Freakish Taxonomies: How The American Freak Show and Its Literature Redefine the Archive


The American freak show, which dominated the entertainment landscape from 1840 to 1940, is considered by many disability studies scholars to be off limits for critique. This argument is rooted in a 2005 article by David L Mitchell and Sharon L. Snyder in which they claim that because the institution itself is exploitative, so too must be the resulting scholarship. But ample evidence suggests that the experiences of performers varied as widely as the performers themselves. Calling the freak show “exploitative,” however, roots institution in the kind of classification problem that also plagues library sciences, archival studies, disability studies, and even literary studies: a single, monolithic term is being utilized to describe the experiences and materials of a diverse group.

In Freakish Taxonomies, I argue that by casting the freak show solely as an exploitative institution, we overlook its capacity to reinterpret established taxonomies so that they highlight rather than obscure diversity. Together, the freak show and its literature provide us with insight into a system of classification that’s particularly important to literary studies: the archive. Repository archives often utilize normative modes of coherence; what they have difficulty with are instances in which archival materials are characterized as flawed or insufficient. This is often the case with materials produced by marginalized groups; their historical materials are not as cohesive as those produced by colonizing or dominant groups and as a result are often not as easily interpreted. When researchers and archivists encounter the challenges endemic to these materials, traditional systems of classification – most established by white elite culture – frequently break down.

A host of scholars in archival studies have proposed ways in which we can counter this archival rigidity and honor the histories of marginalized populations; key among them is the concept of a “reparative archive.” Unfortunately, this concept encourages an ableist approach to archival re-envisioning and perpetuates archival studies’ pattern of describing the archive using the language of insufficiency. I argue instead that contemporary attempts to revamp white supremacist archival institutions in a manner that both honors the reparative desires of archival studies and disability studies’ desire to move away from ableist language and practice can find a model for approach in the American freak show and its literature.

In my project, I argue in favor not of a reparative archive, which tries to remedy perceived archival gaps and flaws, but instead for a dynamic, liberatory archive that explores them. This model sets aside discriminatory classification practices that prioritize the order valued by white elite culture and affords greater voice and visibility to archival materials produced by marginalized populations. As a result, instead of reading the freak show as a repository of materials assembled by Barnum alone, I argue that it also operates as an early iteration of the liberatory archive that was also constructed by the performer community and enshrines the shifting identities of a diverse subset of Americans who would otherwise have gone completely unrecorded in an era that prioritized the construction of a cohesive national identity and the preservation of white elite culture. I also examine how some of the canonical literature of the period – much of it produced by white authors – serves not just to enshrine white culture but as a liberatory archive of marginal lives and experiences that are sometimes overlooked by common applications of literary taxonomy. Each chapter of my project utilizes those gaps and flaws – what I call here “freakish taxonomies" - to help us reinterpret classifications such as regionalism, frame narrative, and interior monologue and to identify the presence of marginal lives and experiences in a host of literature where dominant culture seems to overrun the text.


March 2019 - SmokeLong Quarterly Featured Reader, Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference, Portland, OR     


March 2019 - Pen Parentis representative, Association of Writers & Writing Programs Conference, Portland, OR


February 2019 - “’The Undiscovered Country Within’: Interior Monologue As Resistance and Revisioning of the ‘Tragic Mulatta’ in Nella Larsen’s Quicksand,” 2019 Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture

Since 1900


February 2019 - Tiger and Woolf (novel excerpt), 2019 Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900


March 2018 - Pen Parentis Fellow representative, Association Of Writers & Writing Programs Conference, Tampa, FL   


February 2018 - “’Women’s Work’: Redefining Archive, Reclaiming Personal Narrative, and the Restitutive Power of the Female Academic,” Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900  


February 2018 - The Sleeper prologue (creative submission), Louisville Conference on Literature and Culture Since 1900

November 2016 - “Mother Country, Magic Ring: Temporality, Motherhood, and Nation Formation in Lydia Maria Child’s Hobomok,” Midwest Modern Language Association Conference, St. Louis, MO


November 2015 - “The Personal is Professional” Legacy-sponsored panel, The Society for the Study of American Women Writers Conference, Philadelphia, PA


March 2015 - “Narratives of Birth and Prosthesis in Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Philosophy of Composition’,” English Graduate Student Conference, University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY


March 2014 - “’Into the Magic Ring’: The Temporality of Motherhood in Lydia Maria Child’s Hobomok,” English Graduate Student Conference, University of Kentucky, Lexington, KY

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