Lessons in Fame: P.T. Barnum
by Charles Baxter
By pure literary coincidence, Phineas Taylor Barnum's autobiography was published in the same year (1855) as Walt Whitman's Leaves of Grass. Like Whitman’s book, The Life of P.T. Barnum went through many subsequent editions, and in each one its author added cunningly chosen details to demonstrate that, as he noted, “I deserved what I received.” Inspecting his own life, Barnum concluded that “My experiences, if not my example, will benefit my fellow men.” Note the careful and almost lawyerly wording. While Walt Whitman was denouncing “stifling deceits,” Barnum was offering up his own to illustrate how such deceits could be engineered for sizable monetary gain. With the poet you get the love of mankind and an indifference to riches; with the showman, you get the money in a world of trickery. Take your pick. Whitman and Barnum can be imagined as the electron and positron of mid-nineteenth-century America. Bring them together and you might witness a kind of intellectual annihilation. Whitman famously wrote, “If you want me again look for me under your boot soles.” But if you look down there now, it isn’t Whitman sticking to your shoes, but P.T. Barnum.
Barnum was born in Bethel, Connecticut, on July 5, 1810, later claiming that he was happy to have missed being a Fourth of July baby: the noise and tumult would have frightened him. By nature something of a coward with “a propensity for keeping out of harm’s way,” he also detested physical labor. “I never really liked to work,” he admits. An unapologetic impresario who studied human nature in order to profit from it, he was an indifferent observer of landscapes. His autobiography contains virtually no descriptions of the forests, fields, and animal life surrounding him in the early 1800s. Along with being the anti-Whitman, he is also the anti-Thoreau. Nor do his recollections include any scenes of warm friendship, trust, or kindness—emotions he would have regarded as sentimental. Nobility as an attribute of character is entirely missing by virtue of its negligible practical value. The Life of P.T. Barnum is one of those curious historical artifacts: the sociopathic memoir. Like Thomas Mann's Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man, or Herman Melville's The Confidence-Man, Barnum’s memoir consists largely of anecdotes about tricks played upon an individual or the public at large by a semihuman shape shifter. As a consequence, Barnum was apolitical. He claimed to prize love, but never represents it in his book. He was beyond all that.
He did, however, dedicate his memoir to “the Universal Yankee Nation,” as if there were many individuals around of his type. The reader never doubts him on that score. Barnum had a mass of admirers who were, in Tocqueville's description of Americans generally, “unremitting in their efforts to find out the weaker points of their neighbors’ doctrine.” A posthumanist before his time, Barnum did have a socially acceptable variety of sadism—practical jokes and pranks—that began to manifest itself when he was around seven years old. He relished the art of trickery, and he had an almost uncanny ability to spot the vulnerabilities of his fellow men. (About the women I will have more to say in a minute.) The personality prized above all others in The Life of P.T. Barnum is that of the “practical joker” operating a con. Barnum’s grandfather had such a personality and, as Barnum writes, he “would go farther, wait longer, work harder, and contrive deeper, to carry out a practical joke than for anything else under heaven.” A prank, large or small, like a good con, requires planning, diligence, and wit, and in a world in which brother fights brother for the upper hand, the practical joke serves as the core model for all other social interactions.
The Life of P.T. Barnum is not so much a memoir as a conduct manual by someone who believed in the material world more than the transcendental one. Manuals such as Letters to Young Women and Lectures to Young Men, both by William Greenleaf Eliot, were highly prized in the mid-nineteenth century, and if we should doubt that he had principles with which to instruct us, he goes out of his way to set out ten axioms of behavior at the end of his book as the QED of the life. In this sense, his autobiography is also a self-help book, nestled in a tradition stretching from Ben Franklin to Wayne Dyer, wherein the winner divulges his secrets. Some of his nuggets of advice are platitudinous truisms, as you would expect—“Whatever you do, do with all your might,” or “Select the kind of business that suits your natural inclinations and temperament”—but several items in his code are startlingly modern and prove that antebellum America was hardly the shining city it was pictured as being by John Winthrop. Trust your fellow man? Never. “Do not depend on others,” Barnum instructs. Follow your vision? No. “Be not too visionary.” So much for Emerson. How then does one make one’s way in the world? Here he waxes eloquent: “Advertise your business. Do not hide your light under a bushel.”
