P.T. Barnum and Ragtime

 

"Mrs. Stuyvesant Fish", writes E.L.Doctorow,"had...engaged for the evening the entire sideshow of the Barnum and Bailey circus. She liked to shock fuddy-duddies"(pg. 27).P.T. Barnum's impact on American society, exemplified in this passage, provides a heavy undertone for Ragtime..Doctorow uses both Barnum's freaks and the idea of freak shows in general to show America's twisted hunger for shock and spectacle.

Later in the novel the author writes, "...the real excitement was in the attractions the adults would not dream of patronizing: the freak shows...They were too shrewd to express their desires"(pg.220).The implication here, of course, is that everyone was curious to see the freaks; perhaps some cared not to admit this fascination, but curiosity permeated society nontheless. Ragtime's freaks sound as if they are straight out of Barnum's strange collection: "...the Bearded Lady,the SiameseTwins...the Six-Hundred-Pound-Woman.It was this behemoth who stirred on her stool and quivered...the great gardens of her flesh closed and opened...as she spread her arms..."(pg. 220).

P.T. Barnum's memoirs includes similar passages on the freaks with whom he was fascinated and who ultimately lead to his gigantic successas America's grand hoaxster. One recollection in particular involves Joice Heth, reportedly a 161 year old woman still living in the year 1835.

Barnum includes a newspaper advertisement introducting this marvel: "...citizens...have an opportunity of wittnessing...one of the greatest natural curiosities ever wittnessed...Joice Heth, a negress aged161 years, who formally belonged to the father of Gen. Washington..."(Barnum,pg.148).Here we see the unfortunate dehumanization of a person. Heth is characterized as a thing, not a being. Even Barnum himself is taken with the attraction. Almost gleefully, he states, "...she might almost as well have been called a thousand years old..."(Barnum, pg. 148).

Science and truth -whether Heth could have possibly been 161 years old- had no bearing on society's curiosity with freaks. It did not matter if the outlandish claims were false; the important factors included appearance, presentation, and hype. Doctorow recognizes this shock factor; the direct reference to P.T. Barnum's circus highlights this sociological pastime.

 

Joice Heth (second from right)

 

Additionally, Ragtime recalls Tom Thumb, perhaps one of Barnum's most famous freakish attractions. This dwarf came to Barnum's attention in 1842, immediately exciting the hoaxster's zest for providing the public with spectacle. Like Joice Heth, Tom Thumbs' worth rested almost solely on his shock value. Barnum blatantly admits his inability to consider Tom Thumb anything other than a showcase: "I was, and yet am, sincerely attached to him and I candidly believe him...to be the most interesting and natural curiosity of which the world has any knowledge"(Barnum,pgs. 244-245).

Doctorow incorporates Tom Thumb's infamy,even many years after his death, with the appearance of his midget widow,LaviniaThumb: "She was two feet tall...Her voice had deepened with age and now she spoke in the tones of a normal twenty year old girl"(pg.29). The author also writes, "[she] was dressed in a magnificant gown supplied by Mrs.Fish: it was supposed to be a joke on Mrs. Fish's nemesis, Mrs. William Astor,who had worn the identical design the previous spring"(pg.28). Despite all her widowed eminence, Lavinia Thumb remains a sideshow to the general public.

 

P.T. Barnum with Tom and Livinia Thumb (center)

 

Tom and Lavinia Thumb are also recognized towards the end of Ragtime. One of the novel's fictional characters, Mother, views her young son sitting beside his female playmate through Barnum's eyes:"Mother saw them as the bride and groom in a characteristic grade-school exercise of the era, the Tom thumb wedding"(pg. 216).

 

Finally, one cannot pass over Ragtime's obvious connections between freaks and the infamous American escape artist, Harry Houdini.