A Circus In The Suburbs by William Dean Howells

Story type: Essay

We dwellers in cities and large towns, if we are well-to-do, have more than our fill of pleasures of all kinds; and for now many years past we have been used to a form of circus where surfeit is nearly as great misery as famine in that kind could be. For our sins, or some of our friends’ sins, perhaps, we have now gone so long to circuses of three rings and two raised-platforms that we scarcely realize that in the country there are still circuses of one ring and no platform at all. We are accustomed, in the gross and foolish-superfluity of these city circuses, to see no feat quite through, but to turn our greedy eyes at the most important instant in the hope of greater wonders in another ring. We have four or five clowns, in as many varieties of grotesque costume, as well as a lady clown in befitting dress; but we hear none of them speak, not even the lady clown, while in the country circus the old clown of our childhood, one and indivisible, makes the same style of jokes, if not the very same jokes, that we used to hear there. It is not easy to believe all this, and I do not know that I should quite believe it myself if I had not lately been witness of it in the suburban village where I was passing the summer.


The circus announced itself in the good old way weeks beforehand by the vast posters of former days and by a profusion of small bills which fell upon the village as from the clouds, and left it littered everywhere with their festive pink. They prophesied it in a name borne by the first circus I ever saw, which was also an animal show, but the animals must all have died during the fifty years past, for there is now no menagerie attached to it. I did not know this when I heard the band braying through the streets of the village on the morning of the performance, and for me the mangy old camels and the pimpled elephants of yore led the procession through accompanying ranks of boys who have mostly been in their graves for half a lifetime; the distracted ostrich thrust an advertising neck through the top of its cage, and the lion roared to himself in the darkness of his moving prison. I felt the old thrill of excitement, the vain hope of something preternatural and impossible, and I do not know what could have kept me from that circus as soon as I had done lunch. My heart rose at sight of the large tent (which was yet so very little in comparison with the tents of the three-ring and two- platform circuses); the alluring and illusory sideshows of fat women and lean men; the horses tethered in the background and stamping under the fly-bites; the old, weather-beaten grand chariot, which looked like the ghost of the grand chariot which used to drag me captive in its triumph; and the canvas shelters where the cooks were already at work over their kettles on the evening meal of the circus folk.

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I expected to be kept a long while from the ticket-wagon by the crowd, but there was no crowd, and perhaps there never used to be much of a crowd. I bought my admittances without a moment’s delay, and the man who sold me my reserve seats had even leisure to call me back and ask to look at the change he had given me, mostly nickels. “I thought I didn’t give you enough,” he said, and he added one more, and sent me on to the doorkeeper with my faith in human nature confirmed and refreshed. It was cool enough outside, but within it was very warm, as it should be, to give the men with palm-leaf fans and ice-cold lemonade a chance. They were already making their rounds, and crying their wares with voices from the tombs of the dead past; and the child of the young mother who took my seat-ticket from me was going to sleep at full length on the lowermost tread of the benches, so that I had to step across its prostrate form. These reserved seats were carpeted; but I had forgotten how little one rank was raised above another, and how very trying they were upon the back and legs. But for the carpeting, I could not see how I was advantaged above the commoner folk in the unreserved seats, and I reflected how often in this world we paid for an inappreciable splendor. I could not see but they were as well off as I; they were much more gayly dressed, and some of them were even smoking cigars, while they were nearly all younger by ten, twenty, forty, or fifty years, and even more. They did not look like the country people whom I rather hoped and expected to see, but were apparently my fellow-villagers, in different stages of excitement. They manifested by the usual signs their impatience to have the performance begin, and I confess that I shared this, though I did not take part in the demonstration.

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I have no intention of following the events seriatim. Front time to time during their progress I renewed my old one-sided acquaintance with the circus-men. They were quite the same people, I believe, but strangely softened and ameliorated, as I hope I am, and looking not a day older, which I cannot say of myself, exactly. The supernumeraries were patently farmer boys who had entered newly upon that life in a spirit of adventure, and who wore their partial liveries, a braided coat here and a pair of striped trousers there, with a sort of timorous pride, a deprecating bravado, as if they expected to be hooted by the spectators and were very glad when they were not. The man who went round with a dog to keep boys from hooking in under the curtain had grown gentler, and his dog did not look as if he would bite the worst boy in town. The man came up and asked the young mother about her sleeping child, and I inferred that the child had been sick, and was therefore unusually interesting to all the great, kind-hearted, simple circus family. He was good to the poor supes, and instructed them, not at all sneeringly, how best to manage the guy ropes for the nets when the trapeze events began.

