Sideshow U.S.A. by Rachel Adams
Freaks and the American Cultural Imagination

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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

About Rachel Adams

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Rachel Adams is an assistant professor of English at Columbia University.
Published December 1, 2001 by University of Chicago Press. 296 pages
Genres: History, Humor & Entertainment, Arts & Photography, Literature & Fiction, Political & Social Sciences. Non-fiction

Unrated Critic Reviews for Sideshow U.S.A.

Publishers Weekly

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"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," wro

Nov 12 2001 | Read Full Review of Sideshow U.S.A.: Freaks and t...

The New York Times

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As Adams writes: ''The figures of the half man-half woman, the dog-faced boy, or conjoined twins confront us with their refusal of the apparently primal distinctions between man and woman, human and animal, self and other.'' Act I ends with the only film that recreated a sideshow using profession...

Mar 17 2002 | Read Full Review of Sideshow U.S.A.: Freaks and t...

Publishers Weekly

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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;

| Read Full Review of Sideshow U.S.A.: Freaks and t...

Carlin Romano

In a review published here at the Chronicle of Higher Education, journalist Cristina Nehring argued that readers “learn less about raising a child with Down syndrome than about the privileged lives of some New York City professors.” (This is a woman who, in a review of his recent book, Far From t...

Dec 17 2013 | Read Full Review of Sideshow U.S.A.: Freaks and t...

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