join the circus, he was running home to it.

Now he’ll have to pull off the same tricks his forebears did. Despite its robust past, the circus has repeatedly had to evolve to avoid extinction. Although today’s audiences are harder to come by, the circus arts have become popular among kids. More than 350 instructional youth circuses operate in America, a quarter of them having emerged in the past 10 years. “The challenge for Jesse’s generation,” says author and circus historian Janet M. Davis, “is to bring all of these young people into the broader circus fold.”

Faculty Research: Dr. Janet Davis to Deliver Keynote at “Circus and the City” Symposium

Attention, New Yorkers! Dr. Janet Davis, one of our faculty members, will be giving a keynote lecture to the Bard Graduate Center’s Symposium, “Circus and the City: New York, 1793-2010.”

From the Bard Graduate Center:

This half-day symposium is being held in conjunction with the Circus and the City exhibition at the Bard Graduate Center.  The exhibition is made possible, in part, with support from the Mr. and Mrs. Raymond J. Horowitz Foundation for the Arts and anonymous donors.  The symposium focuses on the animals and performers that made the circus into such a spectacular and iconic form of entertainment in the United States. Brett Mizelle, “Contesting the Circus in American History: Animal Exhibitions and the Emergence of Animal Welfare,” historicizes debates over the legitimacy of the circus and charts the evolving relationship between the American public and animals over the course of the nineteenth century. Janet M. Davis, “Circus Queen in New York City: Flight, Spectacle, and the Fantastical Life of Tiny Kline,” uses the varied career of performer Tiny Kline to explore the world of popular amusements in the city during the early decades of the twentieth century. The symposium showcases the rich history and cultural legacy of the circus in New York City, and the two speakers will be joined by exhibition curator Matthew Wittmann, who will provide commentary.

The event is on Monday, October 15, 1:30pm-4:00pm. Be sure to RSVP if you’re interested in attending. All details available here.

In case you’d like to know more about the accompanying exhibition, the New York Times has a fabulous review, excerpted below:

Scholars of the arts in New York have long ignored the circus in favor of the city’s theatrical, musical and literary histories. But an ambitious new exhibition aims to fill that void. “Circus and the City: New York 1793-2010,” opening on Friday at the Bard Graduate Center Galleries, chronicles the rise, triumph and ultimate fragmentation of the circus through the lens of the city, making the case that the circus transformed entertainment, media and advertising and that the city itself played an important role in the evolution of the American circus.

“Circus has primarily been thought of as a global and national phenomenon,” said Matthew Wittmann, curator of the show. “But New York City was an incubator for circus since it first arrived in America.”

Dr. Davis is also on the advisory board for this exhibition and contributed an essay to The American Circus, published in conjunction with this event.

Faculty Research: Janet Davis lectures at UVA Circus Festival

This week, our very own Dr. Janet M. Davis will be lecturing as part of a circus festival sponsored by the Department of Drama at the University of Virginia. Her topics will include circus history and animal welfare–a combination of work already published and her current book project, The Gospel of Kindness: Animal Welfare and the Making of Modern America (under contract with Oxford University Press). Specifically, Dr. Davis will be talking to theater audiences after three performances of George Brant’s play, “Elephant’s Graveyard.” The veteran clown, Steve Smith, and the Bindlestiff Family Cirkus will also be performing as part of the festival. Audiences at UVA are in for a treat!

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 project is hard to define because I enjoy all of them. Sometimes I love them, sometimes I’m eager for them to be finished, but each has had its moments of incredible revelation and excitement. I would have to say there are two places at which I love the process the most. The first is the initial exhilaration of discovery, which often happens in the shower or out running, or when I’m doing something completely unrelated to work. I believe in the power of being away from work as a generative experience for getting into that creative mode where I make connections and have fun. The act of discovery for my very first book, which came from my dissertation, The Circus Age, came when I was having fun in Chicago for a weekend. I was out with friends at the Museum of Science and Industry, and I saw an incredible circus pictorial display. It was a photographic exhibition of circus parades from roughly 100-150 years ago. At the time I was a student in modern South Asian history. I had just started graduate school and was in my first year, and I was poised to go to India that summer. It hit me like a thunderbolt, this sense of, “Oh my goodness, look at all of the colonial South Asian animals, rituals, dress, aesthetics in these circus parades, ponderously moving down the streets of Keokuk, Iowa, and Salt Lake City, Utah, and Waco, Texas.” All of this popular culture of empire was in full, intimate display for Americans across the country, and it sparked a question for me: why was this happening? What was going on? That process of questioning led to the serendipitous discovery that the world’s largest public circus archive was only forty miles from my home, which is really quite lucky. So I actually switched out of South Asian history and moved into the American history program at the University of Wisconsin, and I loved it. I had a blast doing my research, I had a blast thinking and writing. And I had children along the way while I was living in north central Wisconsin, so that was in and of itself a fascinating and educational experience, living out in the woods for a good chunk of the five years that I was there before I was lucky enough to get hired at UT.

