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Blue Ribbons and Burlesque, by Charles Fish

By Darrell Hamlin
June 17, 2008

Blue Ribbons and BurlesqueReviewing a book ten years after publication is usually too late, but for Blue Ribbons and Burlesque: A Book of Country Fairs, by Charles Fish (Woodstock, Vermont: The Countryman Press, 1998.), it seems early still. Wanting somehow to capture the “magic” of the New England country fairs of his boyhood, Fish took photographs in 1969 and 1970 that remained as negatives in his attic for twenty-five years. Fish’s black and white photography provides “visible reminders” of a past that is almost entirely extinct as it once existed, yet the images allow the author to conjure the spectacle of animals, food, rides, strippers, freaks, machines and crowds – ritual elements of community that make the fairs nothing less than “a time of year, almost a season.”

An expression of two levels of memory, what Fish calls a “double origin and double perspective,” Blue Ribbons and Burlesque is ultimately an examination of the desire to remember as much as it is a book about a time and a place. Keeping that desire preeminent within a text that also remembers to inform is the basis of Fish’s achievement. In this sense it is a book that describes the aims and measures of competition at a traditional New England fair. Fish’s own experiences and more recent interviews bring to the text an instructive understanding of what is to be admired in animals, machines, or foodstuffs. Animals, for example, are a primary focus of Fish’s project, representing as they do the “size, strength, and danger” that mesmerized the boy and continue to fascinate the man. He observes that what is accomplished with the presentation of animals at a fair is a complex achievement that involves both business and art, an aesthetics of nurturing and viewing excellence that fuses the “love of the practical with the beautiful.” One recognizes in animal husbandry an “engagement of being with being” that is more profound than skill with machines, although Fish also demonstrates what is remarkable at a fair in the mastery of mechanical devices.

It is not difficult to understand why the more theatrical offerings of the country fairs have disappeared: medical science now prevents many of the birth defects that were on view in the freak show tents, and HBO is a more reliable source of adolescent sexual instruction than the “girlie shows.” When Fish turns his attention to the “drama” of the crowd, however, a poignant concern for what has become of all that presence and interaction is brought to the surface. His ability to interpret, in photographs a quarter century old, the age, temperament, and life experiences of fair-goers is critical to the deeper question of local memory.

The most reflective aspect of Blue Ribbons and Burlesque is the insight into the loss of community that has taken place in New England as the country fairs changed or died out. Common standards are crucial in public life; members understand themselves and their place in the world when they share a vision of excellence. Coming together to admire the achievements of neighbors or schoolmates creates attachment, and this affection for the whole teaches each generation what is most valuable in the communal life. Fish’s text and photographs suggest that much more than a lively source of entertainment has been lost. The vitality of the community ebbs when members are no longer able to walk among the best that that place can do. Losing one’s childlike sense of wonder in a native land is a tragic drain of local culture, as young adults begin to leave more often than they stay. When one can no longer witness or exhibit excellence in the local arts of living, and when it is no longer important to care, then other measures of accomplishment in the world, like money, inevitably shape the next generation. Charles Fish, in Blue Ribbons and Burlesque, reminds us that local memory requires more than photographs, and that even the most instructive and useful parts of the past cannot survive without a common meaning.

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