More than a half century before Bruce Barton’s The Man Nobody Knows (Jesus as entrepreneur and advertising executive), Barnum points to something sacred in advertising—its ability to turn appearances into reality. This metamorphosis serves as a kind of secular transubstantiation, and on this subject he has no peer: “Put on the appearance of business, and generally the reality will follow.” And what follows then? Profit. How is this miracle achieved? First, through false superlatives and inflated rhetoric, e.g., “The world-famous _______ is the greatest one ever seen.” Then, through repetition: if one asserts a claim often enough, the claim (true or untrue) achieves, as we say now, traction. But the process requires faith, “to teach you that after many days it [your investment] shall surely return, bringing a hundred- or a thousandfold to him who appreciates the advantages of ‘printer’s ink’ properly applied.” The making of money in this formulation of the new gospel is a sign of blessedness, and instead of prayer to effect a particular outcome, we have advertising.
In a world in which every truth is fungible, advertising begins to substitute for the news. One of Barnum’s brilliant, almost genius-level aperçus, was that you could create news through advertising, and the advertising itself becomes newsworthy. If you advertise forcefully, the advertised object, even if perfectly vacant and without qualities (think: Paris Hilton), becomes a topic of conversation. Truth value is always trumped by hype, and hype in turn is fueled by controversy. Any news is good news. Barnum discovered that if your show generates angry letters to the editor, so much the better: people will be compelled to see the spectacle for themselves “to determine whether or not they had been deceived.”
Most of his actual exhibits used for making money have little interest for the modern reader except as placeholders for his publicity schemes. He began his career by selling lottery tickets, and the tickets he would later sell for the Fejee Mermaid, a stiff and stuffed monkey, its lower half encased in scales relied on a similar impulse in the buyer. In both cases, Barnum was promising an escape from ordinary life. But there was more: the ornithorhynchus, the connecting link between the seal and the duck! The flying fish, two distinct species!! The proteus sanguihus!!! Etc. Admission, 25¢. These wonders are all forgotten. Nothing is as dispiriting as a wonder whose wonder has ebbed.
Wonder is the remnant of religious faith when religious doctrine has proved inadequate to a feverish wish to believe in something, anything. Suppose that prayer has not brought you your reward. You want to put your faith in a miracle. Where is that miracle? You have, after all, been taught to believe. About such longings, Barnum was very shrewd. He knew that spiritual peacefulness, a calm in the soul (we would also call it “self-possession”), was largely missing in the American experience and that this absence derived, as he notes, from “a practicalness which is not commendable.” The citizen has worked hard with little result. He cannot stay calm in the land of milk and honey if no milk and honey has flowed his way. Promises have been broken. Therefore he goes to Barnum’s show with high expectations. Barnum knew that America was a nation of believers who, thanks to their pragmatism, didn’t actually believe in much of anything, although they said that they did. This cultural setup created a variety of believers without anything to believe in, a vacancy that he filled with wonders in his American Museum, housing dioramas, cameleopards, and a miniature model of Niagara Falls with real water. He also had roadshow attractions: Joice Heth, a delusional eighty-year-old African-American woman, was advertised as a slave of 161 years who had “formerly belonged to the father of George Washington." Think of it. She was the first person who ever put clothes on the Father of Our Country! She was present at his birth! In fact, she raised him! Another Barnum attraction of the freak variety was “General Tom Thumb,” a precocious dwarf from Connecticut whose actual name was Charles Sherwood Stratton. This child, five years old (Barnum added six years to his age), sang and danced, impersonated famous people, and became the toast of Europe. He even brought delight to Queen Victoria.
