The Spectacular P. T. Barnum

The great showman taught us to love hyperbole, fake news, and a good hoax. A century and a half later, the show has escaped the tent.

Armando Veve

There’s no getting your arms around P. T. Barnum, no safe space in the cultural imagination for this guy. With his jolly bulb of a nose and his limitless energy—that demonic, write-two-lectures-before-breakfast 19th-century energy, historically entitled and unimpeded by neurosis—the great showman grows trickier and more tricksterish with every passing year.

He was a great galumphing racist. He was an unscrupling exploiter of children, animals, and the disabled. He was a caterer to base appetites; his medium was the mob, its whims and its fevers. He was a scammer. Do you sense the approach of a but …? There is no but. Barnum was Barnum, not to be apologized for. Rather there is a series of ands … And he became a devout abolitionist. And he was a generous man who was eulogized at his funeral as “a born fighter for the weak against the strong.” And he entertained millions with his circuses and his American Museum, and with General Tom Thumb and Jenny Lind (the “Swedish Nightingale”), and with his endless caperings in the press. And he had a transcendently disruptive sense of humor, of the sort that cannot help but interrogate, unhinge, and finally overturn the established order.

So if there’s a slightly tense, withholding feel to Robert Wilson’s Barnum: An American Life—if it reads, in a word, rather un-Barnumesquely—it’s not really the author’s fault. A Barnum biographer in 2019 is heavy with consciousness. He feels concern for the people off whom Barnum made his fortune. He is stylistically constrained: “From the perspective of our own time, it seems clear that Barnum crossed the line numerous times.” Or: “This is one of those places in Barnum’s story where a modern sensibility must struggle to understand him.” Wilson is not being mealymouthed. He just can’t go full Barnum. The evolution of human relations and the temper of the hour will not allow it.

And full Barnum is—what? A heavy-metal montage of huge people, tiny people, woolly horses, automatons, jeering crowds, hoops of fire, and whiskey-drinking elephants headbutting oncoming trains, with lighting by David Lynch and dialogue by Monty Python. It’s an education in deceit: the buzz of the put-on, of being hoaxed and knowing you’re being hoaxed and loving it. Being in some dimension flattered by it. Barnum’s word for his art was humbug.

To begin at the beginning: Ivy Island. As a young boy in the village of Bethel, Connecticut, where he was born in 1810, Phineas Taylor Barnum could muse complacently upon the riches that would one day be his. His fortune was assured. At his christening his grandfather had given him a tract of farmland, somewhere near Bethel, called Ivy Island. It was a place of great abundance, wonderfully fertile, almost priceless. “My father and mother,” Barnum wrote in his autobiography, “frequently reminded me of my wealth and hoped I would do something for the family when I attained my majority. The neighbors professed to fear that I might refuse to play with their children because I had inherited so large a property.”

For years, Barnum begged to visit the as-yet-unseen inheritance; eventually, his father relented, and with some ceremony, an expedition to Ivy Island was mounted. Away from Bethel and out into the country went the little party, sweating through thickets and across bogs, perforated by brambles and alarmed by hornets, until it reached the spot. The young Barnum was stunned. “I saw nothing but a few stunted ivies and straggling trees. The truth flashed upon me. I had been the laughing-stock of the family and neighborhood for years.”

The long-range pranking—the epically sustained and somewhat fiendish practical joke played on Barnum by his family—is one thing. The revelation, the moment of anti-vision, is quite another. Xanadu is shrunk in an instant to a stub of ugly woodland, the paucity and inadequacy of reality exposed in the horror of its dullness. Barnum would spend most of his professional life—his life as a showman—seeking to reverse this process.

Around something forlorn he would build a floating fantasy palace, a palace in the air. He would be a serial disruptor of scale, unable to resist anything that was too tall or too short, too old or too new, too fat or too thin—anything that bent or tested the boundaries of the ordinary in some way, anything that reached up into the realm of the mega-real. A rambling, toothless old lady with a penchant for singing hymns—this was Joice Heth, George Washington’s nurse, and she was 161 years old. A shriveled and discredited article of taxidermy—the head and torso of a monkey sewn to the tail of a fish, three feet long, very ugly, pure Ivy Island—this was the Fejee Mermaid, an oceanic marvel. She was on her way to New York. The press was full of it: Dr. Griffin (fictional), representing London’s Lyceum of Natural History (also fictional), had acquired “a most remarkable curiosity” and was coming to present it, for a (naturally) limited time only to the American public. Roll up! Roll up!

Barnum was a pioneer of news as entertainment. In 1864, when a group of Native American chiefs went to Washington to parley with President Abraham Lincoln, Barnum somehow commandeered the entire delegation and detoured it to the Lecture Hall of his American Museum, in Manhattan, where for several days, in the most bombastic and sanguinary terms, he presented the chiefs to a packed house. “This little Indian, ladies and gentlemen, is Yellow Bear, chief of the Kiowas. He has killed, no doubt, scores of white persons, and he is probably the meanest blackhearted rascal that lives in the far West.” None of the chiefs spoke English. “Barnum would pat Yellow Bear on the head,” writes Irving Wallace in his 1959 biography, The Fabulous Showman, “and Yellow Bear would stroke his arm, pleased to have a champion. Then Barnum would resume: ‘If the bloodthirsty little villain understood what I was saying, he would kill me in a moment.’ ” (One of these chiefs, White Bull, nephew of Sitting Bull, would later fight at the Battle of the Little Bighorn—some believe he killed Custer himself.)

The American Museum, which burned down twice, was an analog version of the internet—it had everything in it, most of which wasn’t true. (“Model artists, model babies,” recorded one contemporary visitor, “cockneys, cockades, cockroaches, cocktails, scalps, Thomashawks, Noah’s Ark, Paganini’s fiddle …”) There Barnum expressed himself in the fullness of his personality. Alongside his humbuggery, his surprisingly vigorous and polemical streak of piety was showcased with long runs of the temperance play The Drunkard and bowdlerized productions of Shakespeare.

“The American people like to be humbugged.” What are we to do with this, Barnum’s primordial insight, now that Barnum-ness has irrupted into our politics? Now that a trumpeting fraudulence has become one of the modes of power, and the mega-real has colonized reality? The great showman would be irked, I think, by the current dispensation, by the loose rhinoceros trampling across the special imaginative arena he so lovingly created. Above all he would be offended by its humorlessness, and the crudeness and greediness of its demands upon our credulity. Sloppy stuff. When he was training young Charley Stratton, working day and night to turn him into General Tom Thumb, an act fit for the stages of the world and the courts of Europe, he was grateful (so he later wrote) for the tiny boy’s “intense love of the ludicrous.” There’s an eros to old-school humbuggery, the way Barnum did it: a tingle, a mutuality. You’re not going to be left with Ivy Island. You’re not going to be left with nothing.

This article appears in the August 2019 print edition with the headline “The Original Huckster.”