Total Pageviews

Sunday, July 8, 2012

The Great and Only Barnum, written by Candace Fleming. Schwartz & Wade, Random House. 2009. $23.00 ages 10 and up

"Over the years, Barnum's fame had grown along with the museum's, and by 1845 he already enjoyed a unique public reputation. "The name P. T. Barnum is synonymous with the curious, the wondrous, the odd," the New York Sun declared that year. "If it is bold, it is Barnum. If it is big, it is Barnum. As a showman, he stands alone."

I read much about this book in the year following its publication, and thought it would not have much relevance for me. Why? I don't know. I guess because I was never a circus enthusiast and wondered if I would find anything of interest to me in this biography.

Of course I was wrong. First, I didn't realize just what an amazing writer and researcher Candace Fleming truly is. I also didn't know what a complicated and intriguing Mr. P. T. Barnum was either. Now, I know both of those things.

He was born in the early 1800s in Connecticut and spent his life making the most of his circumstances and dreaming big dreams. At his death he was known throughout the world for his remarkable vision for what would entice and entertain millions of people. He made it his mission to
do the best he could to create an aura of celebrity about himself and his many business enterprises, the abysmal failures and the great successes.

In her meticulously researched biography of this bigger-than-life entrepreneur, Candace Fleming gives the reader pause to consider what circuses were and are, how the animals and people of the 'big show' were treated, the part that Barnum played in creating many of the hoaxes that he played on his audience, and his use of media to spread his message.

He was unapologetic, deeming it his mission in life to provide for the entertainment of the masses and give them what they wanted to see. To that end, he spent his life travelling, gathering, making deals and founding new methods of bringing unusual people and animals to their attention. It is with mixed feelings one reads about his many escapades and this book leaves anyone who reads it asking questions about his methods, the times in which he lived and his legacy. It also leaves us to reflect on how we feel about his whole idea of entertainment. As one reviewer suggests, perhaps we need to see these animals up close and personal to really have a stake in what happens to them in the future. How do we protect and care for them if we know little about them? Do zoos and circuses help us develop a sensitivity that we might not feel if we were only ever to see photographs or videos of them. Of course, there are better ways to have that experience; but, for how many?

Love him or hate him, his story is quite amazing. In a book that takes the form of a scrapbook readers will learn much about history, while perusing many archival photographs from his many endeavors, information boxes that add additional details and provide a look at Barnum's world in the 1800s. I am glad that I finally took the time to get my hands on a copy and spend a couple of evenings learning much that I did not know until now.

No comments:

Post a Comment