The World’s Greatest Showman by J. Bryan III

The World’s Greatest Showman: The Life of P.T. Barnum by J. Bryan III.

I’m going with some of the urchins to see The Greatest Showman, the new movie musical starring Hugh Jackman as Phineas Taylor Barnum, the great huckster, advertiser, showman, lecturer, and promoter of nineteenth century America. So I had to pull out the Landmark history book about the life and times of Mr. Barnum so that I could check the movie against reality. I’m told that there’s not much reality in the movie.

If so, that’s probably a tribute to the real P.T. Barnum, who included about as much truth and reality in his shows and his advertisements and media campaigns as the average Hollywood movie mogul does in his, not very much. Everything in Barnum’s shows, first his New York museum, and then his circus, was colossal, unique, amazing, stupendous, prodigious, and/or fantastic—because Barnum said so. He was a liar and a humbug (one of his favorite descriptors), but the public knew it and ate it up. He made a fortune first for himself, but also for Charles Stratton, aka General Tom Thumb, for The Swedish Nightingale singer Jenny Lind, and for numerous other performers and partners who worked with and for him.

He also lost more than one personal fortune. Five different fires destroyed his various businesses and homes at different times, and he never did learn to adequately insure his holdings against disaster. Each time, according to the book, he was under-insured and had to start all over again building up his museum or circus or house to come back from the brink.

The World’s Greatest Showman portrays Barnum as a joker and a salesman, certainly not averse to exaggeration or downright lies as long as he could put on a good show and rope in a big audience. His views and actions in regard to racial issues and and slavery and justice were mixed, as befits the time in which he lived (1810-1891). But he was all-in-all a likable character, generous and a sharp businessman at the same time, a teetotaler and a “religious man”, according to Wikipedia, a dedicated member of the Universalist Church.

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I’ve been to see the movie, and it was a great show, but not at all true to the life of P.T. Barnum. The movie took many liberties with the timeline and events of Barnum’s life, but that’s to be expected. Barnum would probably not have minded a bit or a even a lot of “humbug” in the interest of a good show. However, two elements of the movie plot would emphatically not have been to Mr. Barnum’s taste.

As I said, Barnum was quite dedicated to the temperance movement, didn’t drink alcohol at all, and encouraged others to abstain from alcoholic beverages, too. In the movie, he not only drinks, he’s rarely seen without a drink in his hand or sharing champagne or whiskey with friends, associates, and strangers. In fact, in the movie, alcohol almost becomes a symbol of the joie de vivre that Barnum tries to share with everyone he meets.

Also, Jenny Lind was Barnum’s friend and associate, and he did sponsor, finance, and arrange her American tour. But she would never have kissed him or tried to seduce him, on stage or off. Jenny Lind was, indeed, a devout Christian, and she gave most of her money, if not all of it, away to charities and churches. She and Barnum parted amicably before her contract with him had quite expired because she was tired of his commercialism and relentless promotions, even though she wanted to make as money as she could for her charitable endeavors.

Still, I recommend the movie and the Landmark book about his life. Each tells the story of a different man, one factual and the other fictional. I enjoyed both stories, and the music in the movie and Hugh Jackman’s performance as Barnum were worth the ticket price. (The movie reviewer at EW didn’t cut the movie any slack at all, and that wasn’t the only bad review I found in a cursory search. So you may want to ask yourself how much you can abide in the name of humbug from a fictionalized musical bio-pic.)

Quoting P.T. Barnum:

“Men, women, and children who cannot live on gravity alone need something to satisfy their gayer, lighter moods and hours, and he who ministers to this want is, in my opinion, in a business established by the Creator of our nature. If he worthily fulfills his mission and amuses without corrupting, he need never feel that he has lived in vain.”

“There’s no such thing as bad publicity. I don’t care what the newspapers say about me as long as they spell my name right.”

“Nothing draws a crowd quite like a crowd.”

“More persons, on the whole, are humbugged by believing in nothing, than by believing too much.”

“I am a showman by profession… and all the gilding shall make nothing else of me.”

“The bigger the humbug, the better people will like it.”

The Mississippi Bubble by Thomas B. Costain

I’m on a mission to read all of the Landmark series of children’s history books, and Thomas B. Costain is one of my favorite authors, especially his series of books on the medieval history of England: The Conquering Family, The Last Plantaganets, The Magnificent Century, The Three Edwards. I love those books and have read through them more than once. So I was excited to read Costain’s Landmark history (#52) of the founding of Biloxi and New Orleans, The Mississippi Bubble.

It was an exciting story of intrepid explorers and land speculation and fortunes made and lost, with both heroes and villains, winners and losers, and a narrative thread of consistent and faithful service on the part of one man in particular with the goal of building a “New World” in America at the mouth of the Mississippi River. However, the book shows the strengths and weaknesses of its date of publication, 1955, as Mr. Costain loses his attention to historical detail and his concern to portray all of the parties to the situation fairly and accurately when it comes to Native Americans and enslaved Africans.

The story begins with a “group of Indians . . . busy fishing in the mud-colored waters of Mississippi.” These “savages” encounter Robert Cavelier, Sieur de La Salle, and although at first they are wary, they “liked La Salle.” These Native Americans are then compared to the Iroquois of Canada and the north, with whom the French had already met and fought and allied and co-existed. According to Costain:

“And while the Indians of the delta country—the Bayougoulas, the Quinipissa, the Moctobys, the Tensas, the Pascagoulas—were not more fierce or brave than the tribes of the north, they were sly and treacherous and with a brand of savagery all their own.”

