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.”