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How the Circus Transformed America

Randy Shawbyline‚ Nov. 15‚ 2012

In early October I visited an extraordinary exhibition at the Bard Graduate Center in New York City, “Circus and the City: New York: 1793-2010.” Its title aside, the exhibition is less about New York circus history and more about the rise of popular culture, advertising, and popular entertainment in the United States. The exhibition runs through February 3, 2013, and is very highly recommend. For those unable to attend, and those whose visit whetted their appetite for more, there is Matthew Wittmann’s accompanying book, Circus and the City: New York: 1793-2010. Published by the Bard Graduate Center and Yale University Press, Wittmann’s work is less a book than a treasure. It includes photos of all the exhibits and much, much more, leaving readers spellbound examining P.T. Barnum’s legendary posters, Weegee’s photographs of circus attendees, and a vast collection of circus memorabilia. This book brings to life the days when the circus was at the heart of an emerging American popular culture, rather than a mere sideshow, and restores the circus to its rightful place as the progenitor of the nation’s entire entertainment industry.