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An American Life



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“Robert Wilson’s Barnum, the first full-dress biography in twenty years, eschews clichés for a more nuanced story…It is a life for our times, and the biography Barnum deserves.” —The Wall Street Journal

P.T. Barnum is the greatest showman the world has ever seen. As a creator of the Barnum & Baily Circus and a champion of wonder, joy, trickery, and “humbug,” he was the founding father of American entertainment—and as Robert Wilson argues, one of the most important figures in American history.

Nearly 125 years after his death, the name P.T. Barnum still inspires wonder. Robert Wilson’s vivid new biography captures the full genius, infamy, and allure of the ebullient showman, who, from birth to death, repeatedly reinvented himself. He learned as a young man how to wow crowds, and built a fortune that placed him among the first millionaires in the United States. He also suffered tragedy, bankruptcy, and fires that destroyed his life’s work, yet willed himself to recover and succeed again. As an entertainer, Barnum courted controversy throughout his life—yet he was also a man of strong convictions, guided in his work not by a desire to deceive, but an eagerness to thrill and bring joy to his audiences. He almost certainly never uttered the infamous line, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” instead taking pride in giving crowds their money’s worth and more.

Robert Wilson, editor of The American Scholar, tells a gripping story in Barnum, one that’s imbued with the same buoyant spirit as the man himself. In this “engaging, insightful, and richly researched new biography” (New York Journal of Books), Wilson adeptly makes the case for P.T. Barnum’s place among the icons of American history, as a figure who represented, and indeed created, a distinctly American sense of optimism, industriousness, humor, and relentless energy.


Adopting Mr. Emerson’s idea, I should say that Barnum is a representative man. He represents the enterprise and energy of his countrymen in the nineteenth century, as Washington represented their resistance to oppression in the century preceding.

—John Delaware Lewis, Across the Atlantic, 1851

In 1842, the man who would become America’s greatest showman received a visit from a museum owner in Boston who needed his help. Moses Kimball had made his way to P. T. Barnum’s office in New York City with a box that, he baldly claimed, contained the remains of a mermaid. When the box was opened and the object was unwrapped, what Barnum saw was a shrunken, blackish thing about three feet long that seemed pretty obviously to be the head and torso of a monkey joined to the lower portion of a large fish. Kimball had a story to go with this desiccated corpse, something about its being discovered by sailors in the South Seas, but he had no idea what to do with it. Although the two men had not previously met, their establishments had collaborated on several acts and exhibitions. Barnum had recently acquired a dusty old museum on lower Broadway, dubbed it the American Museum, and dedicated it to natural history, art and artifacts, performances, and an exuberant miscellany of anything that caught his eye. The growing renown of the new museum, along with Barnum’s already established reputation as an impresario with a knack for publicity, made him a logical person for Kimball to go to for advice.1

While Kimball wondered what could be done with this grotesque specimen—so different from the beautiful mythological beings that people had imagined for centuries—Barnum didn’t hesitate. He offered to lease the object from Kimball and present it to the public himself. After giving the creature an exotic name—the Fejee Mermaid—he created a bold strategy to conjure up a storm of interest in it.

Within days Barnum was executing a complicated plan to acquire free publicity from the press. He sent letters to friends in cities in the South, all telling a made-up story about a British naturalist who had acquired the mermaid in the Fiji Islands and was stopping in New York on his way to London, where it would be put on display. This naturalist was supposedly passing through the South, and every few days a friend from a different southern city would mail one of Barnum’s letters, which were written as news reports of local happenings, to a different New York newspaper. While he was whetting the appetite of the press, Barnum had posters made of beautiful, bare-breasted mermaids with long blond curls, implying that this was what the Fejee Mermaid had once looked like. By the time the supposed naturalist reached New York, the press was in a frenzy, and Barnum gave three different newspapers an unsigned report that he had written defending the existence of mermaids, along with an idealized image in woodcut, suitable for printing. Each of the newspapers was promised an exclusive, and it was only when all three published the story on the same Sunday morning that they knew they had been hoodwinked. If the editors were miffed, they didn’t show it by withholding coverage of the exhibit. After all, Barnum was a steady advertiser, and this new exhibit would mean new ads each day in their newspapers.

