Benjamin Franklin and Phineas Taylor Barnum were both visionary men in their right. One was the ideal role model and a pioneer of multiple industries, while the other was a born entertainer. They lived in different eras, the 18th and 19th centuries respectively, but the same thing united them both. Without question, both men were the embodiment of the American dream. Their autobiographies tell the tales of men who were ahead of their time. This essay analyzes both autobiographies as the plot thickens and compares them both. In so doing, the article will bring to the fore changes in the American society between the 18th and 19th centuries. Finally, the climax of the article will elucidate major themes (as portrayed by Barnum’s book) present in the antebellum era.
The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin is rife with faults. The book was essentially pasted together out of a myriad of segments written in three different countries in three different zeitgeists. The content can be tedious and one gets the impression of arrogance from the tone. The stark absence of the American Revolution amplifies the flaw (Franklin 187). To a man like Benjamin Franklin, absence or complete omission of the revolution period comes as a rude shock to the reader, especially if to consider his acuity to detail and his literary skill.
The autobiography is an American literary holy grail and an endearing classic. The American Dream owes its existence to the structure set forth by Ben Franklin in the autobiography. Inherent virtues of the dream like hard work and good work ethic, precipitating the rise-from-rags-to-riches story, are enshrined in this book.
In true Benjamin Franklin’s fashion, the autobiography was the first of its kind. The book was born at a time of no autobiographies as a literary form. The only book that could come close was the Bible. His book was a renaissance all on its own. It forged a new literal world and set ground rules for autobiographies. Thanks to his book, autobiographies now follow the regimen of enriching lives by telling true stories of someone’s life. Acclaimed classics such as Frederick Douglass’ ‘Narrative’ were able to exist because of the Ben’s literary work. His book features Part Two that is a template for the modern day self-help books. Prior to that, his articulation of virtues and how to achieve these virtues have helped generations of readers for the last two centuries.
Of all the reasons outlined earlier that make the book iconic two hundred years later, the fact that it captures the reader’s imagination of the 18th century is the most important. The influx of intellectualism characterizes the zeitgeist. Often known as the Age of Reason, the book (in Part Two) outlines scientific inventions, as well as thought and political paradigm shifts that formed the fabric of the time.
P.T. Barnum’s book, to some extent, traces the same outline that Ben Franklin’s autobiography embeds. It portrays a man who rose from nothing and against insurmountable odds made something of himself. Uniquely, it tries to educate and enrich lives, yet it contrasts the two books. The Life of P.T. Barnum written by himself is as outrageous as the title and the author. It is an entertaining ‘tell-all’, which chronicles Barnum’s escapades and frauds of grandiose. It brings to the fore the gullibility of the public against the backdrop of an over-zealous publishing and mass media industry. Aside from obvious entertainment, which is a value of the stories weaved by a born salesperson and expert storyteller, the book paints a picture of the 19th century in America. It portrays people as hungry for any form of entertainment in their pursuit to free themselves from boredom or to seek some thrill. The confessional book may have wrought problems for Burnam, but it lived up to its creator’s legacy: it was intensely captivating. The book tells the story of his sensational publicity stunts intended to popularize his amusements, for example, the self-proclaimed ‘Greatest Show on Earth’ and Joice Heth, the near-immortal 161-year-old nurse, presented to the venerable George Washington (Reiss 141).
Both books were pioneers in their literary forms. The autobiography of Ben Franklin was the first self-help book, while The Life of P.T. Barnum written by himself was the first ‘Tell-All’. The books also reveal a unifying quality of both men: they were both political leaders. Barnum was the mayor of Bridgeport until publication of his book revealing his deceits, thus leading to unending pressure from critics. Both men had a publishing history with Franklin working for a printer in England and later owning a publication company. P.T Barnum was a newspaper editor at some point in his industrious life. Both books tell a story of men who managed to move from mediocre lives to positions of influence and popularity through immense work ethic. Both books are more or less a conglomeration of separate parts and versions. Both men wrote their books. Although both men differ on how they succeeded, the books are instrumental for the sustenance of the American Dream.
The significant difference of both books lies squarely in the difference in character of both men. Ben Franklin was all for virtue and curiosity and for discovering ways to make life better. The other man is attributed a saying “a sucker is born every minute.” He preyed on people’s curiosities to produce lucrative effects and his showmanship was his only showmanship. However, reading the books reveals an understated difference. The reader slowly conceptualizes that the American society of the 18th century (Ben Franklin’s era) was a tad different from the 19th century generation.
P.T Barnum, a shrewd businessman that he was, made this observation and proceeded to make a living of it. He writes, “It is a trading world. Men, women and children who cannot live on gravity alone need something else to fulfill their gay and light hours. He who satisfies this want is in a business written by the author of our nature.” The essence of this phrase captures the societal change between the two centuries. What P.T Barnum was saying was that America was moving away from a scientific obsession.
More and more people frowned upon inventions and scientific breakthroughs (in this case, the Newton’s gravity) and they needed something to grip their attention. Science was losing its spell-grip. It was losing its magic. In the Barnum’s era, science was now an exclusive thing for intellectuals and scientists. Men, women, and children with less to think about (the majority) needed their curiosities satiated by something else.
Ben Franklin’s era comes off as somber and boring. Even his book seems to be condescending and stifling (Franklin 66-340). It paints a picture of a generation that was hell-bent on following rules and being a virtuous lot. Of course, this was well-intended, but one is spoilt for choice between the two eras. The 18th century was the platform, the launching pad for the modern day technology and science. In history, it was a chapter when America and the American story began. This zeitgeist is intriguing, but admittedly boring. It was all work and no play.
With science ceding its exclusive attention of people, art could finally make its entrance into the scene. Art comes with theatre and theatre breeds imagination and awe. Science was still awe-inspiring, but in the 19th century the majority of people loved ideas more than empiricism. They were more open to wonder. They could enjoy the luxury until the beginning of the antebellum era. Adapting to the public’s incessant interest for the unusual, Barnum traversed the world for the bizarre. Anything that was dead, living, genuine, or fake met the threshold so long as it could pique an audience’s interest.
>Industrialization and social stratification were a significant antebellum theme. The gap between the rich and the poor became more apparent and wide (Dudley 125). With industrialization, there came cultural changes and an emerging social class appeared. The middle class had the economic power to buy things. They did not have to produce them themselves and this freed their time to engage in other activities. Such activities included going to the theatre or the Barnum’s museum.
Barnum had to change his brand from a freak show (Reiss 84) to an artistic maestro in line with his audience’s (middle-class) needs. The theatre scene itself was morphing into a more decorous form of entertainment, churning ideals of sobriety and honor. Barnum made a living from understanding the zeitgeist and adapting to it. The fact that he risked economic annihilation by importing a Swedish Soprano is a true indicator of the times he was living in. This is a sufficient evidence of the antebellum America.