Charles Baxter looks at The Life of P. T. Barnum

January 09, 2011

He knew that spiritual peacefulness, a calm in the soul (we would also call it "self-possession"), was largely missing in the American experience and that this absence derived, as he notes, from "a practicalness which is not commendable." […]

Barnum knew that America was a nation of believers who, thanks to their pragmatism, didn't actually believe in much of anything, although they said that they did. This cultural setup created a variety of believers without anything to believe in, a vacancy that he filled with wonders in his American Museum, housing dioramas, cameleopards, and a miniature model of Niagara Falls with real water.

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