Gregory J. Renoff. The Big Tent: The Traveling Circus in Georgia, 1820–1930. Athens, GA: University of Georgia, Press, 2008. x, 235 pp. ISBN 9780820328928. Reviewed by Joshua Guthman, for the Journal of Southern Religion.

In the grim ledger of personal sin, circus attendance — even among the most priggish and doctrinaire of southern evangelicals, even among the Baptists who in 1892 shouted that “no Christian can follow Jesus and then be found in a Circus” — never did receive the same scrupulous accounting as those other, more familiar transgressions: drinking, gambling, cursing, dancing, and adultery (57). And yet it was the circus’s “disgraces” — its comic inversions of everyday life, its seething crowds, its lewd side shows and fleeting escapes from the day-to-day — that did more to challenge the South’s dominant religious, cultural, and social conventions than the collected iniquities of all of Dixieland’s soused, dice-rolling, cussing, two-stepping, fornicators. As Gregory Renoff argues in his fascinating account of the big top’s significance in Georgia, the circus, because it encouraged its patrons to behave in new and unfamiliar ways, helped spur many of the sweeping changes we associate with the emergence of the New South.

Renoff rests these big claims upon a sturdy foundation of empirical evidence (He seems to have scoured all of the newspapers and periodicals published in Georgia between 1820 and 1930.) underpinned by Mikhail Bakhtin’s notion of medieval carnival, during which the lines between performer and observer blurred to create a “second world” where hierarchies crumbled, opposites merged, and suppressed urges were unleashed. During Circus Day in Georgia, something like that “second world” came to life, according to Renoff (2). Brass bands played atop gilded chariots pulled by teams of garlanded horses. Elephants stomped down Main Street. In front of the ticket window, African American sharecroppers jostled with white shopkeepers. A middle-class family’s interest in side-show curiosities put them within eyeshot of the “hoochie coochie” girls. Roustabouts and the refined stood shoulder to shoulder. This was “a highly democratic form of entertainment” with an unrivaled degree of social interaction across lines of race, gender, and class (2). In the hierarchical world of the post-bellum South, Circus Day beckoned, the openness of its invitation proving both enticing and threatening.

"Evangelical attacks on the circus continued in the decades following the Civil War, but the impresarios adapted their shows to garner more respect and bigger audiences."  


It was these democratic pressures and the pleasures that underwrote them that caused evangelicals to shun the traveling circus when it first began rolling through the antebellum South. Even as lay people — both free and enslaved — crowded beneath the canvas, preachers denounced circuses as seedbeds of sin staffed by criminals and designed to appeal to a debased crowd. Evangelical attacks on the circus continued in the decades following the Civil War, but impresarios adapted their shows to garner more respect and bigger audiences. Advertisements for the menagerie, for instance, transformed a collection of wild animals into a latter-day Noah’s Ark brimming with the Creator’s handiwork. One especially enterprising showman tempted audiences with the “unicorn of Holy Writ” (59). (That was what the less-brazen called a rhinoceros.) Circus men also held afternoon charity performances to attract genteel women and pacify religious critics. They began selling tickets in advance, which meant that the “respectable” need not throw themselves into the hurly-burly in front of the ticket window on show day. Meanwhile, once-skeptical pols learned to tolerate a few days of chaos once they saw how pleased local businessmen were with the inevitable uptick in out-of-town customers searching for something to do when they stopped cavorting with elephants and clowns.

All of these developments were part of what Renoff calls “the slow embrace,” a gradual rapprochement between the circus and the South that unfolded between 1865 and 1920. Circus showmen sanded down the rough edges of their shows while southern political and religious leaders softened their objections to what took place under and around the big top. In Subduing Satan, Ted Ownby reached similar conclusions: By the early twentieth century, many of the coarser aspects of southern masculine culture had been domesticated. What, then, of that “second world” of disorder and play? Or even its milder version, what Renoff describes as the circus’s “highly democratic” form? It seems to have been quickly tamed, caged like the “wild” beasts outside the circus tents and then smothered in that not-so-slow embrace. But if some of Renoff’s boldest claims exceed his evidentiary grasp, that makes the book no less compelling- and no less important for all those interested in traveling down to the confused and enlightening crossroads of southern popular culture.


Joshua Guthman
Assistant Professor of History
Berea College

Volume XII, Table of Contents


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