It’s safe to say that most people who came to see the Fejee Mermaid and hear the ersatz naturalist talk about it were not taken in. But Barnum’s early publicity drew huge crowds to the display, and even if they doubted that this shriveled specimen had ever been the lovely, storied creature in the posters, still it was a thing worth seeing and judging for themselves. Whatever the skepticism of his patrons, the showman didn’t let up in the weeks that followed. With a steady stream of ads, often warning that the display would soon be leaving for London, augmented by a barrage of pamphlets and posters, he kept the customers coming. When the flow of visitors finally slowed, he sent the Fejee Mermaid out on the road. His plan, which had come to him in an instant when he first saw the specimen, had worked to perfection.

Later in life, Barnum would confess that he was not proud of this exhibit, but even then he could not resist exulting in the success of his publicity scheme. The Fejee Mermaid was characteristic of Barnum’s exhibitions during his early years; even as a young man he had an unfailing sense of what the public wanted, yet he could be brazenly manipulative and unafraid of controversy. These qualities made him successful as a showman, but they also made it possible for him to push too far. When, for instance, he had put on tour an elderly slave woman who claimed to be the 161-year-old former nursemaid to George Washington, the newspapers and other guardians of public virtue howled, condemning him for exploiting her. At other times, Barnum drew criticism less for his actions than for his attitude. When he published the first version of his autobiography, in 1855, detailing his many humbugs and the riches they had afforded him, some reviewers were disgusted not so much by the original sins but by his seeming pride in admitting to them. He was often seen as a man who would do anything for a buck, and by the time he was middle-aged, the quip “Where’s Barnum?” was applied to any novelty, discovery, or invention of the day, under the assumption that he would soon show up to add it to his museum collection.

The missteps of Barnum’s early career would ultimately damage his reputation in a lasting way. Well after his death in 1891, his image in the public mind congealed around another phrase, this one attributed to Barnum himself: “There’s a sucker born every minute.” The cynical saying implies that he was no better than a huckster, whose chief goal was using fast talk to trick people out of their money while giving them nothing in return. Even to this day, these words serve as shorthand for Barnum’s philosophy as a showman, but no evidence exists that he ever spoke or wrote them. What’s worse, they utterly misrepresent the man as he really was.

The actual arc of Barnum’s life is much more interesting, and much more consequential, than his present-day reputation suggests. He may have begun his career as a promoter of sketchy acts in a business that was often considered less than respectable, but he changed both himself and the business over the decades, earning the respect of Americans of every station. Because he had so determinedly placed himself in the public eye, people knew all about his early missteps as well as his successes—his “struggles and triumphs,” as the title of a later version of his autobiography puts it. He didn’t hesitate to show his flaws, but he would also reveal in time that he was that rare thing, a man who was steered by his ideals, becoming a better person as he navigated a long lifetime. Over many years, Barnum became a steady, civic-minded, fun-loving man who cultivated a close relationship with his audience and embodied many of the best aspects of the American character. He eventually won over the public with his unflagging energy, his wit and buoyant good humor, his patriotic zeal for the Union side in the Civil War, and his commitment to charitable causes, good government, and his Universalist faith.

He is known today primarily for his connection to the circus, but that came only in the last quarter of his long life. His principal occupations before that were running the American Museum and being the impresario behind the witty and talented dwarf Tom Thumb, the angelic Swedish soprano Jenny Lind—who created a sensation in America in the early 1850s—and dozens of other acts and traveling shows. Less well known today is that he was also a best-selling author, an inspirational lecturer on temperance and on success in business and in life, a real-estate developer, a builder, a banker, a state legislator, and the mayor of the city of Bridgeport, Connecticut, near or in which he lived for most of his adult life. He was even a candidate for Congress, losing a bare-knuckle contest to a cousin also named Barnum. In all of these endeavors he was a promoter and self-promoter without peer, a relentless advertiser and an unfailingly imaginative concoctor of events or exhibits to draw the interest, often the feverish interest, of potential patrons.

