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tv   Robert Wilson Barnum  CSPAN  April 15, 2020 12:44pm-1:38pm EDT

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social media feed. c-span, created by private industry, america's cable-television company, as a public service and brought to you today by your television provider. >> robert wilson is with us today, courtesy of paul and heather hamilton. bob is the author of matthew brady, portrait of a nation and explore king, a biography of what it's getting. he's editor the american scholar, a former editorrg of preservation and the founding literary editor of civilization, a former book editor and columnist for "usa today" and the form editor at the "washington post", his essays,, reviews and fiction has appeared in numerous publications including the american scholar, the american short fiction, "the atlantic monthly," the new republic, the smithsonian, the "washington post" magazine, and
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the wilson quarterly. and on the op-ed opinion and book review pages of the "boston globe."he the "new york times", "usa today" and the "washington post." he lives in manassas virginia. please give a warm savannah welcome to robert wilson. [applause] >> thank you. i appreciate that introduction. i'm hoping your app works a lot better than the app that was done for the iowa caucuses. [laughing] i trust it will. you're probably actually tested it.
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and thanks to all of you for coming this morning on this cold morning. it's very pleasant to see soo many of you here. it's very pleasant to see c-span here and what you think c-span for all that does to support book culture in america. i would be tempted to say normally what remains of book culture in america, but on a day like today it's very easy to be optimistic about the state of books. books. i love being in savannah. my wife martha and i come here as often as we can and we live outside washington dc. and we have a in the panhandle of florida. we used to dread the 15 hour drive until we decided that we can stop off in savannah along the way and go for dinner and we look forward to the trip very much.
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as chris said, this is the third biography i've written. it is not really a trilogy. none at all. all three books are related to 19th century figures is careers were at the height of the middle of the 19th century. the first one was a book about an explorer named clarence king and it was nice and are doing out west and explored california in his early days. fans of major peaks and sierras and name some of them including mount whitney. later did a survey of the great basin. one of the great western surveys of the 19th century. one of the people who accompany him on that survey, was a very
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fine photographer named timothy sullivan. and he had worked with matthew brady, the civil war photographer who is also a portrait photographer new york. i started reading about brady and was thinking it wasn't really good book about brady and perhaps for good reason. i thought well, brady turned out to be kind of hard subject because he did not leave a lot of written material. he may have been illiterate actually. brady had a studio on lower broadway in manhattan. clinic at a quarter of the street from barnum american museum. and barnum american museum was one of the biggest tourist draw in the city of new york. at the time.
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and barnum took over what was a very kind of dusty old museum that had sort of mineral specimens and things like that. completely transformed it. he had flags flying from the roof and lights going up and down broadway. he had a band that was out of the balcony overlooking the street. the musicians were handpicked to be so bad that they would draw people into the museum. [laughter]. it was quite a lively place. brady the photographer was very successful but i couldn't help thinking of him as looking kind of longingly across the street at barnum's museum were so much was going on. and after a while began
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longingly looking across the street two. partly because barnum was in a way of a subject, sort of everything that brady was not. in that he wrote a wonderful autograph biography and he was just a lovely writer. he was an exuberant fellow. brady was thought to be or have a certain charm. his charm was kind of bringing people in. and seating them for the portraits and making them comfortable. but it was nothing like the boy it larger than life character that barnum was. so clarence king which led me to brady and brady led me to barnum. one other reason to think of this possible trilogy is because is probably my last biography for the very reason i just don't
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think there is a better subject than barnum. i've had so much fun spending years with him. i've been thinking about him or talking about him for six or seven years. this may be the last time i do that because i want to move on. one thing that led me to brady, or led me to barnum was working and brady was that he went around to talk to maybe 25 different opinions about brady and always had a picture or slideshow showing his photographs. and one of them was a photograph of barnum. i introduced the photograph. he has a phineas is slightly an
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amusing name. there was also i think something about the way barnum looked in his photographs. it's sort of middle-aged, he was rather handsome man early in his life and his wife that he was very handsome older men. but in midlife, maybe not so much. i'm just going to read a very brief story about barnum telling about himself in his autobiography which is he lived in bridgeport, connecticut and he was very much became very much a republican prout lincoln man. but douglas came through bridgeport to speak during the presidential campaign. in his against lincoln. one of his friends said, what
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you know about douglas. to which barnum replied, is a red nosed, clear eyed, dumpy chap. looking like a regular barroom local. to which is delighted friend responded, that morning's paper has said the douglas was a very image and personal appearance of pt barnum. [laughter]. signing the other reason that i would show the photograph of barnum would to various audiences would be this kind of chuckle, i think people feel like even to this day, that they know barnum on some level. and obviously the name barnum and bailey and the circus, it is a name that we've all known throughout her lifetime.
