Picks and Pans Review: P.t.barnum: America's Greatest Showman

UPDATED 10/02/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 10/02/1995 at 01:00 AM EDT

by Philip B. Kunhardt, Jr., Philip B. Kunhardt III and Peter W. Kunhardt

If hucksters had a patron saint, it would be PT. Barnum, a larger-than-life figure who, while broke, lectured on money-making, passed off a dead monkey as the "Fejee Mermaid" and had his obituary published before his death. Such bravado made Barnum perhaps the finest American practitioner of the art of self-promotion (sorry, Donald).

This richly detailed and captivating biography suggests that Barnum more or less invented show business, combining his instinct for spectacle with a mastery of publicity. At 16 he was swindling customers in his father's country store, tuning up for future successes exhibiting such hoaxes as the "161-year-old slave" (she was in her 70s), the incredible "Man-Monkey" (a dwarf) and Tom Thumb (a growth-stunted 4-year-old). His popularization of the circus was the crowning achievement in a life dedicated to entertainment, a precious commodity in Barnum's Civil War-dominated times.

Issued in conjunction with an upcoming Discovery Channel documentary, this biography is assembled with obvious affection for its subject. Insight into Barnum's drive is spotty, but the book's vivid charm derives from its more than 500 spooky Victorian-era photos and engravings. The great showman himself would have approved of its exultation of his legacy as a hustler who "came to embody an important part of the American spirit." (Knopf, $45)"

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