An American Life
By Robert Wilson
On May 21, 2017, Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus gave the last performance in its 146-year history. The show’s iconic elephants had disappeared the year before, after a long campaign by animal rights advocates. Ticket sales had slumped. As the audience rose for a standing ovation, the ringmaster led everyone in singing “Auld Lang Syne.” Then it was over.
Except that it wasn’t. P. T. Barnum, the showman who started it all, had a knack for keeping himself in the headlines — even from beyond the grave. In recent years, he was lionized in “The Greatest Showman,” a Hollywood confection starring Hugh Jackman, invoked as a narcissist and flimflam man by Trump critics from Stephen Colbert to Samuel L. Jackson, and run through a gantlet of skeptical books with one-word titles like “Fraud,” “Bunk” and “Hoax.” The latest salvo in the battle for his legacy is “Barnum,” by Robert Wilson, the editor of The American Scholar and the author of biographies on two of Barnum’s contemporaries: the Civil War photographer Mathew Brady and the explorer Clarence King.
Exhaustive in scope and upbeat in tone, “Barnum” argues at the outset that “his is a life well worth knowing and celebrating.” Wilson draws extensively from Barnum’s own writings, and credits the work of many Barnumologists before him.
The book opens with Barnum’s childhood among the prank-loving Congregationalists of Bethel, Conn., and proceeds through his many entrepreneurial incarnations. Driven by an “outsized eagerness to enrich himself,” Barnum ran a lottery, published a newspaper, sold Bibles and opened the American Museum in downtown Manhattan, where he peddled spectacles like the “Fejee Mermaid,” a monkey-fish chimera bound together by the dark arts of taxidermy.
Wilson spares none of the opulent details, lingering on the construction of Iranistan, Barnum’s sprawling Bridgeport villa, an ego monument on par with Mar-a-Lago. While the book never mentions Donald Trump, the parallels are impossible to miss: Both men are immune to censure. Following a libel conviction, Barnum spent 60 days in jail and parlayed his release into a hero’s homecoming with speeches, cannon salutes and a band. When he brought Tom Thumb to England in 1844 and was panned by critics, Barnum characterized the debut as a “hit.” “Neither the poor showing in Liverpool nor the seeming indifference in London seemed to discourage Barnum,” Wilson writes.
Through it all, the book’s message is clear: Barnum was a self-made man in the American grain. But this boosterism begins to drag, Wilson’s festive mood brought low by a gradual accumulation of facts pointing to a darker conclusion. Barnum was a narcissistic wildfire. Everything in his path — artifacts, animals, human beings — was tinder for his fame.
In the annals of Barnum, the most ethically bankrupt spectacle of all was the exploitation of Joice Heth, a blind, toothless and emaciated black woman presented to gawkers as the 161-year-old nursemaid of George Washington. Reports differ on whether Barnum “bought” or “rented” her, but on tour he appeased skeptical abolitionists with a lie, claiming all proceeds from the spectacle would be used to buy her great-grandchildren’s freedom. After she died, Barnum sold tickets for a public autopsy.
Wilson isn’t immune to the horror, but he urges readers to contextualize it: “Barnum was a man of his time, and his attitudes toward race, class, women, family and status, many of them deplorable today, were often, but not always, also of his time.” (He then adds a dutiful disclaimer: “Still, living in a racist society does not ultimately excuse individual acts of racism.”) Over time, the author starts to feel like Barnum’s wingman.
Wilson often stresses that Barnum was on a road to redemption, evolving into a better person. But he never seemed to get there. In his later years, Barnum dressed a young, microcephalic black man in an ape suit and billed him as “the long-looked-for connecting link between man and monkey.” When Charity, his long-suffering wife, died, Barnum chose to remain in England, where he secretly married a friend’s 23-year-old daughter, returning home to his grieving family five months later. (Years earlier, he’d also stayed overseas after learning his youngest daughter had died.)
In an era shaped by charismatic salesmen like Donald Trump, a cleareyed biography of Barnum would be both enlightening and timely. But that would require skepticism, a willingness to hear the warning delivered in Barnum’s own words: “The public appears disposed to be amused even when they are conscious of being deceived.”
Jessica Bruder teaches narrative writing at the Columbia School of Journalism and is the author of “Nomadland: Surviving America in the Twenty-First Century.”
BARNUMAn American LifeBy Robert WilsonIllustrated. 341 pp. Simon & Schuster. $28.
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