What it Meant to Run Away to the Circus

"The circus meant freedom. It meant a way to get out. It meant a way to escape."

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Last week, after 146 years of continuous operation, the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus broke down the big tent for the final time. The tent, in this case, was metaphorical – the last show took place under the concrete and iron roof of the Nassau Coliseum in Uniondale, NY – and the elephants who once lent the circus its magisterial charm had already been sent to sanctuaries. But the magic remained up until the end.

That same magic that lured the writer Edward Hoagland, then an 18-year-old freshman at Harvard, to hop aboard the circus train in the summer of 1951. The experiences he had on the road, dismembering a dead horse and sweeping the cougar cages, became the material for his 1956 debut novel Cat Man, which catapulted young Hoagland to literary stardom. Now 84, Hoagland– Ted to his friends — splits his time between Barton, VT and Edgartown, Martha’s Vineyard. He’s nearly blind (a condition he’s written about at length) and completely full of stories, many of them about what happens under the big top. Fatherly chatted with him about what is — and what is not — lost in the circus’ demise.

The circus seems to be one of the few experiences parents shared with their children that was shared with them by their parents and so on and so forth. Did you take your family to the circus growing up?

Of course. I took my daughter Molly to see the circus at Madison Square Garden. We lived in the Greenwich Village at the time. The first time I took her, I was very eager, for the circus was central for me not just as a child but my first book. But I took her a little too early. She was six and it was a little frightening.. The clowns were a little scary. They had painted faces and the high-wire stuff. But she came around. Now I have two grandchildren now, ages 10 and 16. Molly is very conscientious about taking them to the circus. It is so much a part of our family history by this point.

The ringmaster Johnathan Lee Iverson once told me, “Once you get sawdust in your blood, it never gets out.” Certainly that’s true for performers, but why do you think the circus’ popularity declined among the public?

I don’t know, but like everything that is once central, the decline is both gradual and then sudden. I’m not sure that kids still want to go or their parents still want to take them to the circus. I don’t mean there’s been some sort of terrible change in humanity or childhood. I suspect that the current generation just aren’t familiar enough to long to go to the circus or to miss going. I don’t think current children will know what they’re missing.

What is being lost once the Big Tent circus is extinct?

The circus as a performance in front of you is – well entertainment isn’t a broad enough word for it – a first-hand experience. These days, most experience tends to be second-hand, filtered through the camera or produced television or movies or indeed our own snapping of pictures with our phones. Going to the circus was actually first-hand. The so-called Angry Clowns, clowns like Otto Griebling, who would interact with you, that’s the kind of stuff that can not be experienced or performed in second-hand. There’s the thundering horses around the hippodrome track and the girl standing on the hips of the horses. It’s simply not as real from any standpoint, neither the sexiness or the sense that she is in danger.

As you write about in Cat Man, and later in the New Yorker, the circus too had a colorful and often tragic culture. To me, it seems sadder to lose that than to lose the experience of taking my sons to the Big Top.

The circus was a huge institution with an enormous heritage behind it: performing elephants that were brought across the ocean, the “freaks” you wouldn’t be allowed to exhibit today, the so-called cannibals from Fiji, the armless legless girl, the human skeleton and the people holding on by their toes to high wires. And of course the clowns, a world unto themselves. They were clannish. They didn’t associate with the other groups in circus but they were also not wanted. They had a reputation for being homosexual which was, at that time, taboo. They were oddballs or they were angry. The work-hands, like me, were drifters, very few of whom who lasted the whole season.

You ran away to the circus, which is at once an actual thing you did and also this wild idea of freedom that has beguiled thousands of kids for hundreds of years. Now, that avenue has been forestalled so the loss of the circus is actual and, to some extent, poetic.

The reason I joined at first was because I loved animals. I stuttered terribly, I was almost mute, so I was very close to animals because you don’t have to talk to them to be close to them. I wrote to the circus’s winter quarters in Saratoga Springs, Florida that I loved animals and was experienced taking care of dogs and cats, but I wanted to graduate to larger and more challenging animals. To my surprise I got a little letter back almost immediately saying, “’Yes you can join. Just show up when school is out.’

For me, but not just me, the circus meant freedom. It meant a way to get out. It meant a way to escape. In each town we came to, there were people who would drop off. Sometimes just because they were too drunk to catch the train or sometimes they made the train but then fell off. But in each town but there would be a few new people whose, let’s say, wife kicked them out or somebody who had served three or six months in the county jail and just got out.The circus happened to be in town and they’d come ask for a job. My god. they’d walk to the circus. So there were always openings.

What would you tell kids who are going to grow up with the circus?

Don’t give up on the sense of adventure. Even if there’s no circus, you can still ride the rods. But a kid who still has a certain daring and imagination can still climb on a flat car and get out of town.

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