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American Talkers: The Pitchman

Much of what is appealing about a carnival, a side show or a circus comes not from what is seen but what is heard. The midgets, the sword swallowers, the dancers are only half the show. The pitchman sets the scene for all of them. His skillful use of language can transform the most paltry attractions into unforgettable images, and lend his curiosities some of the bizarre beauty of a Grimm's folktale.

Carnival pitchmen are among the last oral poets to hold the attention of modern American audiences. Their spiels, handed down from one generation of showmen to another, combine rhythm, alliteration, repetition and hyperbole--that is, outrageous ...

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