P. T. Barnum was the Prince of Humbugs. He sold what amounted to nothing to the public and made his customers feel it was worth every penny. He hawked “curiosities” — albinos, giants, midgets, “fat boys,” jugglers, magicians, and “exotic women.” He defended these hoaxes or “humbugs” as “advertisements to draw attention . . . to the Museum. I don’t believe in duping the public, but I believe in first attracting and then pleasing them.” For him, hype was no problem; it was bald-faced deception that rankled him (since, of course, it would only hurt his business).
Barnum distinguished himself from the real con artists in The Humbugs of the World. He describes Grizzly Adams’ bears, the Davenport Brothers’ spiritualism, Mr. Pease’s Horehound Candy, Benjamin Brandreth’s Sarsparilla Pills, Joanna Southcott‘s prophesies, and Robert Matthews’ elaborate religious cons (you may also know him through his most famous follower/slave, Isabella, a.k.a. Sojourner Truth). The most amazing example he describes is the Miscegenation hoax. The pamphlet was a fraud — a complete fiction created by the then-Democratic party to ruin the anti-Slavery platform and the Republican party candidate, Abraham Lincoln, in the 1864 election.
The circus came late in Barnum’s career. That’s when he built the Hippodrome. But in America’s centennial year, the building didn’t house “the greatest show on Earth.” Instead, it hosted a Dwight L. Moody revival. In the midst of New York City’s surging unemployment and inflation, increasing domestic violence and drunkenness, Moody came to Madison Avenue.
So did 150 policemen, 500 ushers, 1200 choir members, and 1000s of listeners. Reporters saw lawyers, doctors, scientists, presidential press agents, clergy, and pickpockets in attendance. Now, it wasn’t until the Chicago revivals to follow that Moody, near the end of that stint, invented a special Prostitute night. You’ve heard of Goldfish Sunday? Well, this was a little different.
Bruce Evensen describes it all. In New York, street vendors sold counterfeit Moody and Sankey pictures for five and ten cents each to people who had never seen the revivalists’ faces! The Times reported that $40,000 was spent on the revival — two-thirds of a million in today’s dollars. Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, and Episcopalians came. All entered through Barnum’s big doors . . . on Madison Avenue.
In the midst of Barnum’s sawdust, the press puffery, the teeming masses, and the fake merchandising, here was Moody’s forehead-poundingly-ironic message:
We have to sink the self. We have to get our eyes off these things and toward the Cross.
Surprisingly, Moody’s pitch is not much different from Barnum’s. Evensen, too, connects the Revivalist Moody and the Humbug Barnum. Go read it for yourself. Both cut their professional eyeteeth in sales — Moody pushing shoes, Barnum Bibles. Both advertised aggressively. Both get lampooned by Harper’s. Both advertised aggressively. Both used the press skillfully. And the success of both “enterprises,” it seems, depends on the same suspending of the self.
Let me explain it another way. . . . We visited Walt Disney World this summer. Enjoying the whole park through the eyes of a 3.5 year old and a 1 year old is a scream although the heat, the crowds, and the prices do tarnish the fun. Grant and I tried our best to keep our 30-something sarcasm at bay, and Disney does pretty well at curing the Gen-X jaundice with attractions like Soarin’.
I still get the most giggles when Disney’s slip is showing — The Tiki Room and the Carousel of Progress, for instance. When you enter those now-quaint attractions, you have to work a little harder at enjoying the illusion. You have to give up more of your 21st-century sensibilities to enjoy the squawking toucans and corny humor of the jerky animatronics. With both Soarin’ and the Tikis, for the illusion to work, you have to give in to the fantasy. You have to detach yourself from reality. You have to let yourself go or, as some might even say, “sink the self.”
When Dorothy opens the curtain and confronts the Humbug, when you MST3K your way through Disney’s vision of the future, when the individual dialectically stands face-to-face with the corporation, when the sunlight shines on the smoke and mirrors, there’s no more “self to sink” since the humbug is sinking pretty fast on its own.
That’s why, when we’re in the middle of the humbug and working so hard at “sinking the self,” we might get a little peeved at the yappy Toto (who cares very little for humbug) as he races to pull back the curtain on the Great Oz. It’s startling and disconcerting and even disappointing to see the humbug for what it really is.
[tags]Fundamentalism, Dwight L. Moody, P.T. Barnum, Wizard of Oz, Humbugs[/tags]