For Robert Wilson’s smart new biography, “Barnum,” the author chose the plainest subtitle, “An American Life,” perhaps because nearly every one of the myriad connotations of that central word can be traced to the work of our nation’s first and greatest impresario of grift. Wilson could have gone with one of those overheated subtitles that claim too much, like “How One Man Created America, Marketing, Showmanship, Humbug, and Laid the Groundwork for Spam, Infomercials, Buzz, Influencers, and Maybe the Nigerian Prince Scam.” But that doesn’t come close enough to describing the epic achievements of Barnum’s showmanship as well as the forgotten contributions to what his contemporary, Alexis de Tocqueville, tried to describe as the American character.
As a young kid growing up in small-town Connecticut in the 1820s, Phineas Taylor Barnum, or Tale, as he was known then, right away picked up a key quirk of marketplace capitalism. On the one hand there were simple transactions — selling a thing for a fair price — and on the other, more impulse purchases, often hypocritical because they came laced with unspoken hope or morbid curiosity. He noticed that the very clergymen and churchgoers who condemned alcohol also found all kinds of excuses — at funerals, for instance — for why they had to drink. And so teenage Tale created his first truly profitable line of work, selling lottery tickets hyped by worthless prizes to congregations that otherwise thundered about the perils of gambling.
Americans were curious about things that lay just beyond the acceptable or the believable, and after moving to New York, Tale became the Barnum we all vaguely know. In the 1830s, in a young nation eager to connect to the past, Barnum toured with Joice Heth, an enslaved woman who claimed to be 161 years old and the former nursemaid to George Washington. Assembled audiences would listen to her as she reclined on a couch, singing ancient hymns and chortling about the childhood antics of the founding father.
When she died, there was a call to have an autopsy in the hopes of understanding her longevity, and Barnum agreed. And then sold tickets. Fifty cents a pop to see a human being dismembered. The arena held 1,500 people and sold out.
Barnum’s grotesque work, especially early on, seems extreme to us, but it seemed extreme then, too. Wrote one reviewer: A “more indecent mode of raising money than by the exhibition of an old woman — black or white — we can hardly imagine.” And we have to read Barnum today for what is obviously there — issues of race and misogyny, abuse and contempt. But the river that runs through it is marketing.
When minstrel shows were the thing — white men in blackface mimicking African dance moves — Barnum got into the business. He discovered the best dancer, but there was a problem. The performer,
according to a journalist of the time, “was a genuine negro, and not a counterfeit one, and there was not an audience in America that would not have resented, in a very energetic fashion, the insult of being asked to look at the dancing of a real negro.” So Barnum created a new kind of blackface that made a black man look like a white man looking like a black man — and the show went on.
When he began marketing a new find — a stuffed mermaid (a taxidermied fish tail sewn onto the body of an orangutan whose arms had been shortened with a saw and reattached) — he worked every angle. He knew that exotic spellings of the “Fejee Mermaid” would make her all the more attractive, as would insisting that the naturalist he hired to defend its authenticity had arrived “recently from Pernambuco.” Wilson informs us that Pernambuco was “an exotic and mildly romantic name to an American ear, even if the possessor of that ear didn’t know that it was a real place in Brazil.” Barnum would plant little squibs promoting the exhibit but just as often challenging the authenticity of the mermaid. He played both sides of the argument to build huge audiences and then sent the exhibit on tour (along with an automaton, a glass blower and a real orangutan). He worked the media as hard as he possibly could. After his naturalist barely escaped from Charleston, S.C., safely, the mermaid was shipped back to New York. “She will probably have to lie still a spell — perhaps forever,”
Barnum wrote his partner.
When he took over his first New York museum, it was a shabby joint whose owner paid an annual rent of “one peppercorn.” He expanded and stuffed his new place wall to wall with unheard-of and unseen things. He bought a revolutionary-era museum belonging to the descendants of Charles Willson Peale in Philadelphia and rebranded it “PT Barnum’s Museum of Living Wonders.” Theaters in those days were unholy places, suspected of being populated by pedophiles and whores. But his museums had venues for dramas and became family affairs with discount tickets for the kiddies — doing for theater what Walt Disney would do for the carny amusement park.
He created acts so famous that people still know of them. Tom Thumb, Chang and Eng, even animal acts like Jumbo the elephant. These extravaganzas were an attempt to display the world to America, he said, but just as much, America to itself. After returning from a European tour, he wrote, “There everything is frozen — kings and things — formal . . . here it is life.” He repeatedly gave a famous lecture, which nearly every crass self-promoter has plagiarized, “The Art of Money-Getting.” Always trying to get the mix of acts and the name right, the showman eventually joined forces with
circuses and at one point began touring as
the “great travelling museum, menageries, caravan, hippodrome, international zoological garden, and Dan Castello’s Mammoth Circus.”
He was a brilliant editor who of course wrote most of his own press, seducing the media into publishing it as news. (When Mark Twain was near death and
asked for three books to read in his final days, one of them was Barnum’s biography.) And as Barnum ended nearly a century of trying to edit that sense of wonder into the mot juste, he finally nailed it at the end. Sure, the historians and essayists wrote about America as a “nation conceived in liberty” or “a city on a hill.” But for this young country, such stately branding was underselling the place. Barnum was on the road booking “Zazel, the Beautiful Human Cannon Ball” and a “$25,000 Hippopotamus from the river Nile,” and from town to town he was busily puffing ticket sales, arriving in hundreds of brightly painted train cars, spilling out into parades, selling out venues, and for well over a century after he died, his spectacle would tour America with its wonders. Not a nation. “The Greatest Show on Earth.”
An American Life
Simon & Schuster.
341 pp. $28