Sunday Cummins's Reviews > The Great and Only Barnum: The Tremendous, Stupendous Life of Showman P. T. Barnum

The Great and Only Barnum by Candace Fleming
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's review
Jun 14, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: award-winning-nonfiction
Read in June, 2010

I did pretty much read this book through in one sitting. It is definitely readable - written in a straightforward style. The literary artistry and aesthetic appeal were lacking for me - the layouts were simple and the entire text is black and white which I thought was odd when you think about Barnum's work- it was probably filled with amazing color. The black/white contributed somewhat to the authority, though - because most of the pictures were of primary sources - pictures of Barnum and the curious people who were part of his American Museum.

What I think is important about this text - even though there was not a lot of text devoted to these topics - was how the author develops Barnum as a complex human being. He's not portrayed as perfect or even "wonderful." I think the words for the title were carefully selected now that I think about it. He was a racist - the way he treated Joice Heth ("rented" her from her slave owner) and African Americans (free in NYC) were only allowed into his museum at certain times. He was a terrible husband for most of his marriage to Charity. Although, this was probably part of his socialization - he did not rise above it.

With the "curious" people who worked for him, though, he did not ask them to pose and be viewed, he asked them to walk around and talk to people so people would see them as humans; he paid them well and gave them living quarters. With the animals that were on exhibit - Barnum was part of the growing knowledge of zoology. Many of the animals he owned died and he just replaced, but the author writes that he searched out answers regarding care of these creatures and contributed knowledge to the field as he grew to understand the care they needed.

In the end, he was very business driven and focused for decades on "entertainment"; he did not get into the circus business (with Coup and then Bailey) until the last decade or so of his life (he lived to be eighty) and he focused on BIG entertainment (Jumbo was his elephant) and added two rings to the circus acts that seated 12,000 people - thus the "three ring circus."

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