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E Pluribus Barnum

The Great Showman and the Making of U.S. Popular Culture

1997
Author:

Bluford Adams

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The first book to consider the career of P. T. Barnum from a cultural studies perspective.

In the 1800s, Phineas Taylor Barnum created show business as we know it. In this fascinating work, Bluford Adams investigates the influence Barnum had on American popular culture of the nineteenth century, and expands our understanding of the ways he continues to influence us today.

E Pluribus Barnum makes an critical contribution to both our understanding of Barnum and of nineteenth century U.S. popular culture.

David Roediger, University of Minnesota

Phineas Taylor Barnum lived from 1810 until 1891, and in the eighty-one years of his life he created show business as we know it. In E Pluribus Barnum, Bluford Adams investigates the influence Barnum had on American popular culture of the nineteenth century, and expands our understanding of the ways he continues to influence us today.

Beginning with a discussion of Barnum’s early shows, Adams demonstrates the dynamic interplay between Barnum’s increasingly “respectable” aspirations for his entertainments and his active cultivation of middle-class sensibilities in his audiences. In his discussion of the 1850-51 concert tour of the “Swedish Nightingale” Jenny Lind, Adams explores the role played by women’s rights and class issues in Barnum’s management of these concerts. Barnum’s American Museum and the “moral dramas” presented in its theater (which included a play of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) are examined in the context of debates about slavery and temperance. The later circuses are discussed in terms of their international pageants and their staging of orientalism through racial exhibitions.

Adams relates the rise of Barnum to the emergence of a new U.S. society, one riven by conflicts over slavery, feminism, immigration, and capitalism. He documents Barnum’s efforts to negotiate those conflicts by steadily remaking his amusements and his public image. E Pluribus Barnum examines Barnum’s shifting political allegiances for what they tell us about American culture at the time, examines the audiences he created, and considers his career as a crucial moment in the ongoing struggle over the politics of U.S. commercial entertainments.

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Bluford Adams is an assistant professor in the Department of English at the University of Iowa.

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The results of Adams’s exploration of Barnum and of his contribution to urban commercial culture—seen against the emergence of new United States society with its concomitant conflicts over such issues as feminism, slavery, immigration, class, and capitalism—are both impressive and stimulating. Adams provides a unique and important contribution to American cultural studies of the nineteenth century and a very significant addition to the literature on Barnum and popular culture.

Journal of American History

Adams dexterously weaves together much new information on Barnum and nineteenth-century popular culture. Adams’s book is a pleasure to read. The book grants an accessible and valuable introduction to the prehistory of the American mass culture which would come to dominate the world in the twentieth century.

Modernism/Modernity

E Pluribus Barnum makes an critical contribution to both our understanding of Barnum and of nineteenth century U.S. popular culture.

David Roediger, University of Minnesota

Bluford Adams has made a valuable addition to our understanding of urban commercial culture and to the history of its leading star, P.T. Barnum.

Peter Buckley, Cooper Union Institute for the Advancement of Science and the Arts

At the heart of Adams’ argument is the assertion that the spectacles’ wide appeal allowed Barnum’s special mixture of ‘high culture’ aspirations and commercialism to contribute directly to the then-evolving class structure in America. An exploration of Barnum’s sometimes dubious role in (and continuing impact on) crucial social issues such as women’s rights and race and exploitation that is long overdue.

Library Journal

Disdaining a standard biographical approach, Adams clearly explores both P.T. Barnum’s presentation of public amusements and the social and political factors that ushered in ‘Barnumesque culture.’

Choice

Sophisticated new contribution. A compact but carefully-researched book. E Pluribus Barnum is a wonderfully conceived and executed book, one of the very best on nineteenth-century American popular culture to appear in recent years. Adams’s readings of the nineteenth-century documents are consistently subtle and illuminating, regardless of whether the document in question is an advertisement, a press review, and autobiographical passage, or an exhibition. This book sets a high standard not only for future Barnum scholarship, but also for histories of American mass culture in any time period.

American Quarterly