Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

Freaks and the American Dream: Horatio Alger, P. T. Barnum, and the Art of Humbug

Academic journal article Studies in American Fiction

Freaks and the American Dream: Horatio Alger, P. T. Barnum, and the Art of Humbug

Article excerpt

"It's my belief that you're a humbug," said the disappointed customer.

"Thank you, sir," said Rough and Ready; "I've been takin' lessons of Barnum, only I haven't made so much money yet." ...

"Don't do it again, my lad. It's wrong to humbug people, you know. By the way, do you ever come to the museum?"

"Yes, sir."

"Well, your joke is worth something. Here is a season ticket for three months."

--Horatio Alger, Rough and Ready

When Horatio Alger lets P. T. Barnum suddenly appear as a character in Rough and Ready, the fourth volume of his Ragged Dick series, he hints at a significant connection between Barnumesque humbug and his own fiction. (1) In Chapter XV, which "introduces a distinguished personage" (167), the newsboy Rough and Ready not only dishes up humbug to the customer looking for coverage of horrible disasters, but he also falsely claims that P. T. Barnum, who happens to be walking by, is Horace Greeley. The duped gentleman, who "keeps a seminary in the country," eagerly speaks with Barnum as if he were Greeley, commending him on his "luminous editorials" and their "most satisfactory exposition of the principles which I profess" (172). Barnum goes along with the joke but confronts the newsboy afterwards, chiding him that "to humbug people is wrong." Nonetheless, in the same breath he also rewards the boy with a free season pass because "the joke is worth something." Overtly, the deception compares Horace Greeley's journalism to Barnum's humbug; but, less directly, Alger might also be speaking about himself and his attempt to capitalize as a fiction writer on the lessons in the art of humbug he learned from P. T. Barnum. (2)

This essay argues that the similarities between Alger's fictional practices and P. T. Barnum's exhibition strategies are central in understanding both the nature and the success of Alger's most famous and quintessential rags-to-riches story, Ragged Dick (1868)--a context critics have overlooked. On the surface, Alger shows that Dick's education and improvement depend on his abandoning his favorite pleasures, such as going to Barnum's and to low theaters. Yet Dick's success, and the success of the novel, have much to do with the popularity and dynamics of freak shows. Partially designed by himself and partially by Alger, Dick is a freak, and our pleasure of reading about him is similar to the pleasure he himself seeks when he visits Barnum's museum. Ragged Dick is, like Tom Thumb, a charming miniature man, and his poverty and homelessness become curious and entertaining within this reduced scale. By offering his rags-to-riches story, the novel allowed its middle-class readers to indulge their curiosity and to face and appease fears about pressing social issues such as extreme urban poverty, immigration, the rise and threat of finance capitalism and its concomitant social mobility and fluidity. Ragged Dick's astounding success can be traced not so much to the professed message that any honest boy can make it to respectability and obtain the American dream with a lot of determination and a little bit of luck as to the way in which the novel, while professing this message, is also able to imply almost its direct opposite, namely that Dick is a freak and the American dream of rising from rags to fiches a freak event. Dick's rise is an example of formidable Barnumesque humbug that happens only to those whom the middle-class audience enjoys and for whose performance they are willing to pay.

Alger's Anti-Freak Show Message

Explicitly, Alger's novel, like his character Barnum, considers all forms of humbug wrong; the narrator notes that Dick's greatest flaw is his love for entertainment and the way he squanders his money on shows and spectacles. The novel opens with Dick waking up late because he had gone to the Old Bowery the previous night. "Another of Dick's faults," Alger's narrator explains, "was his extravagance. …

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