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From Cather Studies Volume 10

From Sentimentality to Sex: The Circus Motif in Willa Cather's Writing

In December 1908 Willa Cather wrote to Sarah Orne Jewett complaining about her work at McClure's: "I live just about as much during the day as a trapeze performer does when he is on the bar—it's catch the right bar at the right minute, or into the net you go. . . . My mind is off doing trapeze work all day long and only comes back to me when it is dog tired and wants to creep into my body and sleep" (Selected Letters 118). Cather's colorful images of a trapeze artist announce a circus motif that threads through much of Cather's fiction, letters, and journalism. For Cather, who in her 1925 preface to Jewett's collected stories had acknowledged the importance to literary artists of "the shapes and scenes that have 'teased' the mind for years," the circus provided important "shapes and scenes" that repeatedly stimulated her own imaginative powers ("Miss Jewett" 77).

The circus was a great fact of nineteenthand twentiethcentury America, and Cather knew circuses well, probably during her early childhood in Virginia and undoubtedly in Webster County, Nebraska. Cather's formative years paralleled the period of greatest circus activity; John Culhane, in The American Circus: An Illustrated History, writes that "[c]ircuses reached their peak in number and popularity during the last quarter of the nineteenth and first decade of the twentieth centuries. With expanded railroad networks and better roads, there were at least forty large circuses touring the United States. As the larger circuses began to bypass the more isolated towns and villages, smaller traveling shows took their places" (107). Richard Harris confirms in an explanatory note to the Scholarly Edition of One of Ours that "[m]any circuses came to Red Cloud in the late nineteenth and twentieth centuries"; Harris cites a local history's photographs of circus parades in the streets of Red Cloud and its report that the Ringling Brothers circus came to Red Cloud in 1897, 1898, and 1899, and the Gollman Brothers circus visited in 1910, 1916, and 1922 (679). Since Cather regularly spent extended summer vacations in Red Cloud, she likely enjoyed many of these performances. Cather was in Red Cloud at the time of the 1916 circus; she wrote to her brother Roscoe that she was sick and had missed the circus, but the rest of the family enjoyed it. When the circus came to town, colorful posters covered fences, store windows, and newly constructed homes, including the second Cather home, which was built in 1902 and purchased by Charles Cather in 1903. When Doug and Charlene Hoschouer restored the home in 1999, they uncovered bright red advertising posters for a visiting circus plastered to boards long covered with siding. As a child Cather selected brightly colored circus scenes from magazines and pieced them together quiltlike as a cover for her scrapbook, which also includes a trade card of Jumbo, P. T. Barnum's circus elephant (Bradley 32-33).

The circus would remain a romantic trope throughout Cather's life; among her early uses of a circus as a prompt for memory and reconciliation is "The Sentimentality of William Tavener," a story first published in the Library on 12 May 1900. James Woodress points out the biographical detail that Cather "[made] use of Virginia memories" (29) in this tale that "must have been a family story" (30). William and Hester Tavener have become prosperous farmers after years of hard work and good management following their move from the Back Creek country of Virginia to Nebraska. Prosperity has come at some cost to their relationship: once happy and full of hope, they have become business partners more than lovers, stern, efficient, hard to each other and to their sons. Hester's intercession with William on behalf of their sons, who want money to go to the circus, prompts William and Hester to remember a circus from their childhood. As they talk to each other about their circus memories, Cather emphasizes a renewed intimacy. They move their chairs physically closer to each other, laugh together, and reminisce about elephants, clowns, neighbors, and "long forgotten incidents of their youth." Cather writes, "The strategic contest [of their marriage] had gone on so long that it had almost crowded out the memory of a closer relationship. This exchange of confidences tonight, when common recollections took them unawares and opened their hearts, had all the miracle of romance" (356). Memories of a circus and the anticipation of a circus—not an actual circus—bring about family renewal.