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it ended as you know, in 2017 but so there is that name has carried on of our knowledge of barnum descendent extent. i think we also know him because of one thing from his early part of his career as a museum order. the famous sign of this way to the egress. bejeweled and the story in school. he grasping the exit. people thought the egress was some fantastic beasts. and so they would fight follow the sign and find themselves on the street. [laughter]. and then they would have to pay another quarter to get back into the museum. that story is probably true. in the other story on the other think the real thing we know about barnum is that he said the
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phrase, there is a born every minute. that story is almost certainly false. it is hard to prove that something didn't happen. the barnum road i would take hundreds of thousands of words himself. at least that many and probably many more words were written about him. there's no sign anywhere that he ever said it. raven thought it. because to me the most persuasive argument against is having said that, is the relationship he began to develop with his mouth is museum goers, and inside is museum was a theater. so there were people who would go to melodramas and he would put on there. in the later in his circus
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career was really just the last quarter of his he was always very, very careful about his relationship with his audience. and he did not ever sort of overtly exploit them in a way that a sucker born every minute would suggest. after he bought the museum, he just spent enormous amounts of money to bring things in from all over the world, wild animals, objects, people of interest. and he continued to charge only a quarter, maybe a quarter twice if you follow the egress sign, and half of that, 12 and a half since, for children.
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his whole philosophy of this centers on as, word that is usea lot called humbug. he called himself the prince of humbugs. in today's world, the word humbug tendsds to mean somebody who exploits or tricks other people. but in his usage, he candid used the word come he defined the word to be what he did, which is he thought of humbug as creating some kind of a stir, hiding something to get publicity, get people in the building. but the crucial part of the idea of humbug was once you got been in then building or in the tent, they had to get much more than
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they bargained for. so if you brought them in under pretext, say, to see the remains of a mermaid, which was one of his famous exhibits, once they came in, they had to feel that when they were in the museum, well, maybe this isn't the remains ofbe a mermaid but there are all these other things here that we can see, and so people would go away happy. that's to me one of the really crucial things about how we should be thinking about barnum. barnum was not perfect, however. i have to say that in balance, i
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mean, he was wonderful company always for me, reading him. he was so witty and take a turn a phrase so well that i always enjoyed being in his company and i was often won over by him. one of the things that made him a great character to write about was that he wasn't perfect, like the rest of us, he was very imperfect. and one of the challenges and one of the things that really made the jump interesting day by day t for me was to think about the things he did in various contexts. one is, well, he may have done this, i then everybody did it in that day, that this was sort of a historical characteristic. you might think of his treatment of animals, which he was a very,
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very dedicated to bringing exotic animals to exhibit at his museum. it was often a grisly process to capture these animals, to ship them. .. robert: it was a process that involved the death of animals. in fact the smithsonian institution benefited from this thing that happened. barnum would often send the
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carcasses of bones to the smithsonian. they have an amazing collection of such things as a result. today, this is an unsavory event. and, it is one of the primary reasons why the circus in the barnum & bailey ringling circus went out of business. when they stopped exhibiting elephants, we stopped going to the circus ri. we have certain values, and there are other values at the time. have you way that into what or what you think of him. i am not a person who feels what i guess is called presentism that we have no reached a sort of state of perfection that we
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can look condescendingly on everyone who came before us. there are obviously ways in which our opinions about things like grace have evolved and even if they are far from the state of perfection, they are obviously better than the way they were then. so try it is hard as i could to give himld a break on the things that i felt were kind of related to the way people thought and his time. i also tried to think of him though as a man, and think about was he ever cruel to people. as a rule, i think he loved people. any treated people very well. and many of the people who worked for him, so-called freaks, often were very devoted
