Master showman P.T. Barnum shows off one of his attractions,...

Master showman P.T. Barnum shows off one of his attractions, Charles Stratton, who came to be known as General Tom Thumb. Credit: Getty Images / Universal Images Group Editorial

BARNUM: AN AMERICAN LIFE by Robert Wilson. Simon & Schuster, 352 pp., $28.

P.T. Barnum was one of America’s first major celebrities, but history hasn’t been exactly kind to him. If you ask someone what comes to mind when the showman’s name is uttered, you’re likely to hear one of two responses: the now-defunct circus that bore his name, or his reputation as a hoaxer, exemplified by his famous quotation “There’s a sucker born every minute.”

In his fascinating new biography "Barnum: An American Life," Robert Wilson argues that those associations don’t paint a full picture of the 19th century businessman and promoter. The circus that he co-founded came toward the end of his long career, he notes — and as for the pithy quote, he likely never said it.

The book is Wilson’s attempt to rehabilitate the reputation of Barnum, which has suffered with changes in American attitudes toward animal welfare and racial issues. “Barnum’s reputation today has fallen so far that his name often evokes comparisons to scoundrels,” Wilson writes. “Barnum embodied some of America’s worst impulses, but also many of its best. … His is a life well worth knowing and celebrating.”

Wilson writes those words in the book’s introduction, and they almost do him a bit of a disservice. While it’s clear Wilson has a real affection for his subject, he doesn’t treat Barnum with kid gloves; the book isn’t the hagiography that Wilson hints at in the beginning. It’s a fair-minded look at a figure who didn’t always acquit himself well even by the standards of his time.

Barnum was well known for his “humbugs,” or winking hoaxes, and he came by his affection for deceit honestly, Wilson writes. He grew up in Connecticut, where “Yankee cuteness” — which referred not to attractiveness, but rather “a competitive sort of sharpness” — was a prized trait. Barnum had it in spades, running a lottery at a country store when he was still a child.

As a young man, he ran a boardinghouse and a grocery store before making his first foray into the world of show business, an act featuring an elderly black woman named Joice Heth, who claimed to be the 161-year-old former nursemaid to George Washington. Heth was a slave, making the arrangement, to say the least, extraordinarily problematic — or as Wilson writes, “one of the most objectionable moneymaking schemes of his career, one that he would never quite live down.”

Buoyed by the success of that act, Barnum branched out to promoting other acts, including the young dwarf General Tom Thumb and Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind. He also purchased the American Museum in New York, which would become his pride and joy — ever the magpie, Barnum “aimed to acquire at least one example of every single thing in existence, living or dead.” His success gained him a reputation across the country, Wilson writes, “for a number of qualities: energetic promotion or self-promotion, interest in the odd or the exotic, business acumen and the ability to beat out competition, and, finally and foremost, the vast realm of humbug.”

Barnum was already a star by the time he branched out into circuses, sending scouts to Ceylon to capture elephants for his traveling show. Not all of the elephants survived the journey, and Wilson acknowledges the cruelty of the endeavor, adding, “This is one of those places in Barnum’s story where a modern sensibility must struggle to understand him.” (That modern sensibility was one of a few factors that led to the demise of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus in 2017.)

Less well known to modern readers is Barnum’s brief political career. He served in the Connecticut state legislature, where he was an outspoken abolitionist, despite having owned slaves himself in the past. “I whipped my slaves,” he said at one point. “I ought to have been whipped a thousand times for this myself.” Wilson regards Barnum’s shift from slave owner to abolitionist as genuine, although he doesn’t turn a blind eye to the showman’s long history of racism, which included asking Tom Thumb to perform a racist song for the sole purpose of embarrassing a black audience member.

Barnum is an excellent biography of a difficult subject — Wilson makes a convincing case that the legendary showman’s many faults should be considered in tandem with his accomplishments, which changed the course of American entertainment forever. He was, Wilson writes, “that rare thing, a man who was steered by his ideals, becoming a better person as he navigated a long lifetime.” He was also a fascinating public figure, and Wilson’s book is the thoughtful biography that he’s long deserved.

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