“The Greatest Showman” vs. “The World’s Greatest Laughmaker”

The Greatest Showman, a film about one of Mark Twain’s contemporaries and kindred spirits, releases nationwide tomorrow. Twain and P. T. Barnum were, by various accounts, friends, acquaintances, mutual admirers, and rivals. Mark Storey describes Twain as “the only man who challenged Barnum’s position as the leading celebrity of Gilded Age America.” And while Twain clearly felt a certain kinship with Barnum and treated him with cordiality, he also kept him a arm’s length. Barnum’s invitations to more intimate friendship and even collaboration were declined and postponed indefinitely until Barnum’s death in 1891.

I haven’t seen the film yet, but the inclusion of Jenny Lind as one of the central characters suggests that the bulk of the story takes place during her extended American tour, which ran from September 1850 to May 1852, two decades before Barnum and Sam Clemens actually met.

Teenage Sam Clemens did tour Barnum’s American Museum during his first trip to New York City around the era of the film (in 1853). When he returned fourteen years later, there is a suggestion of nostalgia for that youthful visit. Under the heading, “HOW ARE THE MIGHTY FALLEN!”, Twain remarks that “Barnum’s Museum is one vast peanut stand now” and complained “there is little or nothing in the place worth seeing, and yet how it draws!” He visited the museum just before embarking on the cruise that would yield the bestselling Innocents Abroad (1869). Thus, he was already experimenting with the affect of jaded tourist which would be central to the humor of that book and the associated American Vandal lecture tour.

But the mixture of disgust and admiration in Twain’s 1867 description of the museum is characteristic of his attitude towards Barnum for the remainder of his career. He often found Barnum’s advertising campaigns and performance spectacles crass, unentertaining, and exploitative, but he also learned a great deal about an American public whose attention he craved from the effectiveness with which Barnum exposed and appealed to popular tastes. Upon the opening of Barnum’s “Hippodrome” in 1875, Twain offered a slyly back-handed compliment to the man himself, “I hardly know which to wonder at most—its stupendousness, or the pluck of the man who has dared to venture upon so vast an enterprise. I mean to come to see the show,— but to me you are the biggest marvel connected with it.”

There are dozens of explicit allusions to Barnum and his entertainments in Twain’s published works, dozens more in his private correspondence and autobiographical writings, spanning his whole career, from 1859, when he was still a cub steamboat pilot, to the final weeks of his life, in April 1910, when he declined an invitation to dine with the “clowns of the Barnum & Bailey circus” during their performance at Madison Square Garden, an invitation which flatteringly dubbed him “the world’s greatest laughmaker.”

Amongst these allusions one finds both evident appreciation, as in the story of Barnum trading the deed to Shakespeare’s house to Queen Victoria for Jumbo the Elephant in Following the Equator (1897), and equally evident spite, as in “Barnum’s First Speech in Congress” (1867), a satire of Reconstruction politics that paints Barnum as a ruthless exploiter of the performers he employs.

Neil Harris, in Humbug: The Art of P. T. Barnum (1973), notes that “despite all their mutual interests, and a curious set of parallels in their personal lives,” Barnum and Twain were “strikingly different” in how they dealt with fatherhood, financial stress, religion, and nationalism. Barnum, Harris observes, was an unflinchingly “good Jacksonian,” “content with the temper of his age and the character of his countrymen.” “No feelings of social discomfort ever afflicted” the manic entertainer, nor did he “show his fatigue from the hard-fought, moneymaking race he ran.”

Twain was not a “good Jacksonian,” in part because he was 25 years younger than Barnum. His professional life did not begin during the booming decade of Jackson’s presidency, but during the paranoid period preceding the Civil War. Barnum celebrated “humbug” as harmless amusement and even healthy “edu-tainment” for an American populace whose savvy was increasingly tested by mass media, electioneering, and consumer capitalism. Twain had no such faith in the intellectual potential of the general public and reserved special venom for those who purposely took advantage of populist ignorance for political advantage.

Twain called “Barnum’s First Speech In Congress” a “spiritual telegraph” delivered “to [him] in advance from the spirit world.” He was certain that even if Barnum himself was not eventually elected to a high office, his brand of unapologetic deception and braggadocio would inevitably become the norm for American candidates. Twain described Teddy Roosevelt’s presidency was “a libel on the intelligence of the human race,” perpetrated by a delusional maniac: “In his frenzied imagination the Great Republic is a vast Barnum circus with him for a clown and the whole world for an audience.”

By imagining Barnum foremost as precursor to future brands of populist politics, Twain proves clairvoyant once again. Our current President unselfconsciously described himself as “a bit P. T. Barnum.” Earlier this month, Michael Greenwald traced how Barnum “paved the way for Donald Trump” in The Conversation. The analogy between Barnum and Trump has been so persistent for so long, one cannot help but speculate that Trump’s election is largely responsible for the green-lighting ofThe Greatest Showman. The film was first announced in 2009, but spent seven long years in Hollywood purgatory. It was finally cleared to begin production in . . . November 2016. It is, as Twain says, “a coincidence which out-coincidences any coincidence which I could have imagined with such powers of imagination as I have been favored with.”

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