The Great and Only Barnum: The Tremendous Stupendous Life of Showman P.T. Barnum
By Candace Fleming
Schwartz & Wade (an imprint of Random House Children’s Books)
Ages 10 and up
On shelves September 8, 2009
I’m trying to work out why exactly this is the only children’s biography of P.T. Barnum I remember having seen before. I’m sure there are others. If I could just lift my lazy fingers high enough to type in “P.T. Barnum” into my library’s catalog system I’d find a couple. But why only a couple? Why isn’t Barnum as popular a topic as, say, Houdini? Both spent their lives bamboozling people, one way or another. But where Houdini got off looking like a star, people are awfully mixed on Barnum. Which, I suppose, answers my own question. Why aren’t there that many children’s bios of Mr. B? Probably because he wasn’t a very good man or a very bad man. He was just a very talented man with a fair amount of problems. The kind of guy who loved children… and was, for a time, an alcoholic who would leave his wife to faint in public. Who fought for the right for blacks to vote… and owned a slave. Multifaceted people don’t end up in children’s biographies all that often because it takes a dedicated author to have the guts to show the bad alongside the good. Guts like Candace Fleming’s got. Guts like what you’d find in The Great and Only Barnum.
It’s nice when a life has a defining moment in it. P.T. Barnum’s apparently came when, as a kid, he discovered that his inheritance from his practical joker of a grandfather was a swampy snake-infested spit of land. Meant to humble young Tale and turn him into a hard worker, the plan backfired. Instead the lad fell in love with bamboozling and practical jokes. Born in 1810, young Tale had already learned that he wasn’t much for manual labor. Nor, for that matter, was he cut out to work in shops or behind desks. If it bored him, he wasn’t interested. Maybe that’s why he got into the business of showmanship. He started out by exhibiting a woman he claimed had been George Washington’s nursemaid. From there he went on two build two magnificent museums of wonder and buffoonery, tour the 19th century pop star Jenny Lind, serve on the Connecticut state legislature, and help to create the greatest show on earth, the Barnum and Bailey Circus. Love him or hate him, there’s no denying that Barnum was a uniquely American character, with a truly interesting life. An extensive Bibliography (including websites), and Source Notes are included.
The book is told in a straightforward manner, generally telling Barnum’s tale chronologically. Considering the subject matter, however, Fleming is free to indulge in some enjoyable elements. For example, at one point the book is laid out in a manner similar to Barnum’s museum itself. Readers step into each saloon and hear about what one could find there. Those of us familiar with the musical Barnum (yay, Jim Dale!) would even be able to recite the things one found from The Museum Song (“Quite a lotta Roman terra cotta . . .). Of course the modern reader may feel superior to their historical brethren, but Barnum’s Museum was just an ancestor of today’s Ripley’s Believe It Or Not Museum or the “educational” Bodies… The Exhibition which travels the country. Say what you will about Barnum, while he may have taxidermied people’s pets while they waited, he never went so far as to do the same for actual human beings.
So why are we even reading about this guy? Because he’s fascinating. A guy who had his good and bad points. To watch Fleming do the dance of explaining the man, not covering up his lesser qualities, and still presenting him as a kind of charming cad is mesmerizing. She’s writing for kids and teens as her primary audience, yes? Then that means putting in some rather adult materials, without going into the delicate details. Barnum had a good friend in a Phoebe Cary, with whom he remained close for twenty years while married, until she died. On that subject we would only be able to speculate anyway. Fleming does not delve or suppose. Just the fact, ma’am.
Is she an apologist for Barnum? I struggled with that question all through the book. When explaining that Barnum only claimed to be renting Ms. Joice Heth from her real “owner” Ms. Fleming answers more honestly than the man himself in saying, “But even if he didn’t technically own Joice, he still acted like her master. He displayed the tired old woman before the public. And she had no choice but to submit.” She never damns him directly. Never says, “Here is a bad man for such n’ such a reason.” She could many times over if she wanted to. His museum only let in blacks on specific days and times. His animals died in a variety of ways. You could villainize him or saint him depending on your mood. Fleming does neither. She simply displays him, warts and all, to the child readers and allows them to make up their own mind on the matter.
Why do we like him? I dunno. Maybe it was the good-natured quality of his pranks. How do you help but smile when you hear how for the opening of his museum he placed the worst possible musicians on his roof so that people could only flee the sound by going INTO the museum. He paid his “Human Curiosities” a generous salary. He said of them that when people met them in his museum, “I want folks to say ‘what an amazing person’ not ‘there but for the grace of God go I.’” His menagerie “was not well cared for” but he was so well informed about animals for his time period that folks from the American Museum of Natural History would actually ask him for advice regarding animals.
Fleming has done her research too. Readers are left with very few questions by the end of her tale. There was really only one moment when I was left hankering for more facts. Early in his career and without a penny to his name, Barnum hit upon the idea of creating his infamous Museum. To buy it on credit he put up his worthless spit of land, Ivy Island. That’s all well and good, but then he filled the museum to brimming with people, animals, exhibits, you name it. He even went so far as to cover the museum in painted plaques, flags from numerous countries, premier New York’s first spotlight, and hire a brass band on its opening day. So how on earth did a man without much in the way of money get all of this? Credit? If so, Barnum was as savvy a businessman as you could ever hope to find in American history. But it’s a mystery that remains unanswered here.
Mark Twain despised him. People loved him. He fooled men, women, and children alike. One minute he was bringing his circus to small children. The next he was attempting to buy the American side of Niagara Falls so that he could build a fence to prevent one side from seeing it without paying. He insisted that blacks be given the right to vote because “A human soul is not to be trifled with,” then turned around and exhibited the Chiefs of the Nine [Indian] Nations along with other “Human Curiosities”. He is repugnant and compelling by our modern standards and he has left his mark on the American landscape, for good or ill. Children’s biographies are not always about saintly people. Once in a great while they are about complex characters. And as you will find, they don’t get much more complex than Phineas Taylor Barnum, King of the Humbugs.
Notes on the Title: Is it just me, or has Ms. Fleming made an oh-so casual reference here to the other great humbug of the American past – The Great and Terrible Oz? Coincidence?
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