By pure literary coincidence, Phineas Taylor Barnum’s autobiography was published in the same year (1855) as Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. Like Whitman’s book, The Life of P. T. Barnum went through many subsequent editions, and in each one its author added cunningly chosen details to demonstrate that, as he noted, “I deserved what I received.” Inspecting his own life, Barnum concluded that “My experiences, if not my example, will benefit my fellow men.” Note the careful and almost lawyerly wording. While Walt Whitman was denouncing “stifling deceits,” Barnum was offering up his own to illustrate how such deceits could be engineered for sizable monetary gain. With the poet you get the love of mankind and an indifference to riches; with the showman, you get the money in a world of trickery. Take your pick. Whitman and Barnum can be imagined as the electron and positron of mid-nineteenth-century America. Bring them together and you might witness a kind of intellectual annihilation. Whitman famously wrote, “If you want me again look for me under your boot soles.” But if you look down there now, it isn’t Whitman sticking to your shoes, but P. T. Barnum.
Barnum was born in Bethel, Connecticut, on July 5, 1810, later claiming that he was happy to have missed being a Fourth of July baby: the noise and tumult would have frightened him. By nature something of a coward with “a propensity for keeping out of harm’s way,” he also detested physical labor. “I never really liked to work,” he admits. An unapologetic impresario who studied human nature in order to profit from it, he was an indifferent observer of landscapes. His autobiography contains virtually no descriptions of the forests, fields, and animal life surrounding him in the early 1800s. Along with being the anti-Whitman, he is also the anti-Thoreau. Nor do his recollections include any scenes of warm friendship, trust, or kindness—emotions he would have regarded as sentimental. Nobility as an attribute of character is entirely missing by virtue of its negligible practical value. The Life of P. T. Barnum is one of those curious historical artifacts: the sociopathic memoir. Like Thomas Mann’s Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man, or Herman Melville’s The Confidence-Man, Barnum’s memoir consists largely of anecdotes about tricks played upon an individual or the public at large by a semihuman shape shifter. As a consequence, Barnum was apolitical. He claimed to prize love, but never represents it in his book. He was beyond all that.
He did, however, dedicate his memoir to “the Universal Yankee Nation,” as if there were many individuals around of his type. The reader never doubts him on that score. Barnum had a mass of admirers who were, in Tocqueville’s description of Americans generally, “unremitting in their efforts to find out the weaker points of their neighbors’ doctrine.” A posthumanist before his time, Barnum did have a socially acceptable variety of sadism—practical jokes and pranks—that began to manifest itself when he was around seven years old. He relished the art of trickery, and he had an almost uncanny ability to spot the vulnerabilities of his fellow men. (About the women I will have more to say in a minute.) The personality prized above all others in The Life of P. T. Barnum is that of the “practical joker” operating a con. Barnum’s grandfather had such a personality and, as Barnum writes, he “would go farther, wait longer, work harder, and contrive deeper, to carry out a practical joke than for anything else under heaven.” A prank, large or small, like a good con, requires planning, diligence, and wit, and in a world in which brother fights brother for the upper hand, the practical joke serves as the core model for all other social interactions.
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