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veto him and very grateful to h. it was not very nice to his wife. i don't think that is something that we can give a historical perspective read he came from a culture and new england that was very much all about practical jokes. kind of playing tough jokes on people making people look silly and he often played jokes like that on hisis wife. and once after he had been in england for several years, he came home unexpectedly and hit a wife and two or three kids at the time. in fact, one of his daughters had died in the interim that he had not come back. he came back without announcing
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that he was coming and he sent somebody to tell his wife that she must come to the museum to find out some information about barnum and it was clear that she would think that he had died that someone had gotten notice of this. when she came and there was morning to greet her. and this is a great practical joke on her. i think the cruelty of that is self-evident. so it was really a matter of sort of going through his life and think through these things. maybe because i am a journalist, i seem to be focusing on the negative here. it was a person who brought incredible amount of joy to millions of people and was dedicated to that as well.
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in his essay, he was just such a great company. i think one of the things i would, being a journalist and wanting to focus on the negative, i would like to start of talk a little bit about his attitudes towards race. one of the things that was interesting to me about barnum's career for his life as a whole, he lived from 1810 - 1891. so he spanned the centuries most reamost. one of the things that i really admired him our came to admire about barnum was that he changed throughout his life. i felt he did. he became a better person did it
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is especially remarkable because he had a lot of success early on in his life. he became sort of notorious and he notorious. and he became quite famous. but i think about how few people who had success early in life, don't feel that it is sort of a reward for their own perfection as human o beings. how many people like that actually change and become better through their lives. barnum, a bit of a problem with the grape as they say. and he began to notice the people around him, that he
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respected were similarly inflicted. and eventually gave up drink. this was at the age i would say his late 30s. and became, and like all reformed people, he became a great advocate for temperance. and one thing that is really not known very widely about barnum essay became one of the really and most in demand temperance speakers of his day. and on a par with kerry nation. it hundreds of pre- temperance speeches. he gave them. in fact later in his life, when he would go out with the circus when the circus was on the road, he would often schedule these temperance speeches. because he was going to be in a
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town he had never been in before filing his partners to ask him to please stop doing that because of many people going to his speech rather than going to the circus that is hurting the intake there. so there was one way in which he changed his religious universals universalist. he was very opposed to sort of hard-core religion and very opposed to, while this was the day of sort of the great revivals and very opposed to any movement towards confusing the roles of church and state. in fact. at the age of 21, he started newspaper for the very purpose of fighting the idea of
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an religious party developing his part of connecticut's is the time i'm getting pretty far away from race but i will get back to it. as a result of his temperance speaking, he got to know a lot of the famous preachers of the day and they became friends of his. many of those who were also abolitionists. so they had in effect on what he wrote. in one of the first acts that's got barnum into the public eye and in some ways healed reputation the farmhouse to this day. one of the other ways that we know the name barnum is often if they an scrupulous seeming person, i won't name name any
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such person who achieved high office inhi this country, thered be people would be an were immediately slapped the barnum label and say, and it would not be a complementary label. thinking if a suspect in his first act. he did a lot of things in his teens and 20s and 30s. he started this newspaper, he ran lotteries, he had a dry good stores any work in them. when he was in his early 30s, he felt that his life's work should somehow have to do with being a showman with exhibiting acts. any at the time in a
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boardinghouse in a store in new york city. he read in the paper about an act that was on display in philadelphia. in a person who is associated with the acumen the store and talked with him about it. the act was a blind slave woman who reported to be 161 years old. to beo further claimed the nursemaid of george washington. and she would go around and she would tell stories about little george. and she would also seem sort of ancient sing them, nobody ever heard them before. by the way, i love this perspective. i feel like maybe i went into the wrong business. [laughter].
