- Wonder Shows: Performing Science, Magic, and Religion in America
As its title promises, Wonder Shows is an entertaining book. It covers public performances of various kinds from about 1830 to the present, primarily in the United States, though at times covering showmen who operated in Britain as well. Fred Nadis moves, in roughly chronological order, through electrical demonstrations, miraculous cures, technological displays, mesmerism, magic, mind reading, world's fair exhibits, the Moody Bible Institute's films and Sermons from Science, conventions of flying-saucer enthusiasts, and contemporary inheritors of these traditions, who sell Q-Ray bracelets or attend such events as the annual Whole Life Expo that draws 100,000 people. Nadis defines a wonder show as "a blend of science and showmanship that creates surprise and then pleasure in the spectator whose day-to-day perceptions are shattered and opened to new realms of possibility"(p. xi). While this definition suggests that the audience plays a crucial interpretive role, the book focuses primarily on performers and their startling acts, including itinerant showmen, mesmerists, stage magicians, vaudeville performers, mind readers, Nikola Tesla, Thomas Alva Edison, and actors working at General Electric's House of Magic or Westinghouse's Hall of Miracles.
The wonder shows are treated in nine chapters, divided into three groupings. First come "performers, inventors, and electrical technicians" who "promoted electricity as a quasi-magical force" (p. 19). Second come hypnotists and mind readers whose "mystical vaudeville" differentiated them from the anti-Spiritualist crusades of Harry Houdini and more mainstream stage magicians. Third come wonder shows since 1950, including some evangelists, UFO cultists, New Age promoters, and the like. The approach throughout is to focus on a few representative figures, with often-amusing illustrations and anecdotes.
Nadis has a lively writing style and he has read widely and done considerable primary research. He establishes in detail the persistent, if often nebulous, links between religion and science and shows not only that these have been exploited in wonder shows, but also that there is a surprising degree of continuity down to the present. He has also located a wide range [End Page 421] of primary materials, many new to this reviewer. Some were in collections at the University of Texas, Austin, where this book began as a dissertation; others at the Smithsonian, the Bakken, and elsewhere.
Overall, this is a good first book, worth the price of admission. Yet, like a vaudeville show with many acts, the very breadth of the survey, from "magnetic health mats" to suspended animation to Houdini's escape artistry to corporate science displays at the 1933 Chicago Century of Progress Exposition to the Journal of New Energy, makes it difficult to create an overarching theory to connect the fascinating case studies. At several points Nadis sketches the scaffolding of possible methodologies without connecting them into a larger pattern. For example, he suggests that his book is "deeply indebted to Lorraine Daston and Katherine Park's Wonders and the Order of Nature" (1998), which focuses on Europe from the medieval period to the scientific revolution. Yet he does not summarize or discuss this book, except to say that his research began where theirs ended, with "the vulgarization of wonder" (p. 263). This phrase suggests a class-based analysis that might have been useful, but he scarcely uses social class as an analytic category. Nadis also suggests that the wonder shows are a vulgar version of (p. 9), or perhaps even the same thing as, the technological sublime (p. 20). Elsewhere, using William James as a guide (p. 67), he suggests that the wonder show could be likened to religious conversion. Later, citing the anthropologist Victor Turner, he suggests that the wonder show provided a liminal zone (p. 95). Nadis also presents some of his showmen as shamans (pp. 126–27). These many suggestions are never combined and developed into a sustained methodological approach and they remain ideas for future development. The root of the problem may be a refusal to frame definitions. For example...