Battle for the Big Top: P. T. Barnum, James Bailey, John Ringling, and the Death-Defying Saga of the American Circus

PublicAffairs. Jun. 2021. 272p. ISBN 9781541762282. $28. HIST
The irony of the modern circus is that some of the very factors that caused its emergence as big business in the late 19th century are precisely what led to its demise two centuries later; the reliance upon trained wild animals is what made the circus so appealing to aficionados of earlier eras, yet it was out of touch with 21st-century sentiments. In this work, Standiford (director, Creative Writing Program, Florida International Univ.; Last Train to Paradise) showcases his ability to make narrative history read like a novel, as he traces the roots of the circus from the classical era to its arrival and popularity in the 19th-century United States. The circus began with the spectacle of high-performance horsemanship, but the addition of elephants and clowns transformed the circus into its modern form. While hundreds of circuses had been traversing the country throughout the 19th century, three principal showmen (James Bailey, P. T. Barnum, and John Ringling) eventually emerged to vie for the center ring of the U.S. circus industry. Their entrepreneurial spirits, flamboyant personalities, and creative (if often questionable) business practices make for a great story.
VERDICT The three kingpins of the American circus are the men whose names became synonymous with this phenomenon; it’s well-worth learning their story through Standiford’s skillful cultural history.
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