A circus memory in O Pioneers! functions much like that in "William Tavener." The adult Alexandra and Carl tell Marie the story of their "circus trees," apricot trees that had grown from the fruit they got after a circus parade they had seen as children; they hadn't enough money to attend the show itself and had soothed their disappointment with the apricots before planting the seeds. Once again Cather emphasizes the power of the circus memory rather than the actual experience of the circus. Marie calls it "a good story" and expresses her pleasure in a renewed relationship with Carl, who, upon his return to Nebraska, eats the fruit of these trees of his childhood (126). Cather packs much meaning into the circus incident, using it to introduce warm memories, show how sad experiences can be transformed into happy recollections, add another layer to the fruit imagery that fills this novel, forecast Carl's return to the land, and contrast Frank's mean-spiritedness with a warm scene of human friendship.

Such elegiac circus scenes are common throughout Cather's fiction. In her early Home Monthly story "The Way of the World" the town boys invent the imaginary town of Speckleville (not unlike the backyard village of Sandy Point founded by young Willa Cather and her childhood friends) and enjoy staging circuses in the family barn until Mary Eliza comes along and ruins everything. At the beginning of One of Ours Cather uses young Claude Wheeler's excitement about the circus to establish the dreamy aspect of his character and to set him apart from crude people, including his father and brother. In "Old Mrs. Harris" putting on a backyard neighborhood circus helps the ten-year-old twins Bert and Del forget their sorrow about the death of their cat Blue Boy. Their mother, previously cold and "indifferent about Blue Boy," comes up with the idea of the circus; the promised fun and the proof of a caring mother put the boys "in a joyful frame of mind" (122). In My Ántonia Cather memorializes her own childhood scrapbook when Jim Burden makes a scrapbook as a Christmas gift for Yulka and Ántonia, and he too puts magazine images representing scenes from a circus on its cover (78). This act of cross-cultural neighborliness, set amid a remarkable Christmas full of simple yet powerful acts and a profusion of sensory richness, predicts that people will overcome the horrors of this awful winter.

Cather's circuses and their performers are not always positive, however; amid the sympathetic scenes danger is present also. In My Ántonia Jim describes the rattlesnake as a "circus monstrosity" (44). In "The Treasure of Far Island" Rheine is frightened to go to the circus. Alexandra Bergson's brother Lou doesn't know enough to keep away from the shell game that follows the circus in O Pioneers! Thea Kronborg in The Song of the Lark is afraid of being made into a circus girl, and the tramp who pollutes the water supply of the town of Moonstone comes to town as a hanger-on of a circus. Even in her letters Cather communicates the potential danger in circuses. A 1926 letter to her brother Roscoe from Santa Fe recounts a strange dream: "I dreamed that Margaret [Roscoe's daughter] was eaten by a lion! We all saw her sitting in a lion's cage in a circus parade, and felt very proud of her, and after the cage passed word travelled back through the crowd that the lion had eaten her! And her grandmother and grandfather Cather both fainted and had to be carried out of the crowd, and then I wakened up" (Selected Letters 382). The circus, like many of Cather's grand symbols, is a recurrent stimulus to human imagination in ways that are both comforting and frightening.

Cather's blend of history and nostalgia and her evocation of the circus as a complex and rich symbol show that she participated in a broad national conversation about popular culture, morality, the nature of childhood, values, and more. Mark Twain, Henry James, Hamlin Garland, and William Dean Howells were among the many writers who called upon their own youthful memories in autobiographical and semiautobiographical accounts of American male adolescence. Claude Wheeler, Jim Burden, Bert and Del Templeton, Carl Linstrum, the boys of Speckleville, and William Tavener's sons echo, in one way or another, the sentiment Garland expressed in Boy Life on the Prairie: "No one but a country boy can rightly measure the majesty and allurement of a circus. To go from the lonely prairie or the dusty corn-field and come face to face with the 'amazing aggregation of world-wide wonder' was like enduring the visions of the apocalypse" (232). Intersections between Cather's story "The Sentimentality of William Tavener" and "A Circus in the Suburbs," one of Howells's sketches in Literature and Life, illustrate the usual nature of the circus motif. Howells writes here from the perspective of a cynical, disillusioned—yet successful—adult who complains about "the gross and foolish superfluity of these city circuses" (125). During a visit to a suburban village, however, he sees a circus poster and once again "felt the old thrill of excitement, the vain hope of something preternatural and impossible" (126). This rekindled thrill and its accompanying hopefulness are similar to the "common recollections" that open the hearts of William and Hester Tavener. When Hester reminds William of the clown of their childhood circus, he leans back in his chair and says, "I reckon I could tell all that fool's jokes now" (356). Howells echoes the sentiment: "I remember that I liked hearing [the clown's] old jokes, not because they were jokes, but because they were old and endeared by long association" (130). Even as Cather's story is hopeful, she does not hide what Marilyn Arnold calls "wasted years of emptiness that cannot be recovered and filled" (29); similarly, Howells realizes that even though boys still find the country circus "a world of wonders and delights," he is so changed that he cannot recover completely his childhood pleasure: "It was I who had shrunk and dwindled, and not [the circus]" (131).