Readers are left to imagine what that “brand of savagery” looks like, but Costain does say many pages later in the story that “the savages worked swiftly and cunningly” to attack the French forts in various places, incited by the English or the Spanish. Then, a few pages later, we read that “many times the Indians had saved the lives of the colonists with supplies of food from their own stocks.” By treating the Indians as a monolithic group and by stereotyping them as savages, mostly, Costain gives a very confusing and contradictory picture of the Native Americans of the Louisiana and Mississippi regions and of their relationship with the French invaders. In other words, the Native peoples and individuals in this version of history are stereotyped and written off as foils to the conquering French European heroes who are the real story.

Nevertheless, I wouldn’t write off this book because Mr. Costain has another story to tell: in addition to giving us his account of the exploration and settlement of the Mississippi River delta, Mr. Costain in his little book also tells of an economic bombshell back in France. So, in the meantime back in Paris, c.1719-1726, while Jean-Baptiste Le Moyne, Sieur de Bienville was literally holding down the fort in Louisiana, a Scotsman named John Law was busy taking over the financial system of France. I read about John Law’s financial plans, ideas, and schemes both in The Mississippi Bubble and on Wikipedia, but I can’t say either source successfully explained his theories and his financial dealings in a way that I could fully understand. But the history is exciting with kidnappings and violence and huge fortunes made and lost and gambles and success and disgrace all combined. It’s worth reading about, and Costain tells this story of financial chicanery, speculation, and panic with a great deal of drama and human interest.

Here’s an animated short movie that deals with the economics of The Mississippi Bubble in France in as straightforward a way as I could find:

The Mississippi Bubble is not the best of the Landmark books I’ve read, but it’s a worthwhile introduction to the history of Louisiana and New Orleans and Biloxi with a lot of economic history throw in. John Law is the villain of the piece, and Bienville is the hero. And the Native Americans and the black slaves? Marginal and mostly disregarded or stereotyped.

Other books about the early history (antebellum) of Louisiana and the Mississippi delta region:
The French Explorers in America by Walter Buehr
The Explorations of Pere Marquette by Jim Kjelgaard.
LaSalle And The Grand Enterprise by Jeannette Covert Nolan.
The Louisiana Purchase by Robert Tallant.
The Pirate Lafitte and the Battle of New Orleans by Robert Tallant.

Fiction:
Minn of the Mississippi by Holling C. Holling.
Swift Rivers by Cornelia Meigs.

Peter Stuyvesant by Anna and Russel Crouse

The Landmark series of history books, published by Random House in the 1950’s and 1960’s, were a series of American history books written by such famous and talented authors as John Gunther (best-selling author and journalist), Mackinlay Kantor (Pulitzer Prize winner), Sterling North (Newbery honor), Armstrong Sperry (Newbery Award winner), Robert Penn Warren (Pulitzer Prize winner), Pearl S. Buck (Nobel Prize for Literature), Jim Kjelgaard, Quentin Reynolds (World War II reporter), Van Wyck Mason (historian and best-selling novelist) and C.S. Forrester. There were 122 titles in all. For any upper elementary or middle school age student trying to get a handle on American history, these books are the gold standard.

My plan is to read as many of these Landmark American history books as I can over the course of this school year, since I am teaching American history to or exploring American history with my youngest child, age 14, this year. Z-baby will be reading some of these books with me, and I’ll be reading others on my own. I’m excited to be able to do this project and enjoy these “living” history books written by skilled historians and authors.

Peter Stuyvesant is the biography of a man, the Dutch governor of New Amsterdam, as well as the history of the founding and growth of a city, New York City. I learned about Mr. Stuyvesant’s famous wooden leg, the result of his having his leg blown off by a cannonball on St. Martin’s Island in the Caribbean. After having recovered from his injury and being fitted with a wooden leg with silver bands around it, Stuyvesant married his long-suffering wife Judith and took her to New Amsterdam where he was appointed to serve as governor by the directors of the Dutch West India Company. These investors were still waiting for their investment in a colony in the “new world” to pay off, and Peter Stuyvesant was just the man to take charge and make sure that the furs (money) began to roll into the coffers of the company.

According to the authors, Stuyvesant was a mostly good governor, if somewhat dictatorial, and he fell in love with New Amsterdam and the New World. He attempted, with some success, to keep the peace with both the Native Americans and the English to the north and south, in Massachusetts and Virginia. He made and enforced laws that brought prosperity to the Dutch settlement and its burghers until 1664 when Stuyvesant was forced to surrender the colony to British warships off the coast of Manhattan.

Students in New York and bordering states should find this story especially interesting since it’s really a history of early New York City and Manhattan Island in particular. And because NYC to some degree belongs to us all, the rest of the country might want to know where the place names we’re all familiar with—Wall Street, The Bowery, Coney Island, Sandy Hook, Flatbush, Harlem–came from. All Dutch.

On June 28, 1945, Anna Erskine married Russel Crouse, the playwright who, with his longtime partner Howard Lindsay, wrote such Broadway hits as State of the Union and Life With Father. Mr. Crouse was 23 years Anna’s senior. They had two children, the actress Lindsay Crouse, who was married for a time to playwright David Mamet, and the writer Timothy Crouse. Russell Crouse died in 1966, and Ann died at the age of 97 on December 29, 2013. The couple wrote this Landmark history book about Peter Stuyvesant and the history of old New Amsterdam and also another, Hamilton and Burr.