Robert Wilson, Barnum: An American Life
P. T. Barnum was the greatest showman the world has ever seen: the cocreator of the Barnum & Bailey Circus and the man who made worldwide sensations of Jumbo the Elephant, General Tom Thumb, and the “Swedish Nightingale,” Jenny Lind. He was the champion of wonder, joy, trickery, and “humbug.” He was, as Wilson argues, one of the most important Americans of the nineteenth century.
Nearly 125 years after his death, the name P. T. Barnum still inspires wonder. Robert Wilson’s vivid new biography captures the full genius, infamy, and allure of the ebullient showman. From birth to death, Phineas Taylor Barnum repeatedly reinvented himself. He learned as a young man how to wow crowds, and he built a fortune that placed him among the first millionaires in the United States. He also suffered tragedy, bankruptcy, and fires that destroyed his life’s work, yet willed himself to rebuild and succeed again. As an entertainer, Barnum courted controversy time and again - yet he was also a man of strong convictions, guided in his work not by a desire to deceive but an eagerness to thrill and bring joy to his audiences. He almost certainly never uttered the infamous line, “There's a sucker born every minute,” instead taking pride in giving crowds their money’s worth and more.
Barnum is imbued with the same buoyant spirit as the man himself. Wilson adeptly makes the case for P. T. Barnum’s place among the icons of American history, as a figure who represented, and indeed created, a distinctly American sense of optimism, industriousness, humor, and relentless energy.
Robert Wilson, who has been an award-winning editor at Preservation and Civilization, now edits the American Scholar. He writes often for magazines and newspapers and was on staff at USA TODAY and the Washington Post. He has also authored biographies of Mathew Brady and Clarence King.
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