James H. McKenzie (1862-1952): Purpose and Audience – Writing Lives

James H. McKenzie (1862-1952): Purpose and Audience

‘The many stories I could pen of what incidents occur’d during my stay with my Peggotty Hut would fill a volume’

James H. McKenzie Vol 2, Pg 321

The circus showman, James H. McKenzie, from the start of his memoir wants to draw his readers in. He places much emphasis on the strangeness of the incidents that occurred during his life and provides his authorial voice as a guiding companion as you read on and imagine the events that took place in his eventful life. There is the impression that James wanted to publish his memoir as, after seventy years of an entrepreneurial career, James may have wanted to make his final bow to his audience by giving an account that celebrates his life while allowing his voice to live on by inspiring and entertaining others. I think James expressly wanted to disclose his life stories with the use of his own voice, as throughout his handwritten memoir his character and personality are a prevalent aspect that makes you not only feel like a reader but a cherished close friend.

Although James discloses many captivating accounts concerning his childhood and his life in show business, he does not divulge his adult personal life, and there are no references to his marriage in 1898 to Mary Ann Westbrook or to his six children, whom, as records show, he appears to have brought up during his time as a travelling showman. James may have intended to separate his private life from his stage life, as even the authorial name on the cover of his memoir is his stage name and not his birth name. Perhaps James wanted to dedicate his memoir primarily to his career, as this was the part of his life that shaped him into the person at the time of writing his memoir. 

Above is a pen and ink drawing by Harry Furniss of Charles Dickens during his final reading. Throughout his handwritten memoir James hints at how much he admired the works of Charles Dickens. In many ways he recognized qualities in Dickens that mirrored his career as a showman.
Credit- npg.org.uk (National Portrait Gallery)

Although James’ memoir begins with an account of the many years of hardship he experienced as a child living in the slums of Chelsea, he still manages to inject humour and wit into his recollections, as even surreal moments in his memoir have a satirical quality. I think it is evident that James could not escape his own personality and only through writing his memoir could he feel that his life would live on in a form that might inspire and bring joy to people once he was gone. Throughout James alludes to his admiration of Charles Dickens, as he states in his memoir that one of his roles in the circus was to create and build a Dickens Gallery, and he even includes a Charles Dickens quote on the inner cover of his memoir, with the words “my friendly showman”, perhaps indicating his desire to become an author and be recognised as a writer like Dickens.

Throughout the memoir, there are subtle statements that could possibly allude to his intentions of publishing his memoir. For example, James states in part 1 of his memoir that he was arrested as a child after being caught for stealing fruit from an orchard near Market Garden. During this experience, he recounts his discussions with fellow prisoners and the indecent language they used and how their language could not be printed or documented.

‘He demanded to know the reason for my presence in the police court. I told him my trouble, the language he uttered is unprintable’.

James H. McKenzie Pg. 47

James’ use of the word ‘unprintable’ has a humorous quality and there is a sense that, through flattering his audience that they are polite, James can use his charm and wit as a way to engage and entertain his readers. The removal of events that may have been associated as a taboo topic, makes James’ memoir an enticing and desirable read. Although James never explicitly states who the audience for his memoir is, he gives the impression that he wanted to entertain people through his writing, as this was something that was second nature to him after his long career in show business.

James draws his audience in by detailing the many incidents and wonders that occured throughout his life. Above is an example of a circus programme from the late 19th century. Although this is not a programme from a circus that James was part of, you can get a clear sense from reading his memoir how he utilises the structure used in programmes, as he addresses his readership with titles that suggest wonder and fascination that will draw in and engage readers with his stories.
Credit – leisureandculturedundee.com

A tone of confidence and pride is heard in James’ writing. He has come so far from the situation of his upbringing and has faced all the challenges that life has thrown at him and lived to tell the tale. I think James’ memoir shows a clear sense of resilience, as even though he experienced loss, poverty and despair in his life, he never lost hope and always strove to be the best person that he could be.

I think James’ memoir has the ability to inspire people, especially working-class individuals, as his life never played out as he first imagined, and he made his life purposeful and pleasurable. Although James wrote this memoir towards the end of his life, it is clear that he was a man who always had a new story up his sleeve, as he never looked back in regret and every moment in his life made him into the charming and amusing man he was.

Although James’ writing, like his career, is open to a cross-class audience, we get the impression that James’ writing could stand as a beacon of hope for the working class. James still identified as working class after the success of his career and there is a sense that he would always remember his upbringing as a defining part of his life that influenced his decision to join the travelling circus. Nan Hackett states that people like James ‘insisted on identifying themselves as members of the working class, no matter what later success or wealth they enjoyed’ (209). Even though James became a successful circus showman, there is a sense that James, like many working-class people, felt proud of themselves for achieving their success. Only through acknowledging their working-class background would they ensure that the struggles of the working class are never forgotten.


‘James H. McKenzie’ in John Burnett, David Vincent and David Mayall (eds) The Autobiography of the Working Class: An Annotated, Critical Bibliography 1790-1945, 3 vols. (Brighton: Harvester, 1984, 1987, 1989): 1:473

McKenzie, James H. ‘Strange Truth. The Autobiography of a Circus, Showman, Stage and Exhibition Man’, Burnett Archive of Working Class Autobiographies, University of Brunel Library, Special Collection Library, 1:473

Hackett, Nan. (1989). ‘A Different Form of “Self”: Narrative Style in British Nineteenth-Century Working-class Autobiography’. Biography12.3, 208-226. DOI: 10.1353/bio.2010.0512

Proof read by Sera – click to read Sera’s blog post on Purpose & Audience

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