Greatest Showman on Earth

The Great and Only Barnum: The Tremendous, Stupendous Life of Showman P.T.Barnum
By Candace Fleming
(Schwartz & Wade Books, New York, 2009, $18.99)

P.T. Barnum, fabled founder of Barnum and Bailey circus, never said what he’s most famous for saying: “There’s a sucker born every minute and another one to exploit him.” A rival, frustrated by Barnum’s success, uttered those lines. But Barnum did assert, “Most people enjoy a harmless hoax,” and he made a few fortunes from spectacles and “good-natured deception.”

The Great and Only Barnum is a readable, appealing look at the charismatic entertainer. Using period artwork, photographs, advertisements, and newspaper clippings, author Candace Fleming chronicles Barnum’s rise from small-town New England boy to New York City showman to international sensation to circus founder. Along the way, she introduces readers to the elephants, bearded ladies, divas, frog swallowers, and little people whom Barnum made famous and who made Barnum famous in return. Side panels offer a closer look at various aspects of Barnum’s career and of nineteenth-century life.

P.T. Barnum emerges from the text as a man equally impossible to ignore or know. Refusing to shelter young readers from controversy, Fleming captures Barnum’s many contradictions. In the 1830s, he bought a slave, an elderly black woman named Joice Heth, and exhibited her as the world’s oldest living person. Later, as a state representative for Connecticut in the 1860s, he defied public opinion and fought for voting rights for African Americans. Business consumed him, but he was a deeply spiritual man who believed all religions were one and advocated religious tolerance. And although his profit-making ventures left him little time for his own daughters, he loved entertaining children. He said there was “no music so sweet as their clear-ringing laughter.”

“People who pay their money at the door have the right to form their own opinions,” Barnum once said of his customers. Fleming offers readers a splendiferous look at an American legend – and lets them decide for themselves.

© Dorothy A. Dahm

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