The Fabulous Showman: The Life and Times of P. T. Barnum by Irving Wallace (ISBN: 0451113853 / ASIN: B005ZVQQUM -- Book Club Hardcover First Edition 1959) '-' The Biography of P.T. Barnum: This is a fast-paced, carefully documented, and rich biography of Barnum, the greatest showman of all time, the American from Bethel, Connecticut, whose eccentricities and oblique, cynical approach to humanity transformed entertainment into a big, incredibly profitable business. As bachelor, husband (twice), father, and grandfather, Barnum comes to life in Mr. Wallace's crowded pages, an exceedingly interesting and human man. Here, too, are New York City in all its nineteenth-century color the London of Queen Victoria, and the Paris of Napoleon III.
In 1842, Barnum opened the first of the great "museums" of curiosities and freaks, adding immeasurably to the gaiety of New York life. He exhibited the tiny Charles Sherwood Stratton so successfully that he became, as "General Tom Thumb," a world-famous figure. In 1850, Barnum imported Jenny Lind for a concert tour beginning at Castle Garden (later the Aquarium in Battery Park), which more than prefigured the later exploits of S. Hurok. When past sixty, Barnum opened in Brooklyn "The Greatest Show on Earth," the first great American traveling circus. Combining ten years later with James Anthony Bailey, he gave to millions of American children and grownups "The Barnum and Bailey Circus." He bought from the London Zoological Society the huge elephant that became known everywhere as Jumbo. And always he shrewdly understood that people did not mind being fooled ("There's a sucker born every minute") if they were only entertained. Besides the towering figure of Barnum himself, this book's cast of characters includes not only Jenny Lind, Jumbo, and Tom Thumb, but also such ill-assorted figures a Chang and Eng (the original Siamese Twins), Queen Victoria herself, captive white whales, "The Feejee Mermaid," and Abraham Lincoln. Genuine Americana, this is far and away the best biography of one of the most fascinating and most internationally renowned of all Americans.
|...| Wallace lists an extensive bibliography of books and periodicals from the 19th and 20th centuries. Much of the book is organized around the most famous exhibitions: the 161-year-old woman; Jenny Lind, the Swedish Nightingale; General Tom Thumb; Chang and Eng, the Siamese Twins; and of course the one and only elephant Jumbo. Each of these sections is rich with research on their exploitation. What made Barnum tick? Wallace writes, "Barnum was attracted to showmanship because...he was seeking a means to combat those forces of religion, government, and commerce which made life drab." (p. 44) Born in 1810 in a harshly Puritan New England town, he came under the early influence of his grandfather whose Universalism led to a much lighter view of life. After the chapter on Barnum's childhood, there is little mention--and no analysis--of his religion and its role in Barnum's approach. Nor does he shed much light on Barnum's family life. These omissions knock a star off what is otherwise an entertaining and apparently well-researched biography. Barnum made a fortune exhibiting oddities and fanning the public's desire for them with high-pressure advertising. Wallace's book is replete with details of the many ventures and adventures of Barnum's long public life. Though he was a man of his age, he stands in a long line of showmen adept at feeding public appetites; this wider context is missing. There are other more recent biographies of Barnum that may focus more on the private man and on his context in the public psychology. Barnum himself published an extensive autobiography. Some of these may be more rewarding to the reader who wants to understand what really made the fabulous showman tick.
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