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but anyway, barnum hurried up hurried down to philadelphia from new york to see this woman whose name was joyce. and he was favorably impressed with the possibility that she could be quite old. he never admitted throughout his life as he often did about other things he did that he suspected that she was not 161 years old and the life expectancy for a white woman at the time was about 40 years old. i would dare say for slave woman, it was less. but anyway, she was blind, sort of cripple, one of her arms would not move but her tongue moved very well, she was ever
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guitar and spoke in a strong voice so barnum decided to end the people who she was supposedly owned by a person in kentucky. and some of the people had paid him for the right to exhibit her. but they wanted to get out of that business of barnum made an offer and brought her to new york after kind of creating a buzz in the c newspapers and ben to exhibitor. it went over very well. he took onto her through new england and at one point, when he got to boston, he became acquainted with b the man was famous for having displaying automatons. creations that were mechanical
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because somebody would maybe be in a box under the stage, would seem to talk and respond to questions. it occurred to him because the crowds and began to follow up for her, to plant a story newspaper saying that she was actually in time on, made out of indian rubber and gadgets and things like that. and sort of became a typical ploy for barnum he had an act. he would either create a kind of counter argument about the person or whatever is on display and then, sort of challenge audiences to come and see for themselves. if it was something in his museum, people may have paid once you go in and see this act whatever it was and then he
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would of course be encouraging come back again i do think you look theoo length of s career, one of the things that he knew that he was doing was it was not only people and would live lives that were pretty isolated, they you know, this was when he was born the telegram or telegraph had not been invented in the tote photograph the railroads were not running. and throughout his lifetime, people who lived in small villages like the one he was from, bethel, connecticut, get have more m access to the worldt large. i think one of the things that barnum did through his museum and his exhibits was to bring that world to people who are
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eager to knew more about it. in one of the ways i think one of the things hene was doing was he was challenging people teams are critical since an essay common or come and decide for yourself. so that is the sort of pretty part of this. in the case of this joyce half the seemed seems pretty awful, joyce was exhibited for a few more months and become static and she had died in barnum had an arrangement the surgeon in nw york to do an autopsy of her. the surgeon had been eager to sort of show that he had been a hoax.
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so barnum rented a big menu advertise and charged admission for this autopsy. apretty awful. he invited churches and things like outcome. and as it turns out, the preacher the surgeon i mean found that all of her organs were in good shape except for her lungs, she had died of tuberculosis. he felt that she could not have been more than 80 years old. this did not slow down barnum at all. he continued, he was not at all she grinned and this was the case and she needed to get various kinds of publicity. so this is barnum to me at his worst. there are other instances where
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he had racial views that were not that were terrible. as i say, this connection with these preachers and the temperance movement, his wife was a unitarian and very mucher against slavery and became more and more of an abolitionist. and became a republican, lincoln supporter, through the civil war he was very prounion and did lots of things is his museum. he exhibited like there was an exhibit of the hero of charleston, the union hero charleston. his name i am forgetting. robert something.
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he did a lot of things to support union cause and then after the war, he ran for the legislature in connecticut. he said that he wanted to do that to the sole purpose of voting for the 13th amendment which abolished slavery. he did and in one of his first acts, as a legislature, and he also gave a sort of dramatic and widely publicized speech in favor of giving the most to african-americans in connecticut which he argued in terms of the would not find particularly noble today but he was very much in favor of that and it didn't happen for many more years in connecticut but eventually the 14th amendment superseded that
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anyway so make a case in the book and became more enlightened about race. people in the reviews have pointed out that in 1860 at a point where i am arguing that he was becoming more enlightened that he exhibited a little person 4 feet tall black man he weighed about 50 pounds is the missingng link between charles dickens book had just come out, in 1859. and this was in 1860 he started exhibiting this man johnson. he put him in an ape suit. it is just awful read one of the things that was interesting was
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when he was exhibited there there would be a white man out front telling historian and how he had been found in africa or something. in the background, this man but sort of a mocking the white guy. i'm saying that don't really believe this. this is not really what is going on. it was sort of midnight mass in some way. barnum clearly probably encouraged it. barnum ended up building a house for this man in bridgeport and they were friends and reap member of barnum's life, ande. e went on to be exhibited to be seen by hundred million people into the 1920s.
