“Barnum and the Birth Rate” (E36)

  • Originally printed: The Forum, July 1923
  • First reprinted in: Never reprinted
  • Original Byline: Robert C. Benchley


Asserting that no one, not even English readers who derive all of their ideas from Dickens’ American Notes, has less insight into the mind and character of the “Average American” than the Average American, Benchley challenges popular delusions concerning Phineas T. Barnum’s status as a cultural exemplar. Deploring the tendency to place Barnum’s genius for manipulation on some imagined continuum with the legendary “shrewdness” of the foxy grandpas on Main Street, RCB argues that Americans are in fact the most easily stampeded herd of front-page fundamentalists ever assembled. For Benchley, Barnum is the American antitype, in that his achievements rested entirely on his perception of his fellow citizens’ passion for being led around by the headline. Observing fewer critical faculties in the ink swilling millions than in any illiterate mass of medieval peasants, the piece lays bare a despairing streak in Benchley that would find a full-throated outlet in “The Wayward Press” four year later.

The author does find a way to knit Barnum back into the American quilt before the end of the article, but only on the basis of the financial gullibility he demonstrated in losing his first fortune in the collapse of the Jerome Clock Company during the 1850s. But even here, Benchley discerns a difference between Barnum and the American “everyman”, whose eagerness to take up nearly any claptrapsical crusade he encounters in the papers is exceeded only by his terror of taking any single fellow being at their word. Barnum, for all of his misanthropic pronouncements against the masses, believed in his friends. Luckily for the momentarily embarrassed impresario, the reservoir of suckers remained to buoy up his bankbook throughout the succeeding decades.

Favourite Moment:
“To point to Barnum, however, as a ‘typical American’ is like pointing to a cat as a typical mouse. The ‘Typical American’ was Barnum’s meat.”

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