Throughout his life, Barnum worked steadily to transform the image of public entertainment in America. In the long middle of his career, his American Museum included what he called a Lecture Room, where, in addition to lectures, both dramas and melodramas were presented. At the time, theaters were not considered morally or even physically safe places for children and families. Prostitutes often plied their trade in the balconies, and sobriety was not much in evidence even in the orchestra seats. But Barnum enforced an environment in both the museum and the Lecture Room that was free of drunkenness, improper behavior, and anything else that could give offense to people whose scruples might otherwise keep them away. He emphasized the moral quality of his dramas and the safety of his exhibit spaces, ensuring that customers of all ages could enjoy them. Later he and his partner James A. Bailey brought this same commitment to the rough-and-tumble world of the traveling circus, presenting entertainment that even Barnum’s many preacher friends could defend, in a setting that was appropriate for families and children.

By the end of his life, he was admired and respected not only in the United States but also across much of the globe. When the Barnum & Bailey Circus, immodestly but accurately called The Greatest Show on Earth, traveled through the American heartland in the 1880s, Barnum would often go out to meet the show and thereby boost its attendance numbers. Rural circus-goers took special trains put on to carry them to the cities where the traveling extravaganza typically stopped. The reason for these excursions, on what were known as “Barnum days,” was often to see the showman as much as the show. He had become as close to a global celebrity as a person could be at the time. After Ulysses S. Grant’s second term as president, the great general made a two-year tour of the world, promoting the United States. Upon his return, Barnum said to him, “General, I think you are the best known American living,” to which Grant replied, “By no means. You beat me sky-high, for wherever I went . . . the constant inquiry was, ‘Do you know Barnum?’?”2

CENTRAL TO BARNUM’S PHILOSOPHY AND success was the relationship to his audience that he developed during his decades as a showman. That relationship centered on the single word most associated with Barnum in his lifetime: humbug. As he himself wrote in his 1865 book, The Humbugs of the World, Webster’s definition is “to deceive; to impose on.” Definitions today include the words hoax, fraud, impostor, nonsense, trick. Barnum’s book is a survey of such practices, intended, he said, to save the rising generation from being bamboozled by the unscrupulous, whether in religion, business, politics, medicine, or science. But for Barnum, not all forms of humbug were hurtful; sometimes humbuggery could be harmless, even joyous. He claimed that, for him, the “generally accepted definition” of humbug focused on this benign variety, what he defined as “putting on glittering appearances . . . novel expedients, by which to suddenly arrest public attention, and attract the public eye and ear.” In other words, what he did. The crux of the matter was that a person who attracted patrons in this way but then “foolishly fails to give them a full equivalent for their money,” would not get a second chance from customers who would “properly denounce him as a swindler, a cheat, an impostor.”3

So for Barnum, who sometimes called himself the “Prince of Humbugs,” humbuggery was a mildly deceitful way to get people in the door, but its harmlessness depended entirely on how satisfied they were once inside. “I don’t believe in ‘duping the public,’?” he wrote in a letter in 1860, “but I believe in first attracting & then pleasing them.” For many years, he charged only a quarter, half that for children, to visit his museum and see his shows there, while he tirelessly searched the globe for more and better acts, exhibits, and curiosities, and spent freely on them to reward that small investment by his patrons. People might be drawn in to see the human curiosities he exhibited, the giants and little people of both sexes, the bearded ladies, fat children, and stick-like men, the albinos, American Indians, Chinese princesses, Siamese twins, and the What Is It?—an exhibit presented as the possible missing link between beast and man suggested by Darwin’s recent book about evolution. But once inside his museum, they would be exposed to what he advertised as a million objects. In a period when public education, photography, the telegraph, the railroad, and the newspaper were all making the world a smaller and more knowable place, people flocked to Barnum’s museum, and when he took displays to other cities, he rarely failed to draw big crowds.4

As a businessman, Barnum never apologized for making vast amounts of money, but he did believe that his museum offered his patrons the chance to learn. And if a little trickery—such as turning a hideous, shrunken thing into an alluring mermaid from the South Pacific—was needed to get people to view the serious exhibits, then, he came to believe, they should be in on the trick. He would often hint at the dubiousness of his latest sensation, even promoting his skeptics’ views, and then challenge his audience to judge for themselves. This strategy was good for business if people were moved to go back for a second look, paying a second quarter, but it also recognized the need his customers felt to exercise their own critical skills. He generally approached them with a knowing wink so they could be part of the fun. “Good old Barnum,” they would say with affection upon figuring out what they were seeing. He entertained but also stimulated them, making them feel excited about their growing understanding of the world beyond the rural homestead, the isolated village, or the crowded urban neighborhood.

