REVIEW: Ringlingville USA by Jerry Apps

REVIEW: Ringlingville USA by Jerry AppsRinglingville USA: The Stupendous Story of Seven Siblings and Their Stunning Circus Success by Jerry Apps
Published: Wisconsin Historical Society Press (2004), Paperback, 280pg
Source: Bought
Genres: Biography, History, Non-Fiction

The Ringling Brothers began their business under the most modest of circumstances and through hard work, business savvy, and some luck created the largest, most famous circus in the world. They became wealthy men, one 50 cent admission ticket at a time.

Ringlingville USA chronicles the brothers’ journey from immigrant poverty to enduring glory as the kings of the circus world. The Ringlings and their circus were last studied in depth over four decades ago. Now, for the first time, the brothers’ detailed financial records and personal correspondence are available to researchers. Jerry Apps weaves together that information with newspaper accounts, oral histories, colorful anecdotes, and stunning circus ephemera and photos, many never before been published, to illuminate the importance of the Ringlings’ accomplishments. He describes how the Ringling Brothers confronted the challenges of taxation, war, economic pressure, changing technology, and personal sorrows to find their place in history. The brothers emerge as complex characters whose ambition, imagination, and pure hucksterism fueled the phenomenon that was the Ringling Brothers’ Circus. (from Amazon)

Look, clowns are scary, right? But clowns aren’t the only part of a circus and I LOVE the circus, even if I haven’t been to one since I was 10 or 12 or something. That last circus? That last circus was the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus, and it was AWESOME. I love books about circuses, real or imagined, and so by all rights this book, which is about the history of the Ringling Bros. circus, should have been at least as awesome as the circus itself was.

Well, it wasn’t.

I understand that there’s problems with finding out things about a business over 100-something years old that mostly no one who was in it wrote about, and I know that most of the things you would find would be financial records (and “newspaper articles” that were more like advertisements). But does that mean that your book has to be a catalog of where the circus went and how much they made at each stop? I swear, a good 80% of this book was “and then they went hereand made MILLIONS OF DOLLARS (in current money),” which is really fucking boring to read.

The author

The 20% remaining was kind of interesting because it was about the Ringling brothers, about some of the people who worked in the circus, and about how changes in technology changed the entire circus operation. Feuds between circuses? Neat! The development of the Big Top? Cool! There were some nice pictures, too, and little snippets of what life in the circus was like. But that interesting stuff was heavily eclipsed by the boring stuff, and it was so disappointing.

I think the problem was that the author focused more on the circus-as-a-corporation rather than on the people who ran it. Numbers and data and financial transactions are certainly a part of the history of the Ringling Bros. circus, but it’s not the only part. It’s also, to me, the most boring part about a circus! And that makes Ringlingville USA probably the least-fun book about a circus I’ve ever read.

This sentence from the summary just caught my eye:

Now, for the first time, the brothers’ detailed financial records and personal correspondence are available to researchers.

I’m not a researcher. I’m just a person who likes the circus. So, like…is that why I didn’t enjoy this book? It’s not meant for non-researcher people like me? Or did I dislike it because it actually is just really boring, and everyone’s pretending it isn’t?

What do you think?

Read: July 22, 2011

This review totally started out as a mini-review, and then…I…had things to say. MANY MANY THINGS.

Also, besides the stuff I complained about up there, I felt like a lot of the facts about early circuses were left out because they were “bad.” Treatment of animals? Nothing, except for a sidebar thing from a modern animal trainer who was all “WE ONLY TRAIN THEM TO DO THINGS THEY NORMALLY DO IN THE WILD ALREADY.” Which, you know, FINE. But that’s not what they did 100 years ago! And that’d beside the fact that I (and a lot of other people) feel really strongly against using elephants and other normally wild animals in a circus show anyway.

Which is why I like Cirque du Soleil so much, because they don’t have any animals at all. (Right?)

Here is a website with a lot of interesting old circus images that I just found. This one was under “birds,” for instance:

8 thoughts on “REVIEW: Ringlingville USA by Jerry Apps”

  1. Yea, I was wondering about that line stating “NOW!!! We have FINANCIAL RECORDS!! woo hooo!!” and if it would possibly be a boring detailed financial account. Sorry it wasn’t chockful of fun facts for you.

    1. Haha! Yeah, that summary is totally misleading. It makes it sound like the financial stuff is just filler for everything else, when really it’s the other way around. 🙁

  2. Darn, it looks like it could’ve been interesting. Changing circus technology?? Cool…but blegh to the financial records stuff. That doesn’t sound very appealing. I do like the photos of the performers from the link, though. I hope the book at least had a good album full of those!

    1. There were a few good pictures! The best ones were of the performers and crew members, for sure. I’m kind of surprised there wasn’t more about the people actually IN the circus, really. One of the Ringlings had a wife who was a performer! And she only got, like, five lines written about her. Bah.

  3. Misleading cover as well – guess it should have had a picture of a financial record on the front instead?

    I’ve read one non-fiction book about circuses and it was Stewart O’Nan’s The Circus Fire about the deadly 1944 Hartford circus fire (Ringling Bros. Barnum & Bailey). The book was straight-up chronicling, and I wouldn’t call it exactly boring, but it was certainly taxing reading. One thing I couldn’t believe was that back then they rainproofed circus tents with paraffin!

    1. Yes! Circus tents caught on fire ALL the time, apparently. The book mentions that a few times, mostly in how much money they lost because of the fire (I think some horses died).

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