American Humbug

American Humbug
AP Photo/File

Since his heyday in the mid-nineteenth century, P.T. Barnum’s name has been shorthand for ebullient humbuggery, maximalist entertainment, inexhaustible self-promotion, rags-to-riches industriousness—for fun. After The Greatest Showman (2017), a highly fictionalized musical that defied studio expectations to gross a Barnumesque $435 million, fades to black, the screen fills with a sober epigram: “The noblest art is that of making others happy.” Barnum wrote this at the end of his life, during a period in which he referred to himself as “The Children’s Friend.” He groomed himself to look like Santa Claus.

Yet the images that animate his biographies—of which Robert Wilson’s Barnum is at least the fifteenth, not counting Barnum’s own serially revised and overlapping memoirs—are united by an eerier quality, suspended between the pitiful and the grotesque. The most indelible of these includes the Fejee Mermaid, a three-foot monstrosity composed of the lower half of a large fish stitched to the upper half of a small monkey scowling at the indignity of its afterlife. The What Is It? was a mentally disabled, microcephalic eighteen-year-old black man, four feet tall and fifty pounds, dressed in an ape costume, ordered by Barnum to speak in gibberish, and touted as the “connecting link between man and monkey.” The gargantuan elephant Jumbo, upon being purchased by Barnum and forced to leave the zoological gardens at London’s Regent’s Park, blurted a trumpet call, lay down in the road outside the park’s gates, and refused to budge for a full day. “Let him lay there for a week if he wants to,” said Barnum at the time. “It is the best advertisement in the world.”

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