Cather, however, did not simply echo common masculine perceptions of the circus, nor did she merely personalize them; she brought fresh, creative perspectives that flowed from her interest in gender and sexuality. Close consideration of two important circus stories, one a nonfiction journalistic piece Cather wrote in 1894 titled "Under the White Tents" and the other her marvelous short story "Coming, Aphrodite!" (1920), reveals her fascinating amalgamation of domesticity, sex, passion, and celebrity. "Under the White Tents" was written while Cather was a student at the University of Nebraska, when she regularly wrote commentary on local events for the Lincoln newspaper. She begins the piece with a forced claim that she will write about what everybody is really interested in, not the action under the big top but the goings-on in the white dressing room tents. Cather exploits common stereotypes of circus dressing rooms as "a sort of 'vision of sin'" and a "torture chamber" (100). Specifically, she mentions widespread rumors of "the blows and kicks of brutal managers" and "iniquity and champagne" (100). Cather whets the appetites of her readers by acknowledging her trepidation about entering this "little hades": "I pride myself on being rather emancipated, but I must confess I felt a little queer when the lady overseer of the ladies' dressing room asked me to walk in" (100).

Cather soon finds that "it was mild enough inside, however," as she is introduced to the Japanese woman, the bareback rider, the woman jockey rider, the iron-jaw woman, the living statue woman, and the woman who acts as a target for the knife thrower. In normalizing the dressing room for her readers, Cather emphasizes the domestic qualities of the scene. The Japanese woman is bathing her children; other women apply makeup and don costumes. The woman jockey ties ribbons and smiles pleasantly; "[S]he was," Cather writes, "decidedly pretty, even at a very close range, and had nothing of the jaded air that circus riders are supposed to have." Another woman reads a book while she waits for the grand parade to begin, and it's not a trashy novel but a book Cather herself owns; in fact, the circus woman has a more expensive copy. The female target for the knife thrower is not some frozen, emotionless stoic; rather, she behaves as most women would, "nervous and out of sorts" (101). Cather writes that the Japanese woman "appeared to be very domestic." The overseer, Cather's guide and host, emphasizes that all of the women are married. These women are not sideshow freaks or social deviants; Cather herself is the one who doesn't belong. She writes that one woman "took no notice of me" and "appeared to think I was intruding, which showed her good judgment and good taste" (101).

In addition to the everyday domestic aspects of this dressing room, Cather emphasizes that circus women are motivated by an all-too-common desire for economic success. They own their own costumes, and "several of the women own their horses" (102). These women, she argues, "are in the business because they like it and because it pays big money." Circus women are emancipated and join an inclusive vanguard of other working women: "[C]ircus women work hard, but so do most women in the world. . . . [T]he ring woman . . . has her part in the great labor system of the world, and she fills it." Cather concludes, "Before I went back to the big tent I was rid of the idea that circus women are miserable beings or social outcasts driven into the ring by bitter misfortune" (102).

This 1894 account of a circus is fascinating in the ways it offers touchpoints for many of the themes that will appear in Cather's fiction: interest in women, acknowledgment of their economic value, and awareness of artistry in domesticity. Cather's positive attitude toward circus women reappears in The Song of the Lark in Thea's mother: "Mrs. Kronborg . . . was likely to find something to admire in almost any human conduct that was positive and energetic. . . . She went to the circus and admired the bareback riders, who were 'likely good enough women in their way'" (121). Cather vigorously exposes unfair and inaccurate stereotypes about those whose art and passion make them appear different. She offers support for the democratic impulse, which is, quite literally, a big-tent argument for including those commonly perceived to be at the bottom of the social ladder.

