“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.”

Livy Clemens & Mark Twain’s Moment of Enlightenment

In 1867, Mark Twain addressed letters to Missouri expressing his disgust at the thought of women’s voting rights. He expressed that women should stick to their “feminine little trifles” that consisted of “babies…and knitting.” Twain speculated that women were not capable of making decisions about politics and should let the “natural bosses do the voting” instead. Twain described women as one might antique furniture: “an ornament to the place that she occupies.” Women are glorified stepping stones, everyday tools to make life just a little bit easier.

Twain’s reputation as a satirist does make it difficult to distinguish at times between sincerely derogatory jests and burlesques of misogynist attitudes intended to make the men who held them seem ridiculous. Young Twain also praised women, but mostly for their roles as mothers and wives. Twain’s respect for women’s roles within the family stemmed from his own appreciation for his mother, Jane Clemens, who he described as having a “sunshine deposition” and “a kind of perky stoicism” through domestic troubles. He joked that women were “earthly angels” not to be mixed in with the shabbiness of men and their politics. Although Twain may have meant no harm in these passages, many women in his era did not find the subject to be a laughing matter. They wished their political crusade to be taken seriously.

During his youth, Twain was consistent in his sarcastic approach to women’s suffrage, but in December of 1867, he met Olivia Langdon. Langdon was a reformist – she advocated for women to break from their traditional molds in the household. Livy surrounded herself with influential women like Julia Beecher and Isabella Beecher Hooker who, as Laura Skandera-Trombley describes, “were dynamic, intelligent, unapologetic, as well as committed feminists – women who had rejected the purely domestic sphere in favor of participation of the outside world.”

A few weeks after Twain met Langdon, he fell in love and proposed. She initially refused. Through the ensuing years of courtship, Twain came to appreciate women as more than just cooks, seamstresses, and childcare, an appreciation which only increased as he and Livy raised three daughters.  

Twain’s three adult daughters were influential upon his social attitudes and some of his most successful written works. According to Trombley, Twain regarded his eldest daughter, Susy Clemens, “as his intellectual and social equal.” Like her mother, Susy played a crucial part in editing and planning Twain’s works. Susy’s influence is clearly demonstrated in the 1901 annual address to the Hebrew Technical School for Girls, during which Twain acknowledged that women knew as much about voting as men did – maybe even more than some. If women were to handle the ballot, “they would rise in their might and change the awful state of things.” After working with Livy and later Susy, Twain began to view women and men on an equal playing field – at least in regards to voting. Twain concluded that women have “scored in every project they undertook against unjust laws…If women had [the ballot] you could tell how they would use it.”  

Although women’s voting rights are not an issue today, other rights, including their rights to control their own bodies, are still challenged. Twain’s early trivializing of women’s suffrage is reminiscent of how President Trump has dismissed women’s issues and causes as laughable. In his 1997 memoir, he wrote,

“The person who came up with the expression ‘the weaker sex’ was either very naive or had to be kidding. I have seen women manipulate men with just a twitch of their eye — or perhaps another body part.”

Twain had a similarly reductive view of women, comically dismissing their plights, until the women of his life challenged him to be more than, as Susy wrote in correspondence to Grace King, “a funny man – a maker of funny speeches.” It took him years to appreciate the true range of women’s capabilities. All he had to do was start listening. Perhaps President Trump can become more than comic material for Saturday Night Live, more than a figure of mockery on Twitter. All he has to do is start listening. There are thousands of women speaking to him.

Diandra Alvarado is the 2017 CMTS Intern and a senior Elmira College English Major pursuing a career in publishing. She is also a literature reviewer for the EC Octagon

An Amazing Job: Frederick Douglass, Mark Twain, & President…Garfield

In marking the beginning of Black History Month the other day, President Donald Trump commended Frederick Douglass as “an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more, I notice.”

Quibbles over the President’s use of the present tense aside, most would agree that Douglass did in fact accomplish something amazing in escaping slavery to become a leading abolitionist and visionary social reformer/statesman during a turbulent time in our nation’s history, and whose powerful, soul-stirring eloquence still speaks to us today.

Because I live in Talbot County on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, where Douglass was born into slavery almost 200 years ago (and where a statue now honors him in front of the courthouse), I am probably a little more familiar with the life of this iconic figure than a lot of people. While the mountainous volumes written about Douglass (beginning with his three autobiographies) may seem daunting to anyone interested in learning more about his inspiring life, a quick insight into the man’s character can be found in the friendship he shared with Mark Twain.

Sean Kirst, in his article on using this friendship to place the racial complexities in Adventures of Huckleberry Finn in context, succinctly summarized Douglass’ deep ties with Twain:

Twain’s eventual father-in-law, Jervis Langdon of Elmira, was a passionate abolitionist who played a major role in Douglass’ escape. Twain, raised in slaveholding Missouri, grew up immersed in the virulent racism of the world around him. Yet he was a thinking man, and…his attitudes changed as he traveled the nation. By 1869, as editor of a Buffalo newspaper, he was writing editorials that attacked a lynching in Tennessee.

At about the same time, Twain had his first chance to meet Douglass, a handshake that soon evolved into a friendship.

Despite their different backgrounds, the two men shared impressive literary and oratorical talents, and a mutual respect for the challenges of their craft. According to Kirst’s article, Douglass, a prolific author in in his own right, attended a reading of Huckleberry Finn in Washington, D.C.. Both were popular speakers who frequented the same circles on the lecture circuit, as this blurb from the Washington Post in 1879 indicates:

Mark Twain, Fred Douglass, and Mizzer Chandler are all on the bills for speeches in New York, and negotiations are pending with Carl Schurz to complete the quartette. There is nothing in Mark Twain’s humor more ludicrous than this combination. When these four innocents go abroad together, Mr. Evarts solemnly following in their wake, John Sherman bringing up the rear, and all supported by the moral power of the administration, it will be a spectacle not easily duplicated.

Twain thought quite highly of “Fred Douglass”, as demonstrated in the unsolicited letter he wrote to President-elect Garfield in 1881 asking that he reappoint Douglass to the office of Marshal of the District of Columbia:

A simple citizen may express a desire, with all propriety, in the matter of recommendation to office, and so I beg permission to hope that you will retain Mr. Douglass in his present office of Marshal of the District of Columbia, if such course will not class with your own preferences or with the expediencies and interests of your Administration. I offer this petition with peculiar pleasure and strong desire, because I so honor this man’s high and blemishless character, and so admire his brave, long crusade for the liberties and elevation of his race.

He is a personal friend of mine, but that is nothing to the point; his history would move me to say these things without that, and I feel them, too.

Albert Bigelow Paine includes Douglass’ appreciative response in his Biography:

I think if a man is mean enough to want an office he ought to be noble enough to ask for it, and use all honorable means of getting it. I mean to ask, and I will use your letter as a part of my petition. It will put the President-elect in a good humor, in any case, and that is very important.

With great respect,

Gratefully yours,


Although Garfield ended up appointing one of his friends to the post, he did make Douglass the recorder of deeds for D.C., a high-paying position at the time. Given his accomplishments and towering reputation, Douglass probably would have been nominated for the position without Twain’s recommendation. But the letter Twain wrote in support of his friend remains a fitting testament to why Douglass’ “high and blemishless character” so richly deserves to be recognized more and more as time goes by.

Dwayne Eutsey is a freelance writer, editor, independent scholar, former Quarry Farm Fellow, and contributor to Mark Twain Journal