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Barnum: An American Life

3.79  ·  Rating details ·  186 ratings  ·  59 reviews
“Robert Wilson’s Barnum, the first full-dress biography in twenty years, eschews clichés for a more nuanced story…It is a life for our times, and the biography Barnum deserves.” —The Wall Street Journal

P.T. Barnum is the greatest showman the world has ever seen. As a creator of the Barnum & Baily Circus and a champion of wonder, joy, trickery, and “humbug,” he was the
Published August 6th 2019 by Simon Schuster Audio
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Jay Pruitt
Jun 20, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
“I don't care what the newspapers say about me as long as they spell my name right.”
― P. T. Barnum

A fascinating recounting of the life of one who can only be described as a "unique" personage. P. T. Barnum, a man of extreme contrasts. Both famous and infamous (he was once quoted as saying "there's a sucker born every minute"). He could be found in the company of senators, presidents, celebrities such as Mark Twain, and royalty such as Queen Victoria. At times he was flat broke, at others he was
Porter Broyles
I’m a professional entertainer---ok, a children’s entertainer---which means that my life is sometimes like a vaudeville act. My boss jokes that he works with clowns, but I am not a clown, just a balloon twister and I’ve been doing that for 26 years.

P.T. Barnum is one of those characters who in my line of work is an enigma.

He rose from poverty to become of the greatest showmen ever---and that could be said before the Hugh Jackson movie. Everybody knows who Barnum was---even if they do not know
Lee Woodruff
Aug 29, 2019 rated it it was amazing
More than 125 years after his death, the story of “the world’s greatest showman” still inspires. The co-creator of Barnum and Bailey Circus was a brilliant impresario, a shrewd charlatan and a champion of wonder, joy and trickery. He has captured the world’s imagination since he first made international sensations of Tom Thumb, Jumbo the Elephant and so many more. Barnum is the man who once made a fortune selling tickets to see a mermaid, fashioned out of a monkey head and a fish body. He ...more
Aug 06, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Fantastic book! It really separates myth and reality. I learned so many things about him and how much of a hustler he really was. Very thorough biography. There were things that I had no idea about. I would tell ya but that would spoil the surprise. Definitely recommend
Casey Wheeler
This is the first biography of P. T. Barnum in a decade and I decided to read it as I have not read one about him. The author does a good job of covering his life and the various events that most people are aware of which include the Mermaid (which helped launch his career as a showman), General Tom Thumb, singer Jenny Lind, the numerous fires that destroyed his museum and the rebuilding and finally the establishent of the Barnum and Bailey circus. The book is well reserached and written making ...more
Phi Beta Kappa Authors
Robert Wilson
ΦBK, Washington and Lee, 2005

From the publisher: P.T. Barnum is the greatest showman the world has ever seen: the co-creator of the Barnum & Bailey Circus; the man who made famous worldwide sensations like 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 Robert Wilson argues in his authoritative biography P.T Barnum, one of the most important figures in American history.

Lizz Martensen
Aug 30, 2019 rated it really liked it
Honestly, I'm impressed and I have to say a few of my preconceived notions about Barnum and his early days were challenged and changed.

As Wilson presents throughout the book, Barnum was a product of the times in which he lived. And some of his more deplorable ideas he was rightly embarrassed of in later years.

Further, as a lover of all things circus, I didn't know there was so much more to Barnum. Even the cover of this book really shows he circus aspect of his life, but honestly that was only
Dean Jobb
Aug 22, 2019 rated it really liked it
It’s impossible to read Barnum: An American Life, Robert Wilson’s impressive biography of the infamous nineteenth-century showman, without detecting echoes – and perhaps some of the origins – of today’s political turmoil and voyeuristic popular culture. The bombast and hype, the careless disregard for the truth, the nauseating bravado and self-promotion that was Phineas Taylor Barnum – it all hits close to home in the age when a hate-filled tweet or bogus claim of “fake news” is enough to divert ...more
3.5 stars. A solid bio about a very interesting man. I think Barnum deserves this bio and more credit for his entrepreneurial spirit. Yes, things he did can be looked at as very bad...when looked at from our time frame. I don't begrudge him that though. I thought it was well researched and well written. It was interesting.
Blaine DeSantis
Good book but it is a slow slog through a lot of things. The early life of Barnum was something I was unaware of, and I really enjoyed those opening chapters. But then it bogs down completely. Barnum’s character is questionable and his business practices were not the best. He was successful but not exactly the person I would want to know, and we get to know him all too much in this well researched book.
Mar 14, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
I loved this book! P. T. Barnum known all over the World as "The Greatest Showman".

