Monday, September 10, 2007

THIS WAY TO THE EGRESS: P.T. Barnum towers over American popular culture, working in nearly every major medium and cultural form of the 19th century and wielding a breadth of influence unmatched until perhaps Walt Disney. Barnum presented and even performed in blackface minstrel shows, further popularizing that hugely successful format. He organized the triumphant American tour of opera singer Jenny Lind, a/k/a "The Swedish Nightingale," demonstrating the continuing fuzziness of highbrow/lowbrow boundaries in antebellum American culture. Later in his career, he reinvented the once-disreputable circus, re-imagining it as a family-friendly spectacle and showcasing the most famous elephant in history, Jumbo. He wrote a classic American autobiography, Struggles and Triumphs. He even served a term as mayor of Bridgeport, Connecticut -- though there is no proof to the rumor that he built the city's first jai-alai fronton.

But Barnum's most fascinating legacy came from his American Museum (brilliantly recreated online by CUNY's American Social History Project). Opened in 1842 and flourishing until its destruction by fires in 1865 and 1868, Barnum's American Museum cleverly mixed entertainment and uplift, sensationalism and moralism. In the showman's words, his museum offered "an encyclopedic synthesis of everything worth seeing in this curious world": natural history specimens, waxworks figures, historical paintings and dioramas, live animals, and random bizarre objects (most notoriously, the famous FeJee Mermaid, which was promoted like this but actually looked like this). And then there were the human oddities -- the "freaks," as they would later be called. Some, like Chang and Eng or Tom Thumb, were displayed because of their physical differences; others, like the supposed missing-link "What Is It?", fed on popular anxieties about race and evolution. Whatever the attraction, though, Barnum knew how to sell it. Even (or especially) when the exhibit was a hoax, Barnum's audiences actually enjoyed the "humbug." As he put it, "the public appears disposed to be amused even when they are conscious of being deceived."

A century and a half later, much as we'd like to think that we're more sophisticated than Barnum's audiences, the popular fondness for hoaxes and freaks endures. Does this mean that we're still living in the Age of Barnum? Or did old Phineas simply tap into something deep within the human psyche, something far beyond any particular time or place? Share your own Barnumesque experiences with freaks, geeks, and hoaxes, and help us figure out whether a sucker is, indeed, still born every minute.

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