Author ORCID Identifier

Date Available


Year of Publication


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation


Arts and Sciences



First Advisor

Dr. Marion Rust


The American freak show, which dominated the entertainment landscape from 1840 to 1940, is considered by some disability studies scholars to be off limits for critical engagement. In Freakish Taxonomies: How the American Freak Show and its Literature Redefine the Archive, I argue that by casting the freak show solely as an exploitative institution, we overlook its capacity to serve as a model for reinterpreting the relationship between literary studies and the archive. By recognizing the freak show not just as an exploitative institution but also as a dynamic archive of marginalized lives—one that utilizes an imperfect, often deceptive taxonomy that makes its flaws wholly visible rather than hiding them—we can explore the freak show's ability to serve as an analytical model for literary studies. In my study, I argue that the freak show and its promotional texts and tools function as a model for close reading not the order, but the gaps and flaws—what I call “freakish taxonomies” —in literature produced during the freak show’s heyday. By applying this model of analysis to texts such as Moby-Dick, The Country of the Pointed Firs, Puddn'head Wilson and Those Extraordinary Twins, Of One Blood, and Quicksand, many of which have been classified as failed or flawed by critics, I argue that we can better identify the complex stories of marginalized lives that have sometimes been overlooked in these texts while simultaneously challenging disability studies’ critical contention that novels are “part of a project of middle class hegemony” (Davis 41). As a result of this process of close reading and narrative identification, we can also redefine our understanding of the archive by moving away from the repository model and towards a “liberatory” archive which is more inclusive of the histories of marginalized populations and aligns with the more holistic turns of disability studies and archival studies.

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)