The nineteenth century was a time of rapid democratization in both the United States and Europe, as the old monarchical and aristocratic structures and the barriers of class came tumbling down. Barnum, who was born ten years into the century and died nine years before its end, embodied the period’s great narrative of breaking social boundaries. Americans often saw him as an exemplar of what it meant to be one of them, and the Europeans he encountered on his many trips abroad also saw him as a representative of the American character. He was born into a family that had to hustle in its small Connecticut village to stay solvent. Through hard work, a lot of brass, and a genius for exploiting the new technologies related to communication and transportation, he became world famous and wealthy beyond his dreams. And he did it all by appealing to popular tastes and interests. He understood what ordinary Americans wanted, as they sought forms of entertainment beyond staring into the fire of an evening or listening to readings from the Bible after the family supper.5

We live in an ahistorical age, one that is quick to condemn historical figures using the standards of the present. We too easily dismiss them for their worst qualities even if they are counterbalanced or even heavily outweighed by their best qualities. Barnum’s reputation today has fallen so far that his name often evokes comparisons to scoundrels, to politicians who lie shamelessly to the public, to deceptive advertisers, or to sleight-of-hand businessmen. But this doesn’t do justice to the full story of who he was. Barnum embodied some of America’s worst impulses, but also many of its best. He came to represent much of what was most admirable about his young country, and he did so with a sense of humor and a joy in living that is rare in today’s public figures. He led a rich, event-filled, exhilarating life, one indeed characterized by both struggles and triumphs. His is a life well worth knowing and celebrating.

About The Author

Photo Credit:

Robert Wilson has been an award-winning editor at Preservation, Civilization, and The American Scholar, which he has edited since 2004. He writes often for magazines and newspapers and was on staff at USA Today and The Washington Post. The author of biographies of Mathew Brady, Clarence King, and P.T. Barnum, he lives in Manassas, Virginia.

Product Details

  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster (August 11, 2020)
  • Length: 368 pages
  • ISBN13: 9781501118715

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Raves and Reviews

"[A] smart new biography."
Washington Post

“Robert Wilson’s Barnum, the first full-dress biography in 20 years, eschews clichés for a more nuanced story…Mr. Wilson’s book shows how one complicated, contradictory, morally ambiguous man struggled to improve himself while being single-mindedly determined to give delight to millions. It is a life for our times, and the biography Barnum deserves.”
Wall Street Journal

“Exhaustive in scope and upbeat in tone…the book’s message is clear: Barnum was a self-made man in the American grain.”
New York Times Book Review

“Better than anyone who’d come before, the Prince of Humbugs understood that the public was willing—even eager—to be conned, provided there was enough entertainment to be had in the process. That theory of Barnum’s genius makes Wilson’s book peculiarly relevant.”
The New Yorker

“A real show stopper of a biography…Barnum is an excellent biography of a difficult subject — Wilson makes a convincing case that the legendary showman’s many faults should be considered in tandem with his accomplishments, which changed the course of American entertainment forever. [Barnum] was also a fascinating public figure, and Wilson’s book is the thoughtful biography that he’s long deserved.”

