Book Review | Barnum: An American Life

Book Review

P. T. Barnum is as quintessentially American as Cornelius Vanderbilt or Andrew Carnegie. Most of us grew up at least being able to recognize the Barnum & Bailey’s animal crackers box or listening to ads for the circus on the television or radio a hundred years after P. T. Barnum actually lived. He is an American legend and his life is fascinating.

(All reviews are spoiler-free unless otherwise noted.)


(From Goodreads) P. T. Barnum was the greatest showman the world has ever seen: the cocreator of the Barnum & Bailey Circus and the man who made worldwide sensations of Jumbo the Elephant, General Tom Thumb, and the “Swedish Nightingale,” Jenny Lind. He was the champion of wonder, joy, trickery, and “humbug.” He was, as Barnum argues, one of the most important Americans of the nineteenth century.

Nearly 125 years after his death, the name P. T. Barnum still inspires wonder. Robert Wilson’s vivid new biography captures the full genius, infamy, and allure of the ebullient showman. From birth to death, Phineas Taylor Barnum repeatedly reinvented himself. He learned as a young man how to wow crowds, and built a fortune that placed him among the first millionaires in the United States. He also suffered tragedy, bankruptcy, and fires that destroyed his life’s work, yet willed himself to rebuild and succeed again. As an entertainer, Barnum courted controversy time and again throughout his life—yet he was also a man of strong convictions, guided in his work not by a desire to deceive but an eagerness to thrill and bring joy to his audiences. He almost certainly never uttered the infamous line, “There’s a sucker born every minute,” instead taking pride in giving crowds their money’s worth and more.

Robert Wilson, editor of The American Scholar, tells a gripping story in Barnum, one that’s imbued with the same buoyant spirit as the man himself. Wilson adeptly makes the case for P. T. Barnum’s place among the icons of American history, as a figure who represented, and indeed created, a distinctly American sense of optimism, industriousness, humor, and relentless energy.


Whether you recognize his name from the circus or the animal crackers or The Greatest Showman or P. T. Flea from A Bug’s Life, odds are you have heard of P. T. Barnum. When I was in college, studying American history in Boston, I got a taste of the real Barnum. And, for better or for worse, none of those things provide an accurate representation of the real Barnum. Just ask everyone who made me watch The Greatest Showman – which, to be fair is a good movie – how many times I mentioned the inaccuracies (that drinking song would never have happened because Barnum was a teetotaler). And that was before I read Barnum: An American Life.

There were a few things I knew about Barnum from my history classes – like that he supported both abolition and prohibition – but I definitely learned a lot about him from this book. And he was fascinating, and kind of brilliant. I think Robert Wilson did a great job of representing Barnum and who he was as a person. Even though Barnum definitely earned his reputation as being a trickster, I came away kind of respecting him for it. Because he did it well, for the most part. There were definitely (more than) a few questionable business practices discussed in this book, but it was also the 19th century. It’s not like child workers were unheard of in America. Barnum, like so many other businessmen throughout our country’s history, found a niche, and exploited it as much as he could.

I’ve read a lot of biographies, and one of the hallmarks of a good one, at least to me, is that it’s well balanced. The good is right there with the bad. And Wilson pulls it off in this book. I had moments where I admired Barnum, and times when I was a little disgusted by him. But he was also really relatable. In a world where I have the guts to be ruthless, I don’t think it would be out of the realm of possibility for me to do what he did. And I’m sure there are a million people out there attempting it right now, most of them without Barnum’s charm. My final impression was that Barnum was a brilliant, albeit deeply flawed human. And that’s probably the most accurate representation of him I’ve seen.


★★★★☆ – I really enjoyed this book! It was interesting and well-thought out. If you’re interested in Barnum (or have seen The Greatest Showman and want a more realistic portrayal of him), I would definitely recommend it.

Side note: if you’d like an accurate representation of Barnum in fiction, I’d recommend either The Impossible Girl by Lydia Kang (though he’s not a major character) OR The Mermaid by Christina Henry (in which he plays a big role).

Barnum: An American Life will be available in bookstores August 6. You can preorder a copy on Amazon now.

To get the audiobook for free, use this link to sign up for a free trial of Audible and choose Barnum: An American Life as one of your two free books.

This book was provided to me by NetGalley and the publisher. All opinions are my own.

*This post contains affiliate links, which means I may get a small commission for purchases made through this post.*

5 thoughts on “Book Review | Barnum: An American Life

  1. This sounds really interesting. The Greatest Showman was entertaining but totally laughable in terms of any kind of historical accuracy. After watching it I definitely wanted to know the real story.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review! I didn’t know much about him or how inaccurate The Greatest Showman was until after the movie came out and my friend told me. The movie is certainly a romanticize version of him but I think was more focused on the music, which was brilliant. I’d probably read the biography now.

    Liked by 1 person

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