Cather may have been familiar with John Joseph Jennings and his wonderfully titled Theatrical and Circus Life; or, Secrets of the Stage, Green-room and Sawdust Arena. In a lavishly illustrated book Jennings portrays the normal routines of performers in their "secret" spaces. In addition, like Cather he takes away the presumed oddness of circus and stage show people. In a chapter titled "In the Dressing-Room" he writes, "These same people who appear grotesque, and out of the pale of ordinary every-day existence on the stage, are nearly always the most unromantic and realistic-looking folks in the world when you meet them on the street" (86).

In "Under the White Tents" Cather is likely drawing on aspects of Sara Orne Jewett's "The Circus at Denby," one of the sketches in Jewett's 1877 collection Deephaven (the story was first published in 1875 in the Atlantic Monthly). While Jewett offers a broader view of the circus experience than does Cather, including the anticipation, the journey to the circus, the audience, and performances, she too emphasizes the importance of childhood circus memories and, most significantly, writes a scene of understanding for a sideshow oddity. The Denby circus features a "Kentucky giantess," who reportedly weighs 650 pounds and needs to sit in two chairs (138). Helen (the story's narrator) and Kate are immediately ashamed of themselves for observing her and recognize sympathetically that "it must have been horrible to be stared at and joked about day after day" (138). When they try to leave, they discover their companion Mrs. Kew chatting with the large woman, even calling her by name. This is a girl Mrs. Kew grew up with, and it turns out the circus woman has a daughter and "no great of an appetite" (139). Mrs. Kew and the circus woman inquire about each other's families, smile agreeably, and shake hands as the other two women note Mrs. Kew's "apparent unconsciousness of there being anything in the least surprising or uncommon about the giantess" (141). Cather's newspaper article removes every trace of the pity and sympathy Jewett includes, but the two pieces share the female perspective, the refutation of stereotypes, domesticity even at a circus, and the power of memory.

Cather's fascination with the dressing room in "Under the White Tents" would reappear in her early short story "Paul's Case." Paul flees school and home to revel in the excitement and camaraderie he finds in the dressing room of Pittsburgh's Carnegie Hall. Notably, as part of her work writing reviews of theatrical performances in Pittsburgh, Cather herself hung out in dressing rooms seeking stories and interviews, and it was in the dressing room of the actress Lizzie Hudson Collier that she met Isabelle McClung (Woodress 139).

One of Cather's most powerful evocations of the circus motif occurs in "Coming, Aphrodite!," the lead story in her 1920 collection Youth and the Bright Medusa, a story rich in its portrayal of Greenwich Village, its depiction of the lives of up-and-coming artists, and its celebration of the human body and the electricity of sexuality. One of the story's key scenes comes when the painter Don Hedger and the singer Eden Bower spend a Sunday afternoon at Coney Island; they watch one of Hedger's models do trapeze stunts from a hot-air balloon, and then Eden replaces the model and performs her own stunt. Trapeze acts and balloon ascensions had long been part of the circus tradition—sometimes free balloon rides were offered to attract people to the circus (Culhane 265), sometimes performers did tricks suspended from a balloon, sometimes fireworks were dropped from a balloon (Immerso 34), and sometimes balloons were used as giant circular advertising posters for the circus (Immerso 33). Sarah Bernhardt, a long-time fascination for Cather, did a famous balloon-ride stunt over Paris in 1878, an occasion that Evelyn Funda notes was "a defining moment in Bernhardt's life" (29). As Mark Madigan explains in a note to the Scholarly Edition of Youth and the Bright Medusa, between 1897 and 1904 three large, enclosed amusement parks opened on Coney Island, each offering various entertainments, including those commonly associated with circuses (391). These amusement parks were wildly popular, with just one of them having an average daily attendance of over ninety thousand people (391).

As in her earlier treatments of the circus Cather stresses the democratic nature of the crowd. Hedger says to Eden, "If you've never been to Coney Island, you ought to go. It's nice to see all the people, tailors and bar-tenders and prize-fighters with their best girls, and all sorts of folks taking a holiday" ("Coming, Aphrodite!" 39). After they arrive, the crowd builds, and Cather notes that it is a loud, boisterous crowd of men, boys, and "fat old women" (42). Hedger and Eden themselves are still eager, hard-working young artists finding their way, a far cry from the glimpse readers get of a pampered Eden, now a self-styled diva, at the story's ending.

