Freak Show Aesthetics: Exceptional Bodies and Racial Citizenship in Nineteenth-Century America

Franzino, Jean, English - Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, University of Virginia
Krentz, Christopher, English, University of Virginia
Lott, Eric, English, CUNY
Olwell, Victoria, English, University of Virginia
Hale, Grace, History, University of Virginia

Freak Show Aesthetics: Exceptional Bodies and Racial Citizenship in Nineteenth-Century America argues that the performance conventions from the mass cultural form known as the “freak show” significantly shaped the archive of nineteenth-century writings on slavery, abolition, and their aftermath. Proceeding from the suggestive fact that the “Golden Age” of the U.S. freak show coincided with the height of abolitionism through the citizenship debates of the post-Reconstruction period, my project suggests that the freak show provided U.S. print culture with imaginative resources for confronting the crisis in racial representation brought about by abolition. While many areas of the dominant, white press drew on the freak show to forward racially circumscribed visions of the body politic, other texts from U.S. print culture invoked the freak show in less predictably regressive ways: questioning the reliability of visible physical identity, probing the relationship between disability and race, and interrogating the embodied requirements of citizenship. From the Barnum-esque narrative strategies of both slavery apologists and slave narrators, to the numerous freak show echoes in Mark Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the texts of American slavery relied upon a “freak show aesthetic” that continually revised the relationship between blackness, disability, and national belonging.

PHD (Doctor of Philosophy)
American literature; American studies; disability; race; slavery; freak show; popular culture
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