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Master of Schlock and Awe

Master of Schlock and Awe

It’s impossible to read Barnum: An American LifeRobert Wilson’s impressive biography of the infamous nineteenth-century showman, without detecting echoes – and perhaps some of the origins – of today’s political turmoil and voyeuristic popular culture. The bombast and hype, the careless disregard for the truth, the nauseating bravado and self-promotion that was Phineas Taylor Barnum – it all hits close to home in the age when a hate-filled tweet or bogus claim of “fake news” is enough to divert the attention of an already distracted public.

“His name,” Wilson notes, “often evokes comparisons to scoundrels, to politicians who lie shamelessly to the public, to deceptive advertisers, or to sleight-of-hand businessmen.” That’s because P.T. Barnum lied incessantly, spouted ludicrous claims about his attractions and planted fake stories in the press. His name is also linked, erroneously, with the line “there’s a sucker born every minute,” something he never said; rather, it’s a comment that could have served as a personal mission statement.

Wilson, editor of the esteemed quarterly magazine The American Scholar and biographer of Civil War battlefield photographer Mathew Brady, pulls back the curtain on this larger-than-life character who became a global celebrity. When former general Ulysses S. Grant went on a world tour in the late 1870s, after two terms as president, he was hounded with the same question: “Do you know Barnum?”

Barnum’s fame was built on schlock and awe. During the 1840s he acquired a specimen for his museum of curiosities in New York that he touted as the corpse of a mermaid; it turned out to be the head and torso of a monkey attached to the body of a fish. People lined up to get a glimpse of Joice Heth, a former slave Barnum claimed – with a straight face – was 161 years old and had been George Washington’s nursemaid. He toured England and Europe with a dwarf he christened Tom Thumb, who charmed Queen Victoria’s court and other regal audiences. When he teamed up with James Bailey in the 1880s to establish a touring circus, it was billed as nothing short of “The Greatest Show on Earth.” His quest for oddities became the butt of a nineteenth-century jibe. “The quip ‘Where’s Barnum?’ was applied to any novelty, discovery, or invention of the day,” Wilson writes, “under the assumption that he would soon show up to add it to his museum collection.”

Wilson cautions that his subject should be judged by the standards of his times, not by modern sensibilities. But even with this caveat, readers will wince as Barnum emerges, again and again, as a callous, self-absorbed money-grubber. He was a racist who had no qualms about displaying an elderly black woman, Heth, as if she were less than human – and, when she died, his first impulse was to sell tickets to her autopsy. When one of his children passed away while he was on tour, the thought of returning home to console his grieving wife never appears to have crossed his mind. He would stop at nothing to pander to the public’s insatiable appetite for the new and the exotic. Wilson can only guess how many elephants died in present-day Sri Lanka when Barnum ordered a round-up that brought ten survivors to America.

Yet there was more to Barnum than an inflated ego and a relentless urge to make a buck. Understand Barnum, Wilson argues, and you will understand something about America. One of his contemporaries deemed him “a representative man” who personified “the enterprise and energy of his countrymen in the nineteenth century.” He lived the American Dream, overcoming an impoverished childhood to amass a fortune. He helped to educate his countrymen, albeit for a profit. For a quarter – the typical cost of admission – he exposed Americans to worlds and wonders they had never seen. He added a hall to his museum to stage lectures and dramas. And, over time, he became a better man. He embraced the temperance movement and spoke out against the evils of drink. He came to abhor slavery and, during the Civil War, used his museum’s displays to promote the Union cause. “He may have begun his career as a promoter of sketchy acts in a business that was often considered less than respectable,” Wilson asserts, but he redeemed himself as he aged and changed, “earning the respect of Americans of every station.”

Wilson is no apologist for his subject, but at times he seems to let him off the hook. Did Barnum, for instance, take advantage of the people who bought tickets to see his “mermaid” and other fakes? Of course he did, even though the author believes most “were not taken in.” And besides, Wilson notes, any fake he was foisting on the public as the genuine article still might have been, for them, “a thing worth seeing and judging for themselves.” But people are reluctant to admit they have been duped; that’s why many victims of con men and ponzi schemes nurse their losses in private, to avoid exposure and ridicule. A great many of Barnum’s customers must have felt like fools for being taken in by the master promoter’s relentless smarm, and for believing even for a second they would see Washington’s nurse or a real mermaid.

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Where’s Barnum? He’s here, in the pages of this thoughtful, deeply researched and revealing book. Wilson draws on the boast-filled autobiographies – a life lived this large called for more than one – and many public pronouncements of a man who spent a lifetime seeking publicity. Who knew that, as a young man, Barnum briefly published his own newspaper and wound up in jail after being charged with libel? Or that he had a successful political career that included two terms in the Connecticut legislature, where he backed the constitutional amendment abolishing slavery, and a run for Congress (ironically, he lost to a cousin, William Henry Barnum). He even served as mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut.

Barnum: An American Life often reads less like history and more like a cautionary tale for our times. In 1855 the British satirical magazine Punch published a tongue-in-cheek headline touting “Barnum for President.” The idea of handing the world’s most powerful elected office to such a shameless self-promoter was “more absurd” back then, Wilson notes dryly, “than it seems today.”

Barnum: An American Life
By Robert Wilson
Simon & Schuster

August 6, 2019

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