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

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

“A Showman is a Man who can Entertain

James H. McKenzie, Pg 162

“The Daring Young Man on the Flying Trapeze”
Jules Leotard (1842-1870), a man made famous in 1860 by his invention of the flying trapeze act. Image from the Victoria and Albert Museum.

James H. McKenzie was a performer and therefore it is only natural that he should want to write an autobiography. McKenzie lived a life full of thrill and adventure, a life worth talking about. He knew his life was full of stories to tell and therefore he decided he wanted to share them with as many people as possible. McKenzie spent seventy-two years performing to a crowd, and he enjoyed every minute of it. He had a passion for entertaining and bringing joy and amusement to the people in front of him. Not wanting to let this passion and energy die, he spent his later years writing. He set about to recall his entire life – the good, the bad and the ugly – for his readers, his crowd.

James’ writing is very passionate in his autobiography and he is very positive about everything within it, even the sadder bits. You can tell from the way he writes that he is putting on a show. James’ writing is very energetic and it helps the reader feel the deep drive he had for his career.

In his memoir, James included a vast variety of stories, from the sad stories of illness, deaths, arguments and fights, to the more positive stories of good family, friends, the circus and the gipsies. James also talks about all that he achieved and how he achieved them, sparking hope in everyone, that anything is possible if you put your mind to it.

James goes into a lot of detail in this autobiography, mostly about his working life, recalling all the adventures he had, and all the things he saw. However, James was less detailed about his personal life. We know a lot about James’ younger years, and how this made him who he was, and how this drove him to be who he was at the end of his life. Nevertheless, very little is known about James’ personal life once he entered the circus. It is stated on Ancestry that he was married, and there is evidence that he had multiple children by his wife; however, he mentions neither her nor any of his children once. This is interesting and makes one wonder whether he was ashamed of his family, and therefore did not want to disclose he had one, or whether he was simply prouder of his work achievements, seeing that to be a lot more interesting for his readers, than his ability to have a family.

“Show people, like Circus folk are a most exclusive class”

James H. McKenzie pg 162

It is important to note, that James was very proud of what he has achieved, and was equally as proud of what other showmen like him had also achieved. This means however that his writing can seem to be very biased. He is very complimentary, all throughout, of the people around him, and of himself. James was not afraid to boast about every little thing he has done, and how great he was to have done them. He was in awe of the life he created, and he writes fondly about it. This rubs off on the reader, who quickly see him to be as great as he knows he is.


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

‘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

Other Reading 

Barringer, Tim J. Men at Work: Art and Labour in Victorian Britain New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2005

Burnett, John ed. Useful Toil: Autobiographies of Working People from the 1820s to the 1920s London: Routledge, 1994.

Eley, Geoff. ‘The Family is a Dangerous Place: Memory, Gender and the Image of the Working Class.’ Ed. Robert Rosenstone. Revisioning History, Princeton NJ: Princeton UP, 1993.

Gagnier, Regenia. ‘Working-Class Autobiography, Subjectivity, and Gender.’ Victorian Studies 30.3 (1987): 335-363

Vincent, David. Bread, Knowledge and Freedom: A Study of Nineteenth-Century Working-Class Autobiography. London: Methuen, 1981.

Vincent, David. ‘Love and Death and the Nineteenth-Century Working Class.’ Social History, 5.2 (1980): 223-247

Jules Léotard Image

Victoria and Albert Museum. (2016). Jules Léotard. [online] Available at: http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/articles/j/jules-leotard/ [Accessed 23 Feb. 2019].

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