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P. T. Barnum: The Legend and the Man Paperback – 31 May 1995
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For too long the public impression of P.T. Barnum has been one laced with thoughts of humbug and chicanery, with the shadiness of the pitchman. Here, in these fascinating letters, we find him to be too complex, too complicated a man to have such a reputation. The quintessential Barnum, a man we've never quite seen before, turns out to be full of ideas and energy, a humorist, a social critic, now beleaguered, now triumphant, a most fascinating character.
From the Back Cover
Nearly a century after his death, every American knows something about P. T. Barnum and his many personae: we know him as a circus proprietor and founder of 'The Greatest Show On Earth, ' or we know him as the discoverer of General Tom Thumb, the midget, and the impresario of the renowned Swedish singer Jenny Lind, or perhaps we know him as a man addicted to practical jokes, whose most memorable pronouncement is supposed to have been 'there's a sucker born every minute.' In this colorful biography Arthur Saxon explores this 'legend in his own time, ' and presents a truer, less cliche-ridden picture of the man than anyone so far has done.See all Product description
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Some of Barnum’s techniques and ideas will disgust 21st century Americans. First is his view shared by almost all white Americans in the 19th century of their superiority over other ethnic groups and over those who were born with what we now know were genetic anomalies. There was no sense of understanding and empathy. Barnum did his honest best to treat all his employees and human exhibits well but the whole point of much of his show was to get an audience by exhibiting “freaks” or “savages” from strange lands who looked and acted very differently than 19th century Americans. Barnum’s long-term relationship with Charles Stratton, better known as Tom Thumb, is fascinating (and proved beneficial to both sides). Barnum jump started his career with the corpse of the “Fejee Mermaid,” the top half of a monkey skillfully sewn to the bottom half of a fish. Late in his life, when he joined forces with James Bailey to form the first multi-ringed circuses, it was the procession of the “strange” and “savage” peoples and their customs that gave the initial flavor to the whole affair. Saxon gives many, many more examples. But almost everybody, from university professors who said (in the mid-19th century) that this was good anthropology to the young Queen Victoria who could not get enough of General Tom Thumb, thought Barnum was brilliant.
The second major issue that would disturb many 21st century Americans was Barnum’s use of animals. Again, Barnum made sure they were treated well because that was good business. But there was no sense of animal suffering caused by tight cages, an alien or hostile environment, or being trained by harsh methods. The animals were commodities and, if possible, interchangeable. An elephant named Jumbo (how the word entered the English language) is a great example and Saxon goes into detail about Barnum’s relationship with this animal. But to the vast majority of people at the time such treatment of animals was not a moral issue. Barnum was called a “humbug” and many other names by enemies not because of how he exhibited his “freaks” or animals but because several of his exhibits (like the “mermaid”) were fake. (In typical Barnum fashion, after being criticized initially, he became a close friend of Henry Bergh, the first president of the ASPCA.)
Barnum had other sides than being the ultimate “showman” and Saxon does a good job explaining these. Compared to some of the other super-rich in his time, he was extremely generous – to his town, charities, the Universalist religion (he hated orthodoxy in religion), and especially to education. He eventually became strongly anti-slavery. To the people at the time, since there was nothing wrong with his techniques (except for some “humbug”), his life was a model of good citizenship. He met in the White House with several presidents, including Lincoln. His lavish productions (and some near the end of his life are hard to believe) entertained millions. Whether Barnum was a hero or a villain, he led a fascinating life.
In ways this is a disturbing book. I highly recommend this well-written biography not because Barnum is some sort of historical model but because it shows the 21st century a side of life in the 19th century that cannot be found anywhere else. Saxon’s book is an incredibly interesting read.
If you thought you knew who PT Barnum was, this book might make you think again.
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