Chapter One: P. T. BARNUM: Commercial Pleasure and the Creation of a Mass Audience
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21 In the nineteenth-­century United States, P. T. Barnum’s name evoked the most wonderful, bizarre, and extravagant exhibits that could be devised by art or nature. “Barnum” was a byword for the new form of commodified pleasure that drew on the nation’s economic and geopolitical ambitions. More specifically, Barnum built an entertainment empire out of the raw materials of the national obsessions with race, gender, and cultural identity, obsessions he both shared and apparently embodied. His success hinged on his associating his enterprises with himself, and in creating those associations he pioneered modern advertising practices and generated a new discourse of self-­ referentiality.1 He also managed to attract considerable attention to himself as the man behind Barnum’s American Museum, Jenny Lind’s American tour, and many other popular attractions. Celebrity enlarges Barnum’s public presence, so that he finds himself in the unequal position of being known by those he does not know. He demonstrates this experience in an episode from his autobiography Struggles and Triumphs (1855): If I showed myself about the Museum or wherever else I was known, I found eyes peering and fingers pointing at me, and could frequently overhear the remark , “There’s Barnum.” On one occasion soon after my return, I was sitting in the ticket-­ office reading a newspaper. A man came and purchased a ticket of admission. “Is Mr. Barnum in the Museum?” he asked. The ticket-­ seller, pointing to me, answered, “This is Mr. Barnum.” Supposing the gentleman had business with me, I looked up from the paper. “Is this Mr. Barnum?” he asked. “It is,” I replied. He stared at me for a moment, and then, throwing down his ticket, exclaimed, “It’s all right; I have got the worth of my money”; and away he went, without going into the Museum at all!2 The purveyor of so many human curiosities became a curiosity himself, on par with the dwarves, plate spinners, “savage Indians,” and other human oddities and freaks he puts on display. Barnum is unable to set the terms of his own display as he does with his exhibits, however, and it is not clear exactly what the observer sees when he stares at Barnum. Chapter 1 �������������� P. T. BARNUM Commercial Pleasure and the Creation of a Mass Audience 22  chapter one Barnum’s reputation owed as much to his promotional strategies as to the entertainments he produced, and he was often criticized for the extravagantly misleading advertising claims that earned him the epithet “humbug.” He was especially proficient in generating newspaper puffs. As with most of his business endeavors, Barnum did not invent the puff, but he pressed the limits of the form. He defends his work as “the world’s way”: If my “puffing” was more persistent, my advertising more audacious, my posters more glaring, my pictures more exaggerated, my flags more patriotic and my transparencies more brilliant than they would have been under the management of my neighbors, it is not because I had less scruple than they, but more energy, far more ingenuity, and a better foundation for such promises . In all this, if I cannot be justified, I at least find palliation in the fact that I presented a wilderness of wonderful, instructive and amusing realities of such evident and marked merit that I have yet to learn of a single instance where a visitor went away from the Museum complaining that he had been defrauded of his money. (ST 43) The key word in this passage is “more”: Barnum represents himself as a man whose tendencies to excess reveal the characteristics of his times. He conveys the “go-­ ahead” spirit of the Jacksonian free market. As Bluford Adams notes, “Barnum was well aware of his own symbolic importance to middle-­ class masculinity .”3 Is this what the visitor saw when he gazed up at Barnum—­ the living embodiment of the zeitgeist? or did he regard Barnum as he would all of the showman’s exhibits, as a curiosity or freak of nature? In any case, the encounter between the observer and his object is defined in purely economic terms, as satisfaction for money well spent. The observer experiences the celebrity as a product of the marketplace. Through monetary exchange the observer “consumes” the celebrity figure in the sense that he obtains proximity to the celebrity that enables him to satisfy certain personal desires for and about Barnum. Who is Barnum? Seeking the answer to this question, the...