The Circus Age led to a slew of other opportunities. Again, it’s hard to say my favorite, because every project has had its own excitement and fun. I think that’s what makes this career so satisfying, in part. I would have to say that these projects grow out of each other, hence the difficulty in answering this question. It’s related to the interconnectedness of one’s own intellectual biography. Working in the circus archives and doing museum consulting at lots of different locations and building a community of people interested in this kind of research led to other projects, including the published memoirs that I edited, annotated, and wrote an introduction for about an aerialist named Tiny Kline. She was an immigrant from the Austro-Hungarian empire and she lived at an industrial boarding school in New York City as a teenager, worked as a dancer, became a burlesque dancer, then became a circus performer and eventually hung by her teeth sliding across Times Square. She was a thrill artist. Tiny Kline later became Tinker Bell at Disneyland when she was 70, so her life story became a wonderful way to think about pop culture during the twentieth century in the United States. I really enjoyed the kind of detective work involved, from talking to her neighbors, to the descendant of one of her night-school teachers in Los Angeles.

Out of all of this work on the circus emerged a sense of thinking about animals while reading bits and pieces of protest about cruelty at the circus and what it meant. Although the circus was a pretty scattershot target of animal welfare activity in that era, I discovered that there was indeed an incredible social movement taking place in the nineteenth and into the twentieth century that was interested in thinking about animals and kindness and ideas of American citizenship, civilization, and America’s place in the world. People involved in these movements were redefining American civilization as a kindly civilization by advocating being kind to animals. So these ideas that seem really abstract in some respects about nationhood, empire, cultural pluralism, are all very much tied up into ideas about kindness and this “gospel,” as they called it, “of kindness.” This movement was interconnected with all sorts of other reformist movements during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. My current project has been going on for quite a few years. What’s really been a surprise for me is that right now I am in the home stretch and I’m more excited about the project than ever, which is kind of surprising. About a year and a half ago, I kind of hated it, but now I’m feeling things are really coming together in a way that I did not expect when I was plowing through massive amounts of seemingly disparate primary material from all over the world. There are certain through lines, such as stray dogs, and the ways in which they speak to changing attitudes about the place of animals in urban environments versus rural environments. Dogs keep appearing in my chapters in really fascinating ways, and now that I’ve had some distance through the review process, I have more of a mountain top view of the project, where I see the landscape of my thinking and the evidence below me in a way that is allowing me to make these final, strong connections. And of course, this project is leading to other things, too.

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

I feel like my work is tied to a lot of bigger conversations topically, thematically, and methodologically. My research on animals has given me a wonderful entre into the natural sciences, into thinking about animals as historical subjects—not just in terms of how people relate to them, but in terms of their place in history as physical beings, directly tied to the impact of disease, technology, diet, and to epidemiological changes and technologies of preventative health like vaccines. This project has taken me into places that have been really exciting as far as rethinking what the humanities are. I think these fundamental questions about human-animal relationships are interconnected with questions of public health, diet, how we raise our food, how we live, and where we live. These are fundamental public questions, so I feel like this project really brings me into conversation with so many other fields, and I love it.

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Faculty Research: Janet Davis on the Circus

Circus performer, Adjie, 1899.

One of the best things about American Studies is how it enables telling histories through unexpected popular culture artifacts and experiences: baseball, toys, children’s literature – or, in this case, the circus. Dr. Janet Davis is slated to give a talk at the Historic Asolo Theater in Sarasota, Florida, on how the circus shaped the development of modern American society, and the Sarasota Herald Tribune has a lengthy feature on her work.

Here’s an excerpt:

The evolution of the circus, which first came to America in the late 1700s but was in its heyday in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, parallels growth in American society, sad Davis, whose focus is on social change rather than development of infrastructure.

Women, for example, were circus performers from the earliest days, but public perception grew and changed over the decades. The performing arts were a place “of general ill repute for women, and the circus was definitely no different,” she said.

But by 1890, female circus performers were prominently featured in the circuses’ advertising, marking “a real transformation in the public place of women in American life. It’s occurring at exactly the same time that women are becoming actively involved in reform movements in America, going to college, working in factories. It’s accompanying this general shift of American women out of the home and into public life.”

Check out the full article here!