The author was very good with telling a great story from Barnum's birth throughout his wonderful life and all the wonderful things he did and got together with his great friendship of many people around the world.

He had a lot of stuff to go through because, Barnum lived into his nineties and when he died he had a grand funeral with a parade at the Greatest show on earth, The Barnum and Bailey circus. Although I
Apr 02, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
I enjoyed this book — the most recent and perhaps most comprehensive biography of Barnum. Barnum never fails to fascinate — anticipating by a century trends manifesting themselves today— in the corporate and political arenas— hucksterism without shame and the ability to fool most of the people most of the time. This book is important for understanding in part how we got to where we are in America and is , independently, a fascinating portrait of and iconic American personality.
Theodore Kinni
May 15, 2019 rated it it was amazing
Very readable bio of the 2nd most famous master of humbug in American history, by editor of The American Scholar (forthcoming in Aug). Wanna take a guess at who's #1?
Todd Stockslager
Dec 08, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: biography
Review title: The Greatest Showman

If you saw the blockbuster musical with Hugh Jackman winning the Barnum role, then you might find this new biography a worthy companion to learn more about the real man behind the music. The movie got some details wrong (it was his mother who thought his wife's family was beneath Barnum socially, not the other way around) but gets the feel right.

Barnum was born in Bethel, Connecticut and lived most of his life in nearby Bridgeport and Newtown. After making his
...more Biography & Memoir
In his new and enlightening biography, award-winning writer and editor Robert Wilson reveals Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810-1891) as a man of his times --- times in which a young America was growing, and Barnum was resilient, canny and creative enough to grow with it.

Born in Connecticut where he would choose to live most of his life, Barnum was raised in an atmosphere of jokes and pranks, and a youthful stint as a clerk in a general store gave him a penchant for acting a part. He did not absorb the
Scott Martin
Nov 24, 2019 rated it really liked it
(Audiobook) This bio discusses perhaps the second greatest promoter in American history (arguably the greatest is now currently in the White House). From his relatively modest upbringing, P.T. Barnum managed to work himself into the figure that is still remembered to this day. From his early promotion and exaggeration of exhibitions of “George Washington’s nurse” to “General Tom Thumb” to his promotion of the legendary Barnum and Bailey Circus, this work follows how he became a household name ...more
Arthur Serratelli
Dec 09, 2019 rated it it was amazing
A good summary of the life of a good guy. P.T. Barnum is popularly known for over-the-top promotion, outrageous claims of grandeur, exaggerations, side shows, freak shows, and humbug, tricks, and tom-foolery that pushed truth to the virtual breaking point. And the crowds loved it. They were "in on the joke."

But that humbug was just a small part of the overall life experience and character of P.T. Barnum. He was a philanthropist. He championed the temperance league. He believed in offering family
Nov 11, 2019 rated it it was amazing
I think I especially liked this book because it told the story of one of my state's most famous sons. Having been to the city of Bridgeport recently, I can say that it was nice to read this and imagine what the city might have been when Barnum was alive and helping to develop it (today it is rather run down and in a sad state).

