Date Available


Year of Publication


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation


Arts and Sciences



First Advisor

Dr. Alan M. Nadel


The freak played a significant role in late-nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century entertainment, but its significance extended beyond such venues as sideshows and minstrel shows. This dissertation examines the freak as an avatar emblematic of several issues, such as class and race, traditionally focused on in studies of Turn-of-the Century American literature and culture.

Disability and freakishness are explored as central to late-nineteenth- and early twentieth- century Americans’ identity. Freakishness is applied to a series of ways in which Americans in this period constructed their identity, including race, gender, and socioeconomic class, showing the dual role that the freak played for many white, able-bodied, upper-class American men. Freaks threatened such men’s sense of their own disability, triggering such complexes as Wounded Southernness or white masculinity. But contrasting themselves with freaks also solidified their visions of themselves as models of American normalcy. Besides freak shows, they encountered freakishness in a variety of arenas, including lynchings, slums, and early horror films.

The late nineteenth and early twentieth century’s fascination with freakishness is situated as an outgrowth of that period’s eugenics movement, showing how the entwined concepts of eugenics and normalcy traversed ground that went much further than studies of physical aberration and chronic illness. This extended notion of the freak is discussed by analyzing various literary texts, especially the novels of William Dean Howells and Jack London. The autobiographies of Booker T. Washington and Helen Keller exemplify how double consciousness can serve as a means of enfreakment. Further, all these texts are situated culturally by medicalizing a series of historical events, including specific lynchings, as well as laws that reconfigured urban landscapes. The final chapter focuses on early horror film, arguing that film became the new American sideshow and in the process changed the definition of freak to something far more monstrous. In short, this dissertation demonstrates how the freak show pervaded America at the turn of the twentieth century and turned the country into one large dime museum.