... eschews clichés for a more nuanced story ... Overall, Mr. Wilson’s book shows how one complicated, contradictory, morally ambiguous man struggled to improve himself while being single-mindedly determined to give delight to millions. It is a life for our times, and the biography Barnum deserves.
... if there’s a slightly tense, withholding feel to Robert Wilson’s Barnum: An American Life—if it reads, in a word, rather un-Barnumesquely—it’s not really the author’s fault. A Barnum biographer in 2019 is heavy with consciousness. He feels concern for the people off whom Barnum made his fortune. He is stylistically constrained ... Wilson is not being mealymouthed. He just can’t go full Barnum. The evolution of human relations and the temper of the hour will not allow it.
Exhaustive in scope and upbeat in tone ... Wilson spares none of the opulent details, lingering on the construction of Iranistan, Barnum’s sprawling Bridgeport villa, an ego monument on par with Mar-a-Lago. While the book never mentions Donald Trump, the parallels are impossible to miss ... Through it all, the book’s message is clear: Barnum was a self-made man in the American grain. But this boosterism begins to drag, Wilson’s festive mood brought low by a gradual accumulation of facts pointing to a darker conclusion. Barnum was a narcissistic wildfire ... Over time, the author starts to feel like Barnum’s wingman ... In an era shaped by charismatic salesmen like Donald Trump, a cleareyed biography of Barnum would be both enlightening and timely. But that would require skepticism, a willingness to hear the warning delivered in Barnum’s own words: 'The public appears disposed to be amused even when they are conscious of being deceived.'
According to Wilson, Barnum’s peculiar gift lay in his relationship to his audience. Better than anyone who’d come before, the Prince of Humbugs understood that the public was willing—even eager—to be conned, provided there was enough entertainment to be had in the process. That theory of Barnum’s genius makes Wilson’s book peculiarly relevant, although it’s not altogether clear that this is the author’s intent ... if, as Wilson suggests, Barnum became 'a better person' with age, 'better' is a relative term ... to ask readers to look past Barnum’s faults would seem to miss the point.
The book analyzes Barnum’s life in great detail ... But where this book differs from previous biographies is how it tries to examine the subject through the lens of Barnum himself, comparing his own words via his autobiographies, and highlighting what Barnum discussed, left out, or changed. This becomes particularly interesting when it comes to his wife and the death of his child. Barnum was a complex public figure, a character begging for deep examination, and Wilson presents a true timeline of Barnum as a thinker, a believer, a businessman, and a family man ... With Wilson at the wheel, a road trip through well-trod history becomes a truly remarkable ride.
There are limits to the jollity that can be summoned from the reflected thrills of more than a century ago. Barnum’s most vivid moments are the fugitive flashes of a different Barnum, a doppelgänger whom he banished from his own memoirs and largely succeeded in concealing from the historical record ... Some of these details are less incriminatory than revelatory, suggesting a narrative that doesn’t square with the one he cultivated for public consumption ... Wilson finds himself in the uncomfortable position of celebrating Barnum’s outrageousness while pausing to censure those qualities that 'a modern sensibility must struggle to understand': the casual if spirited racism of his early career; his aloof attitude toward the women in his life; his indifference to the capture, torture, and indiscriminate slaughter of animals ... The contortionist act forces Wilson into a retiring middle ground: 'Barnum embodied some of America’s worst impulses, but also many of its best.'
Here, American Scholar editor Wilson leans toward the positive and relates the acts for which his subject is most remembered ... In addressing Barnum's darker side, Wilson discusses exhibits and shows that exploited racist beliefs or blurred the line between real and fake, stating 'Barnum embodied some of America's worst impulses, but also many of its best.' Wilson further leaves out some of the current research that belies the upright image Barnum cultivated in his later years ... One of the themes in this work is our country's complex relationship with the truth. Overall, Wilson's skillful portrayal of the multifarious Barnum is affectionate, lucid, and lively, offering a new portrait of Victorian-era America, particularly its curious and playful side. Highly recommended.
... fascinating ... While it’s clear Wilson has a real affection for his subject, he doesn’t treat Barnum with kid gloves; the book isn’t the hagiography that Wilson hints at in the beginning. It’s a fair-minded look at a figure who didn’t always acquit himself well even by the standards of his time ... an excellent biography of a difficult subject — Wilson makes a convincing case that the legendary showman’s many faults should be considered in tandem with his accomplishments, which changed the course of American entertainment forever ... Wilson’s book is the thoughtful biography that [Barnum] has long deserved.
In Barnum: An American Life, Wilson brings him alive on the page, thanks in part to the voluminous print record of Barnum’s life, in letters, speeches and newsprint ...Wilson suggests Barnum’s potent combination of naiveté, arrogance, persistence and luck — combined with his brash, uncouth, self-confident attributes, a go-getter of the first water — make him a particularly American figure, which may be a gross generalization but is also hard to argue with ... In Wilson’s thoroughgoing biography, what makes Barnum a sympathetic subject is that his financial success showed 'that a person could move not only from rags to riches but even from obscurity to respectability.'
In this immensely readable biography, Robert Wilson has given us insights into the most admirable and questionable aspects of a deeply complicated man ... The author does an excellent job of describing how Barnum used all his skills to attract millions, including presidents and royalty, to his series of traveling shows ... Wilson describes with fascinating detail in successive chapters Barnum’s great 'finds'.
In this detailed biography, American Scholar editor Wilson...portrays Phineas Taylor Barnum (1810–1891) as a complex and versatile businessman undeserving of the shady showman caricature that’s been painted of him ... Wilson’s well-researched though dense work shows why even 139 years after Barnum’s death, he remains a larger-than-life character.
... an admiring and mostly entertaining biography ... Drawing liberally on Barnum’s several autobiographies and collected letters, the author reprises many familiar episodes ... While acknowledging the racism and exploitation inherent in these exhibits, as well as Barnum’s attitudes toward captured wild animals, Wilson gently portrays Barnum as a man of his time ... A serviceable introduction to a man who helped shape his culture.