That being said, P.T. Barnum is certainly no angel. In fact, I'd go as far as to say that he is probably one of the biggest d-bags that I've ever read about. Not an evil
David Dunlap
The life of P.T. Barnum is the stuff of legend, but, as Robert Wilson points out in this well-written biography, the legend has been distorted out of all proportion. (For one thing, Barnum never uttered the famous words attributed to him, "There's a sucker born every minute.") Wilson shows how Barnum and his concept of 'humbug' grew out of a New England tradition called 'cuteness' (for acuteness). He was the consummate showman, but one who kept his eye on what the public would most enjoy. Wilson ...more
Dec 05, 2019 rated it really liked it
Other than watching The Greatest Showman, I really did not know much about P.T. Barnum. Barnum by Robert Wilson dispelled much of the misinformation the movie made. I enjoyed the book a lot. Well written, the book tells Barnum’s life story in a way that is easy to read. What I enjoyed most about the book, was the fact that we cannot evaluate other people’s actions based on today’s behavior norms. Life was different in his day and we should not expect them to have the same perspective we have ...more
Tina Panik
Nov 14, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This is an expansive biography. Barnum’s life seems like an extended, competitive game of Monopoly: acquiring and losing properties, making and losing money, taking chances that don’t always work, battling fires. He’s a genius at marketing, and at understanding the pop culture of his era. Our modern sensibilities have demerited Barnum; this biography reminds us that he didn’t even begin the project that became “Barnum and Bailey’s” until he was in his sixties! This is a balanced representation ...more
Nov 17, 2019 rated it really liked it
An absolutely meticulous biography of a great American! Generally a fascinating read, with each detail of Barnum’s life presented without embellishments or bias. My only nit was that, amid all the myriad detail, there were not enough color episodes, those where we got to know him more personally. Whenever that seemed close, the author trundles onto the next fact, the next action, the next thing. I was amazed by Barnum, came away with a vastly different impression of him (not the ethically ...more
Mike Glaser
Sep 04, 2019 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
A truly American character. In many ways not unlike the truly American character who is currently our president. I mean no disrespect to either gentleman but they do share many attributes. Both were shameless self-promoters, knew how to work the press, teetotalers and tended to exaggerate for effect. Both also worked for what they thought was best when in public office and were closer to the citizen-politician the founders hoped for than the professional politicians we have now. A highly ...more
Janet Graham
Aug 03, 2019 rated it really liked it
Factual Look at This Ultimate Showman
The author of this book is obviously enamored with P.T. Barnum. The book takes a very detailed look at his life from childhood to death. The book is heavily footnoted. It gives the reader a fairly detailed look at life in the 1800s. In all, it is very interesting. It is not a 'light-read'. I found it to be great bedside reading as it put me to sleep easily. I received this ARC book for free from Net Galley and this is my honest review.
Michael Webb
Nov 11, 2019 rated it liked it
A fun read, Barnum, though mostly remembered now for his circus, had a rather long and fascinating career of successful "humbugs" which ran the gamut from little people, slapped together natural oddities, and, of course, his late career run at circuses.

Wilson also highlights Barnum's civic orientation, and the numerous ways he tried to give back during his lifetime, both through philanthropy and political work.

An interesting character, and an enjoyable text.
Joyce Rawlins
Sep 26, 2019 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
Barnum is a biography about P. T. Barnum. What a great story about a man who learned to wow an audience. I love anything to do with the circus and I have always enjoyed reading about P. T. Barnum even though he died 125 years ago. This was a very interesting and detailed book about his life and endeavors. Her was born in 1810 in Bethel, CT. He died in 1891 and had always been connected to circus. Thank you to Net Galley for providing an advanced reader’s copy for review.
Jun 06, 2019 rated it really liked it
Gotta give Barnum credit- his name is still known, people are still intrigued by what he accomplished, and they will still read books about him! I'd say he succeeded! This was a fun read about the master showman! P.T. Barnum really was the greatest master of promotion of all time, in my opinion. Fun read for summer!

I received a Kindle arc from Netgalley in exchange for a fair review.
Sep 02, 2019 added it
Shelves: library-ar, audio
DNF. There's just so much of the Barnum biography that is antithetical to current standards of common decency and just kindness in general. I might try to come back to this in the future but I'm passing on it now. I understand the author is trying to balance the story but dang, Barnum was a truly deplorable person
Sep 10, 2019 rated it liked it
An accurate depiction of Barnum. I have a conflicted relationship with him—I find him interesting but also incredibly flawed. I don’t agree with much he did and this is at least an accurate overview of the good and the bad. It can be aggravating reading the bad from today’s lens though. I’ve been to his hometown, his grave, and his old museum so already knew most of the information.
Jeff J.
I’m not sure we need yet another biography of P. T. Barnum, particularly one that glosses over his many failings. Nevertheless this one does hit on the high points: the mermaid, Tom Thumb, Jenny Lind, Jumbo - although I wish there had been more on his partnership with Bailey, the most enduring of his accomplishments.
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Librarian Note: There is more than one author by this name in the Goodreads database.

Robert Wilson has been the editor of Phi Beta Kappa's magazine, The American Scholar, since 2004. Previously, he was the editor of Preservation, the magazine of the Natural Trust for Historic Preservation; literary editor of Civilization ; and the book review editor for USA Today.