Collections > Electronic Theses and Dissertations > "Menagerie to me / My Neighbor be": Exotic Animals and American Conscience, 1840-1900

Throughout the nineteenth century, large numbers of living “exotic” animals—elephants, lions, and tigers—circulated throughout the U.S. in traveling menageries, circuses, and later zoos as staples of popular entertainment and natural history education. In “Menagerie to me / My Neighbor be,” I study literary representations of these displaced and sensationalized animals, offering a new contribution to Americanist animal studies in literary scholarship, which has largely attended to the cultural impact of domesticated and native creatures. The field has not yet adequately addressed the influence that representations of foreign animals had on socio-cultural discourses, such as domesticity, social reform, and white supremacy. I examine how writers enlist exoticized animals to variously advance and disrupt the human-centered foundations of hierarchical thinking that underpinned nineteenth-century tenets of civilization, particularly the belief that Western culture acts as a progressive force in a comparatively barbaric world. Both well studied and lesser-known authors, however, find “exotic” animal figures to be wily for two seemingly contradictory reasons. For one, these figures often exceed the bounds and norms of “civilized” American society, from connoting the strangeness of distant lands to escaping their enclosures. While such representations affirm the animals’ exoticized status, authors show the difficulty of accounting for the animals’ mental, emotional, and social capacities. Secondly, and arguably because alien animals present impenetrable mysteries, the authors of this study confront the possibility of finding correspondence and compatibility with “exotic” animality, even testing the potential for a civil society more open to and tolerant of non-Anglo American difference. This process reveals a public struggling to understand their ethical and cultural identities and responsibilities in the face of global and animal alterity.