January 5, 2011

Postmodern P.T. Barnum


In Lapham’s Quarterly “Celebrity Issue,” novelist Charles Baxter provides a sharp postmodern reading of Phineas Taylor Barnum’s 1855 autobiography The Life of P. T. Barnum. Baxter makes a case that Barnum–the cynical, conniving, chameleonic master of self-promotion–might be modern America’s true spiritual progenitor (in stark contrast to the mostly evaporated transcendental yearnings of his contemporary, Walt Whitman). Baxter writes:

The Life of P. T. Barnum is one of those curious historical artifacts: the sociopathic memoir. Like Thomas Mann’s Confessions of Felix Krull, Confidence Man, or Herman Melville‘s The Confidence-Man, Barnum’s memoir consists largely of anecdotes about tricks played upon an individual or the public at large by a semihuman shape shifter….

More than a half century before Bruce Barton’s The Man Nobody Knows(Jesus as entrepreneur and advertising executive), Barnum points to something sacred in advertising—its ability to turn appearances into reality. This metamorphosis serves as a kind of secular transubstantiation, and on this subject he has no peer: “Put on the appearance of business, and generally the reality will follow.”….

In a world in which every truth is fungible, advertising begins to substitute for the news. One of Barnum’s brilliant, almost genius-level aperçus, was that you could create news through advertising, and the advertising itself becomes newsworthy. If you advertise forcefully, the advertised object, even if perfectly vacant and without qualities (think: Paris Hilton), becomes a topic of conversation. Truth value is always trumped by hype, and hype in turn is fueled by controversy. Any news is good news. Barnum discovered that if your show generates angry letters to the editor, so much the better: people will be compelled to see the spectacle for themselves “to determine whether or not they had been deceived.”

Baxter’s view of American culture, seen through the lens of Barnum’s autobiography, is a dark one indeed. He posits a population that, too practical and shallow to believe their own religious rhetoric, yearns for the cheap wonders and phony miracles of “The Greatest Show on Earth.”