Essays - Autumn 2016

Thine as Ever, P. T. Barnum

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A scholar offers three utterly fictitious letters he wishes the famous showman had written

Frontispiece to Barnum’s 1855 autobiography, after a daguerreotype by Marcus or Samuel Root

By A. H. Saxon

September 6, 2016


Most editors of other people’s letters, I suspect, are victims of a common obsession: the feeling that they have somehow missed certain significant letters their subjects must have written. I plead no exception to this apprehension. Although I have been systematically collecting the letters and other writings of P. T. Barnum for a good many years, initially for my edition of his letters, then for a biography, several aspects of his life continue to elude me—gray areas that might suddenly take on vivid coloration if only a pertinent letter or other document would spring to light. I wish I knew more about Barnum’s two wives, for instance, who apparently did not think their husband’s letters to them worth keeping. His children, grandchildren, and even great-grandchildren often did, with the result that I know more about several of them than I do about Charity or Nancy Barnum.

Then, too, there is the persistent feeling that if one’s subject did not write letters on particular topics, he or she surely ought to have done so, if only to confirm or refute certain rumors and beliefs that have received widespread acceptance. Some biographers and editors have been known to rectify these deficiencies by inserting into their works spurious documents of their own manufacture. The temptation is always there, and sometimes hard to resist, especially when one is recognized as an authority on the subject and has become conversant with the peculiarities of his or her style. If spoilsports insist on pressing for sources, one can always hide behind “anonymous” or “private collection.”

I freely confess to experiencing this temptation and to having only partially resisted it. Shortly before my edition of the showman’s letters appeared, I created a pastiche of three letters purportedly by Barnum on the subjects of the singer Jenny Lind, Jumbo the elephant, and “Champ,” the perennial monster of Lake Champlain. My original intention was to restrict this work to a small, select band of favorite institutions and friends—which I did.

But since Barnum’s name has been so often in the news of late—in connection with another showman who has far less in common with the original than is sometimes suggested—I now offer these forgeries to a wider audience, trusting that no future scholars or writers will take them as otherwise.

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A. H. Saxon is the author of P. T. Barnum: The Legend and the Man and the editor of Selected Letters of P. T. Barnum.

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