This carefully researched study of America's greatest showman, huckster, and impresario is both an inclusive analysis of the historical and cultural forces that were the conditions of P. T. Barnum's success, and, as befits its subject, a richly entertaining presentation of the outrageous man and his exploits.
A unique, enticing biography of America's most famous impresario, a man who in Harris' view embodied and typified the crude egalitarianism, the mania for speculation, and the vulgarization of taste which overtook America during the shift from Jeffersonian republicanism to Jacksonian democracy. A Connecticut Yankee who spent his poor-boy childhood in an atmosphere of "contest, competition and conquest" Barnum quickly learned to exploit the gullibility which made up the under, side of America's hardheaded materialism, the show-me-I'm-from-Missouri skepticism so deeply ingrained in our national life. Barnum the impostor, the master of humbug who displayed bearded ladies, midgets and woolly horses, realized instinctively that the new public would pay for the privilege of being deceived - as long as it was also amused. In an age which glorified "the common man" and deified "Nature" and "Science," Barnum exhibited his freaks, his "curiosities" and his believe-it-or-not marvels (a "mermaid" with the body of a fish and head and arms of an ape), inviting the public to match wits and opinions with the experts. It was a pitch perfectly attuned to the vanities and conceits of a populace which exalted "common sense" and mistrusted special erudition and higher learning; it made Barnum rich and, by the end of his life, respectable. Harris argues that the secret of his success was not cynicism ("there's one born every minute") but his ability to capitalize on the "social myths and public slogans" of the time. Barnum believed sincerely that his hoaxing was "social therapy"; seen in this light he becomes part of the ongoing dispute about the function of popular culture - a dispute which links Barnum to such unlikely figures as Twain, Melville, Poe and the Transoendentalists. Harris plots the ups and downs of the remarkable career from General Tom Thumb to Jenny Lind to "The Greatest Show on Earth" and en route makes an entertaining and original foray into American social history, real and ersatz. (Kirkus Reviews)