Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

"Satire upon All of Us": The Self-Made Man as Confidence Man in P.T Barnum's America

Academic journal article Nineteenth-Century Prose

"Satire upon All of Us": The Self-Made Man as Confidence Man in P.T Barnum's America

Article excerpt

In this essay Thompson considers P.T. Barnum's simultaneous inhabitation of the seemingly antithetical roles of self-made man and confidence man in his autobiographical and semi-autobiographical writings. Barnum's profit-motivated self-satire implies a broader social critique of America's celebration of the self-made man. By highlighting his own hypocrisy in satiric productions published in popular media, Barnum neutralizes his critics by controlling, via preemptive embodiment, negative depictions of himself. But Barnum reserves a space for himself within the dominant mythology by elevating himself to the venerable positions of American success stories even as he demeans self-made men. In this way, he both mocks and claims respectability, exposing himself and others as frauds while attempting to justify or account for his own fraud as within the bounds of middle-class social norms. Barnum's self-fashioning as a self-made con man exposes moral and cultural elites as themselves caught up in an economy of false confidence and slippery appearances, and thus no different than other two-bit operators.

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   [...] the people will go to see old Barnum. First he humbugs
   them, and then they pay to hear him tell how he did
   it! I believe if he should swindle a man out of twenty
   dollars, the man would give a quarter to hear him tell
   about it. (P.T. Barnum, quoting a ticket seller at his
   American Museum, The Life of P. T. Barnum, Written by
   Himself)

In a scathing review of P.T. Barnum's first autobiography, The Life of P.T. Barnum, Written by Himself (1855), Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine grumbled,

   Seriously, we have not read, in a long time, a more
   trashy or offensive book than this; and we should not
   have considered it worthy of the least notice had we
   merely looked to the intrinsic merits of its contents. But
   it is worth noticing as a satire upon all of us; and we
   hope it may have the effect--very different from what its
   author intended--of opening the eyes of the public, for
   some little time at least, to the shameless exhibitions
   which have become a matter of regular trade and speculation.
   (189)

The Blackwood's writer assumes that Barnum's "satire upon all of us" is not at all "what the author intended"; but a close reading of the brazen contradictions of Barnum's self-presentation in his public persona and autobiographical writings reveals his highly self-conscious use of satire. Specifically, in his professional life and in his writing, Barnum portrayed himself both as the incarnation of the American success story--the self-made man--and as the ultimate confidence man--the "king of Humbug" (Colossal 20)--thus conflating two seemingly antithetical nineteenth-century myths. (1) By showing the self-made man to be at bottom a confidence man, Barnum revealed the American Dream itself to be a con game, thereby sapping the myth of its integrity.

But, as I will endeavor to show in this essay, Barnum claimed as well as mocked respectability, exposing himself and others as frauds while attempting to justify or account for his own fraud. Barnum thus achieved his societal critique by highlighting his own unscrupulous hypocrisy and self-contradiction, and then expanding his denunciations outward to satirize those who saw themselves as above such machinations. That is, Barnum's self-fashioning as a self-made con man exposed moral and cultural elites--especially clerics--as themselves caught up in an economy of false confidence and slippery appearances, and therefore no different from other operators in the emergent market economy that he praised and sought to embody.

Later in the Blackwood's review, the disgusted writer claims that Barnum "has left nothing for his worst enemy to do; for he has fairly gibbeted himself. No unclean bird of prey, nailed ignominiously to the door of a bam, can present a more humiliating spectacle than Phineas Taylor Barnum, as he appears in his Autobiography" (199). …

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