BIOGRAPHY

Barnum: An American Life

S. & S. Aug. 2019. 352p. notes. bibliog. index. ISBN 9781501118623. $28; ebk. ISBN 9781501118722. BIOG
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More than 125 years after his death, Phineas Taylor “P.T.” Barnum (1810–91) is still referred to as the greatest showman on earth. Here, American Scholar editor Wilson leans toward the positive and relates the acts for which his subject is most remembered: the Swedish Nightingale, General Tom Thumb, and the Barnum and Bailey Circus. Wilson also covers areas for which Barnum is less well known, including his faith and civic engagement, work as an author, temperance campaigning, and ability to overcome adversity. In addressing Barnum’s darker side, Wilson discusses exhibits and shows that exploited racist beliefs or blurred the line between real and fake, stating “Barnum embodied some of America’s worst impulses, but also many of its best.” Wilson further leaves out some of the current research that belies the upright image Barnum cultivated in his later years.
VERDICT One of the themes in this work is our country’s complex relationship with the truth. Overall, Wilson’s skillful portrayal of the multifarious Barnum is affectionate, lucid, and lively, offering a new portrait of Victorian-era America, particularly its curious and playful side. Highly recommended.

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