The announcement that the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus will be closing on May 21 marks the end of an era. The company began nearly a hundred years ago when the Ringling Bros. World’s Greatest Shows merged with Barnum & Bailey’s The Greatest Show on Earth. Both circuses had been around much longer and indeed this closure comes after 146 years. In that time the three-ring Big Top has become one of the most instantly recognizable and iconic images in our culture conjuring up images of popcorn, cotton candy, sequined aerialists, elephants and clowns. Indeed, circuses have inspired a number of literary works over the years as well.
Toby Tyler or Ten Weeks With the Circus (1881) By James Otis Kaler. First published as a serial in Harper’s Magazine before being published as a children’s novel, in the vein of instructing children in moral lessons. Toby runs away from an foster home to join the circus only to learn that the reality isn’t nearly as light-hearted as the shows themselves. His employer is a harsh taskmaster and his truest friend is Mr. Stubbs the chimpanzee. It was considered a classic of children’s literature for many generations and inspired a Disney film in 1960. It was Kaler’s first book and his most well-known and successful.
Spangle (1987) By Gary Jennings After surrendering at Appomatoxx at the end of the Civil War, two former Confederate soldiers join a traveling circus that eventually leaves for Europe. The novel spans six years (from the end of the Civil War to the Franco-Prussian conflict.) Along the way the novel examines both the social structures of the Reconstruction South and of Europe at a time when the monarchy is beginning to crumble. Jennings was widely praised for both his wealth of historical detail and his ability to bring exotic settings to life.
Cirque du Freak (2000) by Darren Shan. Book one of The Saga of Darren Shan by Darren Shan. Darren and his best friend Steve ‘Leopard’ Leonard visit an illegal freak show where they are enthralled by the mysterious Mr. Crepsley and his giant spider Madam Octa. But Darren recognizes Mr. Crepsley as a infamous vampire and this starts a chain of events with enormous consequences for both boys. The novel was also adapted into a feature film starring John C. Reilly, Ken Watanabe, and Willem Defoe released in 2009.
Water for Elephants (2006) by Sara Gruen. Jacob Jankowski aged 93 is living in a nursing home and begins to reminiscence about his youth. Seventy years before after learning of his parent’s tragic deaths, Jacob leaves Cornell University where he’s been studying veterinary medicine and joins up with a traveling circus; The Benzini Brothers Most Spectacular Show on Earth. Jacob soon becomes deeply entangled with the equestrian director August, his beautiful wife Marlena, and Rosie the elephant. The novel was a huge success that stayed on the New York Times Best Seller List for 12 weeks, was nominated for an Alex Award and a Quill Award, won the BookBrowse award for most popular book and was adapted into a feature film starring Robert Pattinson, Reese Witherspoon, and Christoph Waltz.
The Night Circus (2011) by Erin Morgenstern. This fantastical fairy tale is set near Victorian Era London. Le Cirque des Reves, the Circus of Dreams with black and white tents and costumes, is open only from sunset to sunrise and features such attractions as ice gardens, acrobats soaring without nets, and a Japanese contortionist. It also happens to be employing two bona fide magicians who disguise their actual magic as fabulous illusions and a fortune teller who’s quite genuine as well. Not to mention a whole host of other dynamic figures as well. The novel was a huge splash spending seven weeks on the New York Times Bestseller List and winning an Alex Award from the American Library Association. Morgenstern was compared to such authors as J.K. Rowling and Neil Gaiman.
Top Bigstock photo: Cars from the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey circus train which carries elephants and other large animals.