There was, in fact, an air of pleasing domesticity diffused over the whole circus. This was, perhaps, partly an effect from our extreme proximity to its performances; I had never been on quite such intimate terms with equitation and aerostation of all kinds; but I think it was also largely from the good hearts of the whole company. A circus must become, during the season, a great brotherhood and sisterhood, especially sisterhood, and its members must forget finally that they are not united by ties of blood. I dare say they often become so, as husbands and wives and fathers and mothers, if not as brothers.

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The domestic effect was heightened almost poignantly when a young lady in a Turkish-towel bath-gown came out and stood close by the band, waiting for her act on a barebacked horse of a conventional pattern. She really looked like a young goddess in a Turkish-towel bath-gown: goddesses must have worn bath-gowns, especially Venus, who was often imagined in the bath, or just out of it. But when this goddess threw off her bath-gown, and came bounding into the ring as gracefully as the clogs she wore on her slippers would let her, she was much more modestly dressed than most goddesses. What I am trying to say, however, is that, while she stood there by the band, she no more interested the musicians than if she were their collective sister. They were all in their shirt-sleeves for the sake of the coolness, and they banged and trumpeted and fluted away as indifferent to her as so many born brothers.

Indeed, when the gyrations of her horse brought her to our side of the ring, she was visibly not so youthful and not so divine as she might have been; but the girl who did the trapeze acts, and did them wonderfully, left nothing to be desired in that regard; though really I do not see why we who have neither youth nor beauty should always expect it of other people. I think it would have been quite enough for her to do the trapeze acts so perfectly; but her being so pretty certainly added a poignancy to the contemplation of her perils. One could follow every motion of her anxiety in that close proximity: the tremor of her chin as she bit her lips before taking her flight through the air, the straining eagerness of her eye as she measured the distance, the frown with which she forbade herself any shrinking or reluctance.


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How strange is life, how sad and perplexing its contradictions! Why should such an exhibition as that be supposed to give pleasure? Perhaps it does not give pleasure, but is only a necessary fulfilment of one of the many delusions we are in with regard to each other in this bewildering world. They are of all sorts and degrees, these delusions, and I suppose that in the last analysis it was not pleasure I got from the clown and his clowning, clowned he ever so merrily. I remember that I liked hearing his old jokes, not because they were jokes, but because they were old and endeared by long association. He sang one song which I must have heard him sing at my first circus (I am sure it was he), about “Things that I don’t like to see,” and I heartily agreed with him that his book of songs, which he sent round to be sold, was fully worth the half-dime asked for it, though I did not buy it.

Perhaps the rival author in me withheld me, but, as a brother man, I will not allow that I did not feel for him and suffer with him because of the thick, white pigment which plentifully coated his face, and, with the sweat drops upon it, made me think of a newly painted wall in the rain. He was infinitely older than his personality, than his oldest joke (though you never can be sure how old a joke is), and, representatively, I dare say he outdated the pyramids. They must have made clowns whiten their faces in the dawn of time, and no doubt there were drolls among the antediluvians who enhanced the effect of their fun by that means. All the same, I pitied this clown for it, and I fancied in his wildest waggery the note of a real irascibility. Shall I say that he seemed the only member of that little circus who was not of an amiable temper? But I do not blame him, and I think it much to have seen a clown once more who jested audibly with the ringmaster and always got the better of him in repartee. It was long since I had known that pleasure.


Throughout the performance at this circus I was troubled by a curious question, whether it were really of the same moral and material grandeur as the circuses it brought to memory, or whether these were thin and slight, too. We all know how the places of our childhood, the heights, the distances, shrink and dwindle when we go back to them, and was it possible that I had been deceived in the splendor of my early circuses? The doubt was painful, but I was forced to own that there might be more truth in it than in a blind fealty to their remembered magnificence. Very likely circuses have grown not only in size, but in the richness and variety of their entertainments, and I was spoiled for the simple joys of this. But I could see no reflection of my dissatisfaction on the young faces around me, and I must confess that there was at least so much of the circus that I left when it was half over. I meant to go into the side-shows and see the fat woman and the living skeleton, and take the giant by the hand and the armless man by his friendly foot, if I might be so honored. But I did none of these things, and I am willing to believe the fault was in me, if I was disappointed in the circus. It was I who had shrunk and dwindled, and not it. To real boys it was still the size of the firmament, and was a world of wonders and delights. At least I can recognize this fact now, and can rejoice in the peaceful progress all over the country of the simple circuses which the towns never see, but which help to render the summer fairer and brighter to the unspoiled eyes and hearts they appeal to. I hope it will be long before they cease to find profit in the pleasure they give.

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