“Wilson brings Barnum alive on the page…[A] brisk, laudatory biography.”
Minneapolis Star-Tribune

Barnum: An American Life, an engaging, insightful, and richly researched new biography by American Scholar editor Robert Wilson, chronicles Barnum’s rarely-a-dull-moment life with an ebullience and vigor that matches its subject.”
New York Journal of Books

“Barnum was a complex public figure, a character begging for deep examination, and Wilson presents a true timeline of Barnum as a thinker, a believer, a businessman, and a family man. We see his opinions change, we see him learn from his mistakes, and we see him experience victory and defeat over and over…With Wilson at the wheel, a road trip through well-trod history becomes a truly remarkable ride.”
—Seattle Book Review

“[An] impressive biography of the infamous nineteenth-century showman…[Barnum] is here, in the pages of this thoughtful, deeply researched and revealing book. Barnum: An American Life often reads less like history and more like a cautionary tale for our times.”
Chicago Review of Books

“An admirable, well-written, eminently readable biography of the great showman. Robert Wilson’s research is prodigious, his writing deliciously sly. This is an estimable work.”
—A.H. Saxon, author of P. T. Barnum: The Legend and the Man

“In this impressive biography, Robert Wilson gives readers the real Phineas Taylor Barnum, sweetening this already entertaining book with brilliantly presented facts that far surpass anything previously imagined about his colorful, controversial subject.”
—Jeff Guinn, author of Manson: The Life and Times of Charles Manson and The Vagabonds: The Story of Henry Ford and Thomas Edison's Ten-Year Road Trip

“Robert Wilson's Barnum is portrait in the round: Phineas T. Barnum as impresario, myth-maker, salesman, huckster, temperance advocate, politician, bankrupt, millionaire-- and purveyor of the exotic, the curious, and lucrative. Scraping away the legend from the man with consummate skill, Wilson clearly delivers the best and worst of Barnum, which is the best and worst of America: self-invented, brash, infamous and joyously alive.”
—Brenda Wineapple, author of Ecstatic Nation: Confidence, Crisis, and Compromise, 1848-1877 and Hawthorne: A Life

“Robert Wilson's lean and forceful Barnum adds a fourth ring to the great circus of its subject's life: an appreciation of Barnum's self-awareness, public-spiritedness and efforts toward moral improvement amidst all the outrageous hustle and humbug of his spectacular career as a showman. Barnum is a witty, level-headed model of how to view an historical figure by continually rotating the lens of the present and the lens of the past. The book is a rare combination of shrewdness and warmth.”
—Thomas Mallon, author of Watergate and Landfall

“Anyone seeking to reconcile the moronic with the magnificent in American culture would do well to start with Robert Wilson’s Barnum. It is a fascinating, accomplished biography of a brilliant and shameless impresario who in the same lifetime sold tickets to viewings of a mermaid fashioned out of a monkey top and a fish bottom, and the historic spectacle “Nero, or the Destruction of Rome” with a 1,200-member cast, an orchestra, a choir, and a massive menagerie on a half-mile stage. This story has it all: entrepreneurial genius, boundless optimism, personal tragedy, professional ruin, and a suicidal white elephant. The shows are the greatest on earth and somehow everything is always quite literally on fire. Perhaps without intending to, Wilson has held up a nineteenth-century mirror to the relentless berserk of our own time.”
—Ken Whyte, author of Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times

“The show must go on! Robert Wilson's rip-roaring biography of the circus entrepreneur P.T. Barnum is the stuff of dreams—the American dream of optimism, hard work, success, failure, and finding the strength to turn it all around. A bravura work.”
—Dr. Amanda Foreman, author of Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire and A World on Fire: Britain's Crucial Role in the American Civil War

“It turns out that one of our great editors is also a masterly writer, able to pull off the biographer's most impressive trick—making the reader care, deeply, about a figure she hadn’t known she needed to know. And Phineas Taylor Barnum is a riot, at once a charlatan and a genius, and, as Wilson shows, an indispensable force in the creation of our modern world.”
—Thomas Chatterton Williams, author of Losing My Cool: Love, Literature, and a Black Man's Escape from the Crowd

“Wilson's skillful portrayal of the multifarious Barnum is affectionate, lucid, and lively, offering a new portrait of Victorian-era America, particularly its curious and playful side. Highly recommended.”
Library Journal

“Step right up folks to read Wilson’s new accounting of the life of P. T. Barnum. And what an incredibly productive and long life it was. This adroitly written biography delves into Barnum’s creativity, entrepreneurialism, public engagement, and resilience in the face of personal tragedies.”

"A vivacious book that celebrates a larger-than-life American. It’s great fun."
Providence Journal

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