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Robert Edric: In the Days of the American Museum

This is the story of P T Barnum’s American Museum in New York during the summer of 1864. Even the historically challenged should recognise that this is during the American Civil War but, while the War is mentioned, it is only mentioned in passing and is barely relevant to the action. (Compare John Calvin Batchelor‘s American Falls which covers the same period and the same place but from a very different point view.) Edric is primarily interested in the denizens of the museum, primarily the human ones but also the unfortunate animals, all of whom are victims of Barnum’s greed. The sheen is coming off the Museum as the key acts either move on (General Tom Thumb is the most conspicuous example but the Chang Siamese twins are also involved) or die. What Edric gives us is a well-told but bitter tale of exploitation by Barnum, with the exploitation seemingly existing solely to feed the vanity and greed of his family. Barnum would clearly not pass muster with HSE/OSHA, as the building is in a terrible state (and is cataclysmically destroyed at the end) and his staff are kept in unsanitary conditions. But the strong point of this book is the sympathetic portrayal of these people (and animals) who are different and have only one another as the world looks on them as freaks.

Publishing history

First published 1990 by Jonathan Cape