Phineas Taylor Barnum a.k.a. P.T. Barnum and Mark Twain

Last summer, I had the delight of waiting for a train… yes, Delight. Never thought I’d ever say waiting for a train was a delight because I have zero tolerance for waiting, least of all a train on a rarely used set of tracks. Let me also state I have a keen interest in trains: old trains, toy trains, history of trains, train commerce, train movies, train rides, train stories, train songs. The only thing I don’t like is being trained, again my tolerance issue comes into play. The significance of trains in the world today is seldom considered, but impacts our daily lives. My town has 40-daily trains traveling north and south. One of the largest ports in the United States is only a few miles from my home, here in Illinois, and it’s not in Chicago. This is due to trains. Yet here I was, in a rush to get to someplace, so important I don’t recall, and this obscure set of crossing gates begin to flash and obstruct my route. Behold, a Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus train!

Talk about memories of my youth and history. I could go on for hours. I think I was about 8 or 9 when I saw my first circus. My grandmother and I rode the bus for about 45-minutes, to see the “Greatest Show on Earth.” And it was. I’ve seen them all, and this was. If you don’t believe me, ask my grandmother. She’d tell you, if she could.

Elephants, lions and tigers, “Oh my!” Highwire, trapeze, clowns, candy, horses, and the impossibility of watching everything happening in three rings at once. It’s amazing how many thoughts we can generate in a few seconds and then I recalled Sam Clemens was a personal friend of P.T. Barnum. Barnum, who was renown for his exaggeration, hoaxes, and self promotion. In many ways, Clemens would mimic some of Barnum’s qualities, and eventually, Sam’s extraordinary exaggerations, tall-tales, and hoaxes, would become synonymous with the name Mark Twain. Clemens often included Barnum’s character and curiosities into his writings. Clemens writes in Following the Equator of Barnum attempting to buy Shakespeare’s birthplace. Clemens twists on the famous Siamese Twins, Eng and Chang Bunker, are hilarious. Clemens admired Barnum’s use of advertising, and emulates some of P.T.’s thoughts in his own promotional pieces and states ,“Many a small thing has been made large  by the right type of advertising.” – [Hank Morgan] – Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.

One of my favorite books to read to young audiences is Twain’s story, “The Stolen White Elephant,” illustrated by internationally-renown illustrator Robert Ingpen. The story is a burlesque of detective fiction about the kidnapping of Jumbo the white elephant. The Pinkerton Detectives are hopelessly following clues left by Jumbo, and the mischief caused by Jumbo is bewildering. The illustrations are spectacular, the story is gorgeous. This book is the book I recommend to youth librarians for summer-reading.  

The story opens: “The following curious history was related to me by a chance railway acquaintance. He was a gentleman more than seventy years of age, and his thoroughly good and gentle face and earnest and sincere manner imprinted the unmistakable stamp of truth upon every statement which fell from his lips.”

If you only read one Mark Twain short story this spring, I recommend you read this one. Please comment here after reading.

Don’t take my word on this, you may think you know me, but you don’t.  Sam said, “Always tell the truth, to people who deserve it.”

What will I think of the next time I’m waiting for a passing train? Maybe, I am in training…..

Looking forward to my next circus!

Mark Twain circus quotes:

Mr. Roosevelt is the Tom Sawyer of the political world of the twentieth century; always showing off; always hunting for a chance to show off; in his frenzied imagination the Great Republic is a vast Barnum circus with him for a clown and the whole world for audience; he would go to Halifax for half a chance to show off and he would go to hell for a whole one. 

- Mark Twain in Eruption

Celebrity is what a boy or a youth longs for more than for any other thing. He would be a clown in a circus; he would be a pirate, he would sell himself to Satan, in order to attract attention and be talked about and envied. True, it is the same with every grown-up person; I am not meaning to confine this trait to the boys.

- Autobiography of Mark Twain

When I was a boy, there was but one permanent ambition among my comrades in our village on the west bank of the Mississippi River. That was, to be a steamboatman. We had transient ambitions of other sorts, but they were only transient. When a circus came and went, it left us all burning to become clowns; the first negro minstrel show that came to our section left us all suffering to try that kind of life; now and then we had a hope that if we lived and were good, God would permit us to be pirates. These ambitions faded out, each in its turn; but the ambition to be a steamboatman always remained.

- Life on the Mississippi

Jumbo and Matthew ScottLINK to Jumbo

LINK to Story – “The Stolen White Elephant”

LINK to NY Times story about Jumbo and PT Barnum

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