Since his heyday in the mid-nineteenth century, P.T. Barnum’s name has been shorthand for ebullient humbuggery, maximalist entertainment, inexhaustible self-promotion, rags-to-riches industriousness—for fun. After The Greatest Showman (2017), a highly fictionalized musical that defied studio expectations to gross a Barnumesque $435 million, fades to black, the screen fills with a sober epigram: “The noblest art is that of making others happy.” Barnum wrote this at the end of his life, during a period in which he referred to himself as “The Children’s Friend.” He groomed himself to look like Santa Claus.
Yet the images that animate his biographies—of which Robert Wilson’s Barnum is at least the fifteenth, not counting Barnum’s own serially revised and overlapping memoirs—are united by an eerier quality, suspended between the pitiful and the grotesque. The most indelible of these includes the Fejee Mermaid, a three-foot monstrosity composed of the lower half of a large fish stitched to the upper half of a small monkey scowling at the indignity of its afterlife. The What Is It? was a mentally disabled, microcephalic eighteen-year-old black man, four feet tall and fifty pounds, dressed in an ape costume, ordered by Barnum to speak in gibberish, and touted as the “connecting link between man and monkey.” The gargantuan elephant Jumbo, upon being purchased by Barnum and forced to leave the zoological gardens at London’s Regent’s Park, blurted a trumpet call, lay down in the road outside the park’s gates, and refused to budge for a full day. “Let him lay there for a week if he wants to,” said Barnum at the time. “It is the best advertisement in the world.”
There were also the catastrophic fires, five of them, that destroyed Barnum’s museums, circuses, and most opulent estate, yielding horrors equal in their majesty to any of his exhibitions: the pair of squealing white whales burned alive after their tank was shattered in a failed effort to douse the flames; the escaped tiger roaming the streets of lower Manhattan in a snowstorm; the white elephant that, having been led to safety, repeatedly charged back into the inferno in frantic determination to commit suicide.
Wilson is the editor of The American Scholar and the author of two previous biographies of nineteenth-century pioneers, the Civil War photographer Mathew Brady and Clarence King, an explorer of the American West. When Wilson set out to write a new life of Barnum, he made a point of courting his predecessors. The most distinguished of these is the historian Neil Harris, whose Humbug: The Art of P.T. Barnum (1973) uses Barnum’s story to examine the birth of modern American culture. Harris gave Wilson his blessing, telling him that “each generation seems to need its own” study of Barnum. Harris’s own thesis, however, suggests otherwise. Barnum built his legend, he writes at the beginning of Humbug, on “the…
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