Although he has a reputation as a great deceiver, a peerless huckster of humbugs, hoaxes and hoodwinks, and the person to whom has been attributed the cynical quote “There’s a sucker born every minute,” Phineas Taylor “P.T.” Barnum deserves better. He was the world’s greatest showman, writes Robert Wilson in this brisk, laudatory biography, and a far cry from those whose job it was to separate John Q. Public from his hard-earned money through fast talk and sleight of hand.
Barnum was a spectacular success because of his unfailing sense of what the public wanted: to be entertained, wowed, dumbfounded. He accomplished this through a combination of unflagging energy, wit and a sense of humor, cultivating a close relationship with his audience that brought them in on the joke with a wink and a nudge. A “civic-minded, fun-loving man,” he emphasized the moral qualities of his shows and the safety of his exhibition spaces, ready and appropriate for all ages, when many such venues were the sites of profound debauchery.
In “Barnum: An American Life,” Wilson brings him alive on the page, thanks in part to the voluminous print record of Barnum’s life, in letters, speeches and newsprint. Here was a man who got his start as a showman by parading a supposedly 161-year-old black woman around to his sideshow audiences. Barnum proved better than that racist beginning when he moved on to General Tom Thumb, who truly was the smallest general of all time, although Barnum’s Feejee Mermaid — evidently part orangutan, baboon and salmon — was a supreme hoax used to bring crowds to his American Museum on Broadway in Manhattan.
Barnum was indefatigable, bringing as much verve to his temperance talks as to his yearslong tours of the European continent, with always another cabinet of curiosities to bring before the public, another circus to introduce, another star attraction to display — from the “Swedish Nightingale” Jenny Lind to the giant elephant Jumbo.
Wilson suggests Barnum’s potent combination of naiveté, arrogance, persistence and luck — combined with his brash, uncouth, self-confident attributes, a go-getter of the first water — make him a particularly American figure, which may be a gross generalization but is also hard to argue with.
In Wilson’s thoroughgoing biography, what makes Barnum a sympathetic subject is that his financial success showed “that a person could move not only from rags to riches but even from obscurity to respectability.” Such class fluidity might be the American dream, but it also spawns envy. For every patron who was delighted by Barnum’s outlandishness, there was another who wanted to see him “put in his place.” Such schadenfreude seems miserly when one considers how big-hearted Barnum was, never leaving anyone in the humbug dark.
Peter Lewis is a book critic in New York.
Barnum: An American Life
By: Robert Wilson.
Publisher: Simon & Schuster, 341 pages, $28.