As she does in many ways throughout "Coming, Aphrodite!" Cather emphasizes the sensuality of the performers in the Coney Island scene. Molly Welch, the balloon trapeze performer, as already prompted excitement as one of Hedger's models: "She's got a good deal of spirit. That's why I like to paint her. So many models have flaccid bodies" (39). Presumably she has modeled nude for him, but her sexuality comes out even more strongly when she dons her circus costume. Clad in green tights, she appears to the crowd, and Cather uses words like "carelessly" and "gracefully" to describe her appearance as she "keep[s] her body taut and her feet close together." The people in the crowd cheer and murmur "admiring comments upon the balloonist's figure. 'Beautiful legs, she has!'" Hedger agrees, adding that "[n]ot many girls would look well in that position" before blushing in embarrassment (42). When Don and Eden visit Molly in her dressing room between performances, she teases him as she dismisses him so that she can dress: "This time I go up in a black evening dress, and lose the skirt in the basket before I start down" (44). The dressing room setting, the attractive women, and the sexually charged dialogue are remarkable as a culmination of places, language, and people with which Cather has long experimented.

When Hedger watches for the next trick, however, he and the crowd realize that a new girl is in the balloon basket; it is Eden Bower, who has "bought off" Molly so that she can try the trick. Eden is resplendent in the dress—the crowd yells, "You're a peach, girlie!" to her, but tension builds when she removes the evening gown: "'Now watch,' [Molly] exclaimed suddenly. 'She's coming down on the bar. . . . Those black tights show off her legs very well. She keeps her feet together like I told her, and makes a good line along the back. See the light on those silver slippers'" (44-45). This attention to female fashion and style, with strong undercurrents of sexuality, is not unusual for Cather; it is strong in A Lost Lady and The Song of the Lark, among many other works. One of its first appearances is in that early Home Monthly circus story "The Way of the World." The precocious Mary Eliza Jenkins seduces her way into the neighborhood boys' barn circuses; Cather writes, "She became the star of the circus ring, and it was considered a great sight to behold Mary Eliza attired in blue cambric tights with an abundance of blond locks . . . about her shoulders, executing feats of marvelous dexterity upon the flying trapeze" (400).

"Coming, Aphrodite!" does not merely echo and anticipate Cather's own writing; it extends her interactions with other writers. The story is remarkably parallel to Howells's descriptions in the sketch "A Circus in the Suburbs." He writes of "a young lady . . . [who] really looked like a young goddess in a Turkishtowel bath-gown; goddesses must have worn bath-gowns, especially Venus, who was often imagined in the bath, or just out of it" (128-29). The comparison to Venus, the imagining of a female in her bath, and the woman as the object of the male gaze are all prominent features of "Coming, Aphrodite!" In his story Howells writes of a female trapeze performer in language that creates the same juxtaposition of beauty and danger that characterizes much of Cather's writing: "The girl who did the trapeze acts, and did them wonderfully, left nothing to be desired in [her youthful divinity.] . . . [H]er 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" (129). Howells repeats the assertion of divinity in an attractive young girl, an idea Cather would emphasize in the title of her story. The close physical details of a trembling chin, a straining eye, and a frowning mouth suggest the observant eye of an artist like Cather's Don Hedger.

The openness and directness with which Howells and Cather write about female circus performers, and the clear associations with sensuality and sexuality, are characteristic of the Coney Island entertainment culture Cather portrays in "Coming, Aphrodite!" Michael Immerso in his book Coney Island: The People's Playground cites as causes of the more relaxed and participatory culture the "transition to a labor force having leisure time, increasing numbers of women engaging in leisure pursuits, and mechanical devices" as part of entertainment (41). He adds, "This transition was well under way at Coney Island by the 1880s." Its effect was to change the types of recreation available to people and the ways they participated. The distinction between audience and performer was diminished; Immerso notes the results of new attitudes: "It gave currency to forms of recreation that were less structured and less regulated. It expressed itself in less restrained forms of ocean bathing, in a more casual mingling of the sexes, and in the sensory thrills provided by the mechanical rides. This newly minted code of leisure prioritized and glorified motion and movement of the human body. It was available to practically everyone, regardless of gender and race, and was inherently democratic" (41).

