Great article by Charles Baxter in Lapham's Quarterly about P.T. Barnum autobiography
I don't want to quote the entire thing but the entire thing is quotable. So, here is only one of my favorite parts:
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.”
Ok, wait, one more:
Wonder is the remnant of religious faith when religious doctrine has proved inadequate to a feverish wish to believe in something, anything. Suppose that prayer has not brought you your reward. You want to put your faith in a miracle. Where is that miracle? You have, after all, been taught to believe. About such longings, Barnum was very shrewd. He knew that spiritual peacefulness, a calm in the soul (we would also call it “self-possession”), was largely missing in the American experience and that this absence derived, as he notes, from “a practicalness which is not commendable.” The citizen has worked hard with little result. He cannot stay calm in the land of milk and honey if no milk and honey has flowed his way. Promises have been broken. Therefore he goes to Barnum’s show with high expectations. Barnum knew that America was a nation of believers who, thanks to their pragmatism, didn’t actually believe in much of anything, although they said that they did. This cultural setup created a variety of believers without anything to believe in, a vacancy that he filled with wonders in his American Museum, housing dioramas, cameleopards, and a miniature model of Niagara Falls with real water.
Barnum was so brilliant, reminds me of kind of Cabaret Master of Ceremonies meets Gordon Gekko. Had diamond sharp insight into less-flattering aspects of human nature and was thoroughly unapologetic about taking advantage. Which I admire. I don't like bullies, you know, predators who prey on innocents (children, animals, schizophrenics, etc). But I've no sympathy for people who let themselves be exploited, who open the door and invite the vampire in. These people practically beg to be lead, to be told, to be taken. Why disappoint.
"It's immoral to let a sucker keep his money." ~ Rounders
Anyway, great article even with slightly perplexing endnote. I read spectacularly fantastic book by Irving Wallace about Barnum some time ago, highly recommended. May log my scribbles about that one a little later.