The Life of P.T. Barnum changes registers after its halfway point, however, at the moment when Barnum discarded the freak-show model and went legit. He did so by booking Jenny Lind, the “Swedish nightingale,” on a tour of America. Of course, he craved respectability, and the soprano’s art was a pathway to it. Jenny Lind’s voice was by all accounts quite extraordinary, and she drew enormous crowds wherever she performed. Building on popular enthusiasm, Barnum became a technician who artificially induced cultural hysteria through screaming uppercase advertising, letters to the editor, faked telegrams, publicity releases, and merchandising. “We had Jenny Lind gloves, Jenny Lind bonnets, Jenny Lind riding hats, Jenny Lind shawls, mantillas, robes, chairs, sofas, pianos—in fact, everything was Jenny Lind.” This sentence could have been written last week. The performances were almost secondary to the literal byproducts, a truly modern phenomenon.
Her voice was considered to be miraculous, but the hysteria he and she had generated interested him more than the music ever did, about which he has little to say. “The reception of Jenny Lind on her first appearance, in point of enthusiasm, was probably never before equaled in the world.” Everywhere she performed, she was mobbed. Tickets were auctioned. Barnum took her to one city after another, even to Havana, where she was hissed at as a foreigner. She managed to be graceful and to keep her temper throughout this ordeal, but clearly Barnum ran her ragged. The last straw came when he booked her into a gigantic venue on Chestnut Street in Philadelphia, a theater usually hired for equestrian and theatrical entertainments. Barnum defends himself here, in one of the only moments in his autobiography when the reader detects a sense of shame. “She told me,” he admits, “that she had been sadly harassed in giving her concerts.” He knew he was exploiting a woman of talent who did not crave the limelight as much as he craved the money and genteel cachet she could earn for him. She was not a fraud, but he did his best to make her into one.
His account of her career in America resembles the trajectory of any contemporary celebrity who is fed into the maw of popular culture. That she survived the experience constitutes the true wonder. In his own defense, Barnum proudly displays in the pages of his autobiography his receipts for her concerts. The insulted and injured flocked to hear her. Describing her, he sometimes sounds evangelical; after all, his business and the prayer business are separate enterprises under the same big tent. “We are unhappy,” he says accurately about his fellow Americans, and we need “rational amusements.” What is sacred in the author’s universe are flimflam and cash, the secular miracle. Ergo, Barnum will give the public the wonders it craves and thus realize a profit. He made so much money off her back that he was able to build a mansion of his own design in Bridgeport in his thirties.
Barnum ends his book with an illustration of his gargantuan palace called “Iranistan.” He thought of this house as an “Oriental Villa,” but if the book’s illustration is accurate, he had actually built himself a faux Moorish firetrap palazzo whose circus-style bad taste could rival that of San Simeon. There are deer in the front yard, a spouting fountain, a very proud obelisk, and, seen in the distance, a woman and child dwarfed by all the grandeur. Fakery ends its life as self-celebratory kitsch. The house has three floors and five turrets. “I am at home, in the bosom of my family,” our pious author concludes, remembering to raise a glass in the book’s last sentence to the “kingdom of heaven.”
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.
Reading him, one is likely to think of the latest untalented celebrity lifted up to Olympus via the hype machine and then dropped down to ground level without a parachute or sled. The game of whatever happened to so-and-so is fun to play as long as you’re not part of the publicity machine at the production end. There, the dupes end up contaminated with, in James Agee’s deathless phrase, “the obsessed narcissistic arrogance of the once adored and long forgotten,” like Norma Desmond subsisting on forged fan letters in a desolate manor at 10086 Sunset Boulevard. What is less fun to consider are the ways in which show business of the Barnum variety has managed to invade ordinary life.
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?
In a world ruled by advertising and by the con men who construct the game and plant the shills, even a war (no, especially a war) can be sold to the public through flimflam. It doesn’t matter if the enemy’s weapons of mass destruction are as real as the ornithorhynchus. America has turned into a magic kingdom of synthetic wonders whose visionary plastic is brought to you courtesy of Industrial Light and Magic. Imagine P.T. Barnum as president of the United States, as leader of the free world. Not much is required for the task. Then imagine the consequences among the electorate: cynicism and, above all else, rage.
Lessons in Fame: P.T. Barnum