Cather demonstrates her familiarity with freer attitudes, more open displays of passion, and a greater level of active participation in both public recreation and sex in "Coming, Aphrodite!": "Boys and girls sat on the long benches with their arms about each other, singing. Eden felt a strong wish to propitiate her companion, to be alone with him. She had been curiously wrought up by her balloon trip; it was a lark, but not very satisfying unless one came back to something after the flight. She wanted to be admired and adored" (47). The result is strong passion: Eden draws near to Hedger, and "[h]e felt as if they were enveloped in a highly charged atmosphere, an invisible network of subtle, almost painful sensibility. They had somehow taken hold of each other" (48).

Such experiences, prompted by circus performance and excitement, were common in Victorian culture in London, Paris, and America. Brenda Assael, in her book The Circus and Victorian Society, uses labels that evoke Eden Bower when she writes that "the female performer's body . . . became glamourous, beautiful, erotic, fearless, and transgressive" (10). All of Assael's adjectives fit Don Hedger's perceptions of Eden Bower, especially his unexplainable unhappiness in response to her daring trapeze exhibition. She has committed an unidentifiable transgression. Assael develops her analysis of female performance sexuality in a provocatively titled chapter, "Women on Top: Female Acrobats and Dangerous Performances." Her study of how attitudes toward women, performance, female body appearance, and sexuality moved from a Victorian sensibility to a more modern consciousness resonates powerfully in Cather's story. Assael analyzes three specific qualities associated with the female acrobat's art: "danger, sexual pleasure, and athleticism" (109). Eden Bower possesses—and is proud of—all three qualities. Some Victorian officials complained about women on trapeze bars and in balloons, not only for perceived danger but also "because of perceived lewdness" (118). In a striking parallel to Don Hedger's sexist comment about Molly's "position," Assael quotes a London city official who commented on women who hovered over the heads of the audience as they performed: "[I]t is not altogether desirable to place a female in this indelicate position, providing all with a view of her form" (115). Assael's additional comment from a man's diary illustrates the reality of the male objectifying gaze found in Cather's Speckleville boys and in the men at Coney Island: "The only clothing she had on was a blue satin doublet fitting close to her body and having very scanty truck hose below it. Her arms were all bare; her legs, cased in fleshings, were as good as bare, up to the hip" (115).

By locating one of the scenes of the growing excitement between Don Hedger and Eden Bower at Coney Island, Cather establishes the relationship between popular and high culture as one of the central concerns of her story. Indeed, this becomes obvious in the inevitable fight between Hedger and Eden Bower over her suggestion that he paint art that is more popular and will make him more money. Coney Island was a site of the popular culture debate. Some of its developers wanted to create aesthetic palaces, traditionally beautiful but formal and artistic; others wanted a place where people could participate, and participate actively, in thrills. Dreamland, one of the three major amusement parks on Coney Island, provides a revealing instance of this debate. Madigan provides a photograph of this park in the Scholarly Edition of Youth and the Bright Medusa, noting that it figures prominently in "Coming, Aphrodite!" After Dreamland was destroyed by fire, George Dobson, one of the park's directors, recalled that "promoters of the park had endeavored to appeal to a highly developed sense of the artistic. It did not take them long to discover that Coney Island was scarcely the place for that sort of thing" (qtd. in Kasson 110). Cather's Coney Island crowd, loud and unrestrained, filled with "a beer lunch," represents a more democratic, more inclusive—and more exuberant—enjoyment of art (42).

The circus, then, is an important and sustained motif in Cather's writing as well as in her life. As with many American writers Cather's circus scenes serve to democratize important aspects of public life. But the circus also creates and recalls more personal memories that reconcile and motivate people. Circus entertainment allows another site for Cather to display what she believes is the secret of artistic success—passion. For her this long-lived form of popular culture blurs the distinctions between performer and audience. The circus resists stiffness and exclusivity as it acknowledges the power in sexualizing the human body. After Hedger and Eden Bower return to their Washington Square neighborhood from Coney Island, she wants a glass of champagne: "Perhaps it will make me think I am in the balloon again. That was a very nice feeling" (48).


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