Robert Wilson’s Barnum: An American Life, released by Simon & Schuster on August 6, is the first major biography of P.T. Barnum in a generation and argues for restoring the man to his rightful place in history as a representation of many of the best (and a few of the worst) characteristics of 19th-century America.
Nearly 125 years after his death, Barnum’s name still inspires us. After all, he was the greatest showman the world has ever seen: the co-creator of the Barnum & Bailey Circus and the man who made worldwide sensations of Jumbo the Elephant, General Tom Thumb, and the “Swedish Nightingale” Jenny Lind. He was the champion of wonder, joy, and trickery; a genius whose allure has captured the American imagination for more than a century.
Today, Barnum’s reputation 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. When he died, he was known, and respected, the world over, having grown to be that rare thing: a man who was steered by his ideals, becoming a better person as he navigated a long lifetime.
As the lines between politics and show biz grow hazier and the public is consumed by the beguiling nature of “scams” and con artists, the relevance of Barnum’s legacy for our times comes clearly into focus.