DSQ > Fall 2007, Volume 27, No.4

While a fascination with freakery is widespread, what is less common are the detailed explorations into how aspects of this fascination have developed and the innumerable locations where the desires for corporeal spectacles manifest. In Freak Shows and the Modern American Imagination, Thomas Fahy develops a complex negotiation between the historical underpinnings of the end of the freak show era (1900-1950) running parallel with some of the works of the most prolific American writers and artists at that time who implicitly or explicitly incorporated notions of the freak and freak shows into their work. During this period, the freak show shifted from a highly popular and profitable form of entertainment to a reviled and inappropriate genre. The representations Fahy discusses of the freak body not only reveal early twentieth century oppressive attitudes, but these texts explore the profound social impact of contemporary events such as World War I and the Great Depression.

Fahy develops his analysis using an extensive amount of literary works primarily in relation to three main identity 'categories' — disability, race, and queerness. He begins with a focus on American whiteness and racialized Others emerging through the Harlem Renaissance (1917-1935) by way of authors such as Richard Wright, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Jean Toomer and Nella Larson. In Fahy's second chapter, entitled "War-Injured Bodies: Fallen Soldiers in Propaganda and the Works of John Dos Passos, Willa Cather, Ernest Hemingway, and William Faulkner," he argues that the disabled (veteran) body is a site for the enactment of "social fears about U.S. involvement in World War I" (15). He attempts to position the body as integral to notions of nation, and so Fahy argues that the (non)disabled socio-political figure of Franklin Roosevelt both challenged and upheld notions of disability discourse in terms of heroism, 'broken' bodies, communities and families. In the literary works of this era (the 1930s), Fahy claims that authors such as John Steinbeck "often invoked images of freakishness to capture a sense of communal and personal deterioration" (15). The book concludes by providing a close reading of notions of heteronormative identity and sexuality in young adults, their relationship to coming-of-age fiction and the potential for empowerment through the alternative (read: queer) lifestyles that can be understood through freak show identifications.

Throughout this book, Fahy convincingly establishes that the freak show imprinted itself on the artistic imaginary of early twentieth century American writers vis-à-vis the racialized and disabled body of the Other and the idealization of upper-classness. Fahy argues that the visual and literary representation of the freak attempted to enact longing for "middle- and upper-class trappings and behaviors" (2), which he continually articulates as resoundingly seemingly 'hyper'-able and white. As this is a critical time in American history — due to the emergence of modernist art and literature — the representation of the freak and/or freak show in these important literary texts functions as a metaphor for oppressive constructions of race, class, disability, sexuality, and gender in modern society.

Representation through literary conveyances and freak show images relate to Fahy's reliance on the notion of an "American (cultural) imagination." The author is attempting to form consistencies between the artistic expressions of a particular time and the influence that freak shows provided for these imaginative endeavours. Fahy concretely reinforces how visual imagery enables freaks to embody the supposed "dangers" of the modern nation-state, such as miscegenation, immigration, gendered and sexual liberation, etc.

Fahy uses notions of physical and social 'damage' to frame his entire analysis (as the subtitle for this text is Constructing the Damaged Body from Willa Cather to Truman Capote). However, Fahy problematically equates the many forms of disabilities, sexualities, and races that appeared within freak shows with uncritical notions of damage, which functions to situate these bodies as inherently 'wrong'. These uncritical notions of damage overshadow the important understanding that these bodies have been culturally shifted to the arena of social constructionism since the peak of the freak show era.

In terms of cultural shifts, Fahy appears most explicitly theoretical in his discussion of supposed sexual ambiguity in freak shows and the significances of the queer body in the 1940s and 1950s. Fahy argues that sexually ambiguous freaks "were undermining tenuous binaries between male and female, heterosexual and homosexual, and right and wrong" even though "they never explicitly challenged accepted gender roles" (109). According to Fahy, the closeted youths and adults who read Carson McCullers' and Truman Capote's work related to and even admired the queer freak performers' ability to express their "true" selves. Through conceptualizing the cultural imaginations of supposed proper citizens as contrasted with the fantasies of supposed sexual deviants, Fahy demonstrates how the freak shows manifested within the cultural imagination as both maintaining and queering the American familial landscape.

Fahy does an admirable job of forming connections between the cultural imaginary, literary texts and freak show narratives of the early twentieth century. His insistence on the freak's crucial presence in American culture and literature underscores the idea that a relational exchange is always already occurring when alterity in the Other is confronted. The analysis does need further exploration in regard to critical theories of social identities and the possibilities that these identities offer for notions of self and the Other. However, this critique should not be considered a deterrent, but rather the reader should be encouraged towards engaging with Fahy's work in combination with more critical theoretical analyses of freak and disability discourse and embodiment, such as Rosemarie Garland Thomson's (1996) edited collection.

This text is clearly intended for those both new to and experienced with freak discourse. Many of the literary examples that Fahy provides do not require an original reading, as he expertly develops the relationships between storylines and manifestations of freak discourse within them. Fahy's accessible writing style, detailed explanations, and relevant quotations from the texts encourage those with interests in sociology of the body and literary criticism, as well as those with interests in cultural ethnography, to take up an interdisciplinary approach to the study and manifestations of freak discourse.

Return to Top of Page


Copyright (c) 2007 Victoria Kannen



Beginning with Volume 36, Issue No. 4 (2016), Disability Studies Quarterly is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives license unless otherwise indicated. 

Disability Studies Quarterly is published by The Ohio State University Libraries in partnership with the Society for Disability Studies.

If you encounter problems with the site or have comments to offer, including any access difficulty due to incompatibility with adaptive technology, please contact the web manager, Maureen Walsh.

ISSN: 2159-8371 (Online); 1041-5718 (Print)