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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.
In this detailed biography, American Scholar editor Wilson (Mathew Brady) portrays Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810 1891) as a complex and versatile businessman undeserving of the shady showman caricature that's been painted of him. Barnum, born into a family of good-hearted New England practical jokers with a deep respect for others, turned to entertainment in 1835 after pursuing other livelihoods. Early on, he pushed the boundaries of good judgment with "humbuggery... mildly deceitful way to get people in the door," including the controversial exhibition of Joice Hath, an African-American woman he billed as George Washington's 161-year-old former nursemaid. He later reinvented himself as a museum operator, newspaper publisher, and the mayor of Bridgeport, Conn., who advocated for equal rights for women and African-Americans. It wasn't until he was 60 years old that Barnum partnered with circus owners Coup and Castello to create a traveling "museum, menagerie, caravan, and hippodrome." In workmanlike prose, Wilson describes how, in 1877, Barnum formed "P.T. Barnum's New and Only Greatest Show on Earth," and in 1881, he entered a merger with Great London Circus owner James Bailey that resulted in the New York City debut of the Barnum & London Circus (this portion of the narrative is weighed down with legal details), which was eventually renamed Barnum & Bailey Circus. Wilson's well-researched though dense work shows why even 139 years after Barnum's death, he remains a larger-than-life character.