... 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.'