It’s Christmas Eve 2019. I am sitting at the kitchen table with a stack of books by or about P.T. Barnum. Hopefully this break will allow me to finish the full draft of my dissertation. Barnum and the Penny Press is Chapter 3 of 4. There is also a huge back of books next to the chair. I am usually at my desk in the library, but it is closed today and tomorrow so I am attempting to attack the futility of working from home and getting back into the habit of pushing out short posts here as writing warmups. That helps me get into the flow anyway.
Compiling Barnumalia is an easy task. Separating it out to his pre-circus days requires some work. It’s basically the prologue or shorter first chapters that get you to the big Barnum and Bailey portion of his later life. Even the Peabody’s Improbably History has Peabody and Sherman visiting Barnum under the Big Top.
The most interesting thing is just how may different genres pull from or include Barnum. This shouldn’t be too surprising given that he is the patron saint for inventors, entrepreneurs, CEOs, and anyone thinking they’ve made it on their own.
Then tracing out the stories that have been told and retold without checking original sources cuts into words per minute and leads to enormous elephant holes that require parking in the appendix to follow up later (and in case the weblink disappears sometime in the future).
Once the Barnum’s get to New York, the rest, as they say, is history. Unfortunately museum histories have distanced themselves from Barnum’s American museum and Cultural Histories of performance jump straight into the center ring leaving his time exhibition Joice Heth to those studying “contours of race relations in the antebellum North” like Benjamin Reiss’ The Showman and the Slave. Tom Thumb and Jenny Lind usually get separate chapters, before the Museum burn down for the second time in 1865.
There is still plenty to do as I start to finally get words on the page and build some momentum towards the end of this madness, but this seemed like an excellent time to compile some multimedia worth revisiting when I am finally on the other side of all this and retrofitting new stuff in the document to make it a book. And links, in the case of considering Barnum’s mansions.
There is a lot to learn studying Barnum’s life, and it is a spectacular example to remind us all that no one is entirely good or bad, entirely ethical or unethical and that people who live long enough can change, and that the past is a foreign country. I do know that I would love to get a glimpse of Barnum’s American Museum in the 1850s.
As popular culture demands Barnum’s biopic was a bit over the top with some embelishments that can surely be described as “Barnumesque,” so he would have likely approved.
For those wishing a more accurate portrayal of Barnum there is this old documentary from 1995 which has an excellent accompanying book which is steadily going up in price on Amazon.
you can even hear Barnum’s voice recorded on Edison’s early wax cylinders:
One of the big takeaways I have here, and what someone referred to as a “hot take” is that, much in agreement with Bluford Adams’ book title E Pluribus Barnum: Barnum should be on American money.
and, you’ve made it this far it is only fair to reward you with the Honest Trailer version of the 2017 smash musical The Greatest Showman:
I’ll bet there were some amazing Christmas Shows there at Ann and Broadway. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays everyone, and may you all have a safe and prosperous 2020.