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so that is another one that is sort of hard to to sort of think about it later barnum's life he got involved with the circus in the late late 1870s. in late 1880s, ian bailey, james bailey was the genius behind the circus, took the circus to england. they exhibited or they showed in a big building called olympia in kensington, is a huge building they had room for the three rings, a big track that went around it in the beginning of each day t performer, there were two performances a day.
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barnum would get into a fancy carriage with huntsman and matt to a team of horses he was slowly go around the ring. he would stop every so often and stand up and say, do you want to see barnum. ti am mr. barna he was supposedy said it would tip his hat everyone in the crowd and the women would waive their handkerchiefs and men would tip their hats back. he looked very much like as was pointed out to him by a member of the royal family, looked a lot like a, who didn't turn off his phone. it was sort of a tramp full moment. he was much loved. in the 1860s, or 1870s,
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after ulysses grant had left the presidency went on a two-year tour of the world sort of promoting the united states when he came back barnum saw him and said must been wonderful, you most beloved american. your through the world and he said no barnum, you have it all over me. everywhere i went people asked me do you know barnum. so i will stop and if there are questions. [applause]. >> was the most surprising thing that you learned about barnum. robert: i think to learn that he really was a better person than his reputation and that he, i guess that is the thing.
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>> you touched on how many have used perhaps simplistic picture of barnum to label certain political figure. i would like to turn that around and hear from you how the current status of american politics and american popular culture ottoman formed your view of barnum. robert: that's a great question. one of the reviews, it was actually piece in the new yorker about my book that made the case that i had apparently been clearly unaware of what was going on politically in this country while i was writing the book. these are tried very hard not to do that. one of the people who wrote a
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very good book about barnum called humbug, i read to when i started in on this and he kinda gave me his blessing. he's in every generation, barnum deserves a new book in each generation and little did he know that it was not that much other than he was. i mean,, i am aware that my own beliefs and political beliefs of the beliefs, and form the book and the work certainly a lot of times the book where i said in a modern sensibility has struggleo understand barnum in this situation. i tried to think my way into the 19th century in certain ways but to apply my own judgment about right and wrong. i do think, one of the things that came out of the reviews is
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this question of whether i was know i have been negative here today but in the course of the book whether i gave barnum too much credit. in fact the new york times book review referred to me as barnum's wing man. [laughter]. guest: i understand that barnum soon after his wife's death, married a 23 -year-old. did you learn about that. [laughter]. robert: yeah, his wife and they were married for 43 years and very much in love early on. barnum spent an incredible amount of time on o the road. i think later maybe to get away from her i don't know. but early on, they were
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separated a lot. she discovered that she hated to travel inov one of the ways and the whole family was cruel to her and they madel, fun of her when she traveled. imagine that a disasteras was about to happen are getting terribly seasick or whatever. i think they had grown apart. he did hide this marriage. which actually happened on valentines day in a can't think what year that would've been. and then he brought her back in the following september, they had a church wedding it was announced read but it was still pretty soon. his wife had died in november. thank you for your question. robert: one question people tend to ask me is what barnum would've thought of twitter.
