P.T. Barnum was a pretty despicable character, Charles Baxter finds in Lapham's Quarterly, but his influence was lasting. Reviewing Barnum's autobiography, Baxter finds the seeds of the phenomenon of our Mama Grizzly in Chief. "The Life of P. T. Barnum is one of those curious historical artifacts: the sociopathic memoir," Baxter says--a book recounting the many times Barnum conned the public in his "socially acceptable variety of sadism." Barnum was apolitical, Baxter writes, but his modern imitators are not. This section comes at the end of a much longer essay. Have a look:
Barnum's memoir feels like one of those postmodernist documents in which the self is an empty category inhabiting an empire of signs without substance, a superfluous text that has interest only when read against itself. A rather dull and ill-written primer on selling shoddy goods--though it sold 160,000 copies--its residual interest mostly resides in the display of his brash showman's personality, an egg from which many monsters have hatched. ...
Television, of course, is the playground of present-day Barnum freaks, where plain citizens can be snatched out of the crowd, put in the spotlight, and cued up to sing or dance, as in American Idol. Self-destructive 'superstars' in the Andy Warhol sense litter the pages of our weekly magazines addicted to celebrity. But political advertisements, in particular, seem to be the new repository of magical thinking. Candidates with little or no administrative experience and no knowledge of facts on the ground (and who therefore avoid 'mainstream' news conferences) are presented as brilliant problem solvers or as saviors. You have to have nerves of steel, along with steely Zen detachment, to avoid expectations aroused by contemporary omnipresent, hyperinflated rhetoric. What are our political figures if not openly show-business personalities? Who looks better on TV, Harry Reid or Sarah Palin?
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.