P.T. Barnum: The Legend and the Man

Overview

I believe hugely in advertising and blowing my own trumpet, beating the gongs, drums, to attract attention to a show, Phineas Taylor Barnum wrote to a publisher in 1860. "I don't believe in 'duping the public,' but I believe in first attracting and then pleasing them."

The name P.T. Barnum is virtually synonymous with the fine art of self-advertisement and the apocryphal statement, "There's a sucker born every minute." Nearly a century after ...

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Overview

I believe hugely in advertising and blowing my own trumpet, beating the gongs, drums, to attract attention to a show, Phineas Taylor Barnum wrote to a publisher in 1860. "I don't believe in 'duping the public,' but I believe in first attracting and then pleasing them."

The name P.T. Barnum is virtually synonymous with the fine art of self-advertisement and the apocryphal statement, "There's a sucker born every minute." Nearly a century after his death, Barnum remains one of America's most celebrated figures.

In the Selected Letters of P.T. Barnum, A.H. Saxon brings together more than 300 letters written by the self-styled "Prince of Humbugs." Here we see him, opinionated and exuberant, with only the rarest flashes of introspection and self-doubt, haggling with business partners, blustering over politics, and attempting to get such friends as Mark Twain to endorse his latest schemes.

Always the king of showmen, Barnum considered himself a museum man first and was forever on the lookout for "curiosities," whether animate or inanimate. His early career included such outright frauds as Joice Heth, the "161-year-old nurse of George Washington," and the Fejee Mermaid-the desiccated head and torso of a monkey sewn to the body of a fish. Although in later years he projected a more solid, respectable image-managing the irreproachable "legitimate" attraction Jenny Lind, becoming a leading light in the temperance crusade, founding the Barnum & Bailey Circus-much of his daily existence continued to be unabashedly devoted to manipulating public opinion so as to acquire for himself and his enterprises what he delightedly termed "notoriety."

His famous autobiography, The Life of P.T. Barnum, which he regularly augmented during the last quarter century of his life, was itself a masterpiece of self-promotion. "Will you have the kindness to announce that I am writing my life & that fifty-seven different publishers have applied for the chance of publishing it," he wrote to a newspaper editor, adding, "Such is the fact-and if it wasn't, why still it ain't a bad announcement."

The Selected Letters of P.T. Barnum captures the magic of this consummate showman's life, truly his own "greatest show on earth."

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Editorial Reviews

Stuart Thayer
For too long the public impression of P.T. Barnum has been one laced with thoughts of humbug and chicanery, with the shadiness of the pitchman. Here, in these fascinating letters, we find him to be too complex, too complicated a man to have such a reputation. The quintessential Barnum, a man we've never quite seen before, turns out to be full of ideas and energy, a humorist, a social critic, now beleaguered, now triumphant, a most fascinating character.
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
There was more to Barnum than his reputation as a brassy charlatan would have us believe, shows Saxon, a biochemist, who presents here a well-rounded picture of the 19th century's premier showman. Barnum trafficked not only in ``freaks''--such as Joice Heth, ``the 161-year-old nurse of George Washington,'' and the Feejee Mermaid, a creature part monkey, part fish--but introduced many to the marvels of natural history. He also sponsored the American tour of opera star Jenny Lind, at considerable strain to himself. The private Barnum, as revealed in his letters here, was more than a mere purveyor of hype. Deeply religious and ethical, he supported Prohibition and women's rights; and although early on a defender of slavery, he became an abolitionist. Interesting in his complexities, the Barnum on view in these pages rivals the wonders of his roadshows. Photos not seen by PW. (Sept.)
Library Journal
Barnum, whose name has become synonymous with the circus and the art of humbug, wrote his autobiography at the age of 44 and updated it for the rest of his long life. Most other biographies have relied heavily on this original source, despite its obvious inaccuracies and discrepancies between editions. Saxon has immersed himself in letters, diaries, and other records and memorabilia instead. Besides his self-confessed hoaxes in his early years, Barnum made and lost fortunes with his American Museum, his management of Jenny Lind's American tour, and his tours of America and Europe with the midget Tom Thumb and later with Jumbo the elephant and the circus. He raised the art of publicity and media manipulation to a high level. The slightly ornate style of writing adds a 19th-century flavor to this thoroughly researched and footnoted but somewhat ponderous biography.-- Marcia L. Perry, Berkshire Athenaeum, Pittsfield, Mass.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780231056878
  • Publisher: Columbia University Press
  • Publication date: 5/18/1995
  • Pages: 454
  • Product dimensions: 6.07 (w) x 9.17 (h) x 1.21 (d)

Meet the Author

A.H. Saxon is the author of many books and articles on the history of the theatre, circus, and popular entertainments.

Columbia University Press

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Table of Contents

1. Selected Letters of P.T. Barnum2. Appendix: "I Thus Address The World"3. Locations of Letters4. A Note On Sources5. Index of Persons

Columbia University Press

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