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[laughter]. and because i've been asked that i've had a little bit of time to think about it not just blurt out an answer. i think he would've loved it. he was a genius at using newspapers by sort of writing they would just be printed word by word. he was an enthusiastic advertiser newspapers. in that way he got the attention of editors to became his friends. he also was but one of the ways ein which he would replenishes museum, the a couple of major fires in his museum. the next day it up and start telegraphing the world that he was in touch with people all of the world where he had exhibits. and thenan force later with the circus the fact the genius of
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moving his essentially healthy and sitting up elsewhere in a matter of days, was all bailey's genius but barnum embraced it and so i think he embraced the new technologies of his day such as the work. i cannot imagine that he would be all over twitter. and making as much publicity as he could. guest: i think i'm allowed to ask a question too. what prompted you to start writing the book and can you tell us a little bit more about clarence kelly andce brady. i was interested in that and i never got a chance rescue that. robert: i've been an editor newspapers and magazines and i have done some writing but i wanted to, will at a certain point i wanted
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to either needed to write a book or stop thinking about it. and clarence king wasas the subject i had come to know a wonderful book by a woman named patricia o'toole. and is about clarence king and henry adams, john hay in a very interestingre lives. in the five of them had the kind of social group. in the book he was this guy that sort of wood, will they were all very intellectual people, very well people from the east. in the book king and in petty o'toole's book, he would blow in from the west all sunburned and very handsome guy and everybody seemed to be in love with him. male and female. and i thought, this is really interesting subject and it really should be a book about him read second tony telling
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marie difference pretty we really need to write a book about clarence king. he is a really great character. and a friend of mine used to work for the new york times said a wise thing once the never forgotten witches you just cannot give away a good idea. what makes a good idea good is your own enthusiasm for it. so eventually i just said well, i will write it myself. i did that. as i said in the beginning, the book led me m to matthew brady. with book both the king look in the farnam book, i was very lucky that there had been very good academic biographies about both figures so they helped me out. in fact the biographer of barnum named arthur saxon, still alive
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and is extremely generous to me. i wrote him a text yesterday and said that after today, barnum will be his again. [laughter]. brady was a different character. aste i said there's not been a good book about him. not a lot of paper about him. so a lot of it had to do looking at the photographs and with him there is a big question of what is a brady photograph. humana studio and some other people actually take they photographs. but they were called photos by matthew brady. itit was in very different kindf challenge to write about brady. guest: i was wondering if you saw the movie and i was wondering what tu saw about it.
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if you saw the greatest show man movie. we did you think about it. robert: i did see the movie. i had actually agreed to write something for the daily beast about the ways in which the movie did not quite get barnum right. i came out ofe the movie so enraged that i felt i credit. [laughter]. i could not write at lightheartd piece so it did not fulfill that area and struck me that there were so many ways, will this whole w question of the present day sensibility the sensibility of the times. the sensibility of that movie is just so hollywood, 2018 or whatever the movie whenever it came out 2017. the thing that offended me the most, big shocker, hollywood does a movie and doesn't get the
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history right. that is never happened before of course. but it just struck me as being perverse because barnum was so much more interesting than the character the came out of thehe movie. and then just the wholele thing, and to dance. one of the people exhibited was a famous opera singer jenny lind they traveled around the country together in one way, jenny on new year's eve tried to hold barnum out and said i don't dance. and he said upon barnum you can dance. and after he tried dancing for a little bit she said, i do believe you are the worst dancer have ever seen. so i feel quite sure that he noticed again. q and it's always dancing. and nothing good happened in the movie. there and they're having a drink to celebrate. andvi since barnum was his great temperance person that would not have happened. those are just the small things. but anyway, i wife liked the
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movie. e.[laughter]. so thank you. very much. [applause]. you're watching a special edition of book tv. airing out during the week while members of congress during their districts, due to the coronavirus outbreak. tonight a look at pandemics. first national institute of health jeremy brown provides history of the 1918, food pandemic in his thoughts on how prepared we are the next major outbreak. in a discussion about viruses from the 2016 brooklyn book festival featuring carl ned. and later, john berry describes 1918 flu pandemic be killed as many as 100 million people worldwide. enjoy book tv, now and over the
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