I once heard a bright child declare that if circuses were prohibited in heaven, she did not wish to go there.
She had been baptized, was under Christian influences, and, previous to this heterodoxy, had never given her good parents a moment’s anxiety. Her naïve utterance touched a responsive chord within my own breast, for well did I remember how gloriously the circus shone by the light of other days; how the ring-master, in a wrinkled dress-coat, seemed the most enviable of mortals, being on speaking terms with all the celestial creatures who jumped over flags and through balloons; how the clown was the dearest, funniest of men; how the young athletes in tights and spangles were my beau-ideals of masculinity; and how La Belle Rose, with one foot upon her native heath, otherwise a well-padded saddle, and the other pointed in the direction of the sweet little cherubs that sat up aloft, was the most fascinating of her sex. I am persuaded that circuses fill an aching void in the universe. What children did before their invention I shudder to think, for circuses are to childhood what butter is to bread; and what the world did before the birth of Barnum is an almost equally frightful problem. Some are born to shows, others attain shows, and yet again others have shows thrust upon them. Barnum is a born showman. If ever a man fulfills his destiny, it is the discoverer of Tom Thumb. With the majority of men and women life is a failure. Not until one leg dangles in the grave is their raison d’être disclosed. The round people always find themselves sticking in the square holes, and vice versa; but with Barnum we need not deplore a vie manquée. We can smile at his reverses, for even the phænix has cause to blush in his presence. Though pursued by tongues of fire, Barnum remains invincible when iron, stone, and mortar crumble around him; and while yet the smoke is telling volumes of destruction, the cheery voice of the showman exclaims, “Here you are, gentlemen; admission fifty cents, children half price.”
Apropos of Barnum, once in my life I gave myself up to unmitigated joy. Weary of lecturing, singing the song “I would I were a boy again,” I went to see the elephant. To speak truly, I saw not one elephant, but half a dozen. I had a feast of roaring and a flow of circus. In fact I indulged in the wildest dissipation. I visited Barnum’s circus and sucked peppermint candy in a way most childlike and bland. The reason seems obscure, but circuses and peppermint candy are as inseparable as peanuts and the Bowery. Appreciating this solemn fact, Barnum provides bigger sticks adorned with bigger red stripes than ever Romans sucked in the palmy days of the Coliseum. In the dim distance I mistook them for barbers’ poles, but upon direct application I recognized them for my long lost own.
However, let me, like the Germans, begin with the creation. “Here, ladies and gentlemen, is for sale Mr. Barnum’s Autobiography, full of interest and anecdote, one of the most charming productions ever issued from the press, 900 pages, thirty-two full-page engravings, reduced from $3.50 to $1.50. Every purchaser enters free.”
How ordinary mortals can resist buying Barnum’s Autobiography for one dollar—such a bargain as never was—is incomprehensible. I believe they can not. I believe they do their duty like men. As one man I resisted, because I belong to the press, and therefore am not mortal. Who ever heard of a journalist getting a bargain? With Spartan firmness I turned a deaf ear to the persuasive music of the propagandist, and entered where hope is all before. I was not staggered by a welcome from all the Presidents of the United States, Fitz-Greene Halleck, General Hooker, and Gratz Brown. These personages are rather woodeny and red about the face, as though flushed with victories of the platform or the table, but I recognize their fitness in a menagerie. What athlete has turned more somersaults than some of these representative men? What lion has roared more gently than a few of these sucking doves? Barnum’s tact in appropriately grouping curiosities, living and dead, is too well known to require comment. Passing what Sam Weller would call “a reg’lar knock-down of intellect,” I took my seat high in the air amid a dense throng of my fellow-creatures, and realized how many people it takes to make up the world. What did I see? I saw double. I beheld not one ring but two, in each of which the uncommon variety of man was disporting in an entertaining manner. I felt for these uncommon men. Think what immortal hates must arise from these dual performances! We all like to receive the reward of merit, but when two performances are going on simultaneously, how are the artists to know for whom it is intended? Applause is the sweet compensation for which all strive privately or publicly, and to be cheated out of it, or left in doubt as to its destination, is a refined form of the Inquisition. Fancy the sensations of the man balancing plates on the little end of nothing,—a feat to which he has consecrated his life,—at thought of his neighbor’s performance of impossible feats in the air! It would be more than human in both not to wish the other in Jericho, or in some equally remote quarter of the globe. I sympathized with them. I became bewildered in my endeavors to keep one eye on each. If human beings were constructed on the same principles as Janus, and had two faces, a fore-and-aft circus would be convenient; but as nowadays double-faced people only wear two eyes in their heads, the Barnumian conception muddles the intellect. I pray you, great and glorious showman, take pity on your artists and your audiences. Don’t drive the former mad and the latter distracted. Remember that insanity is on the increase, and that accommodations in asylums are limited. Take warning before you undermine the reason of an entire continent. Beware! Beware!
I hear much and see more of the physical weakness of woman. Michelet tells the sentimental world that woman is an exquisite invalid, with a perennial headache and nerves perpetually on the rack. It is a mistake. When I gaze upon German and French peasant-women, I ask Michelet which is right, he or Nature? And since my introduction to Barnum’s female gymnast,—a good-looking, well-formed mother of a family, who walks about unflinchingly with men and boys on her shoulders, and carries a 300-pound gun as easily as the ordinary woman carries a clothes-basket,—I have been persuaded that “the coming woman,” like Brother Jonathan, will “lick all creation.” In that good time, woman will have her rights because she will have her muscle. Then, if there are murders and playful beatings between husbands and wives, the wives will enjoy all the glory of crime. What an outlook! And what a sublime consolation to the present enfeebled race of wives that are having their throats cut and their eyes carved out merely because their biceps have not gone into training! Barnum’s female gymnast is an example to her sex. What woman has done woman may do again. Mothers, train up your daughters in the way they should fight, and when they are married they will not depart this life. God is on the side of the stoutest muscle as well as of the heaviest battalions. It is perfectly useless to talk about the equality of the sexes as long as a man can strangle his own mother-in-law.
I was exceedingly thrilled by the appearance of the two young gentlemen from the Cannibal Islands, who are beautifully embossed in green and red, and compassionated them for the sacrifices they make in putting on blankets and civilization. Is it right to deprive them of their daily bread,—I mean their daily baby? Think what self-restraint they must exercise while gazing upon the toothsome infants that congregate at the circus! That they do gaze and smack their overhanging lips I know, because, after going through their cannibalistic dance, they sat behind me and howled in a subdued manner. The North American Indian who occupied an adjoining seat, favored me with a translation of their charming conversation, by which I learned many important facts concerning man as an article of diet. It appears that babies, after all, do not make the daintiest morsels. Tender they are, of course, but, being immature, they have not the rich flavor of a youthful adult. This seems reasonable. Veal is tender, but can it be favorably compared with beef? The cases are parallel. The embossed young men consider babies excellent for entrées, but for roasts there is nothing like plump maidens in their teens. Men of twenty are not bad eating. When older, they are invariably boiled. Commenting upon the audience, the critics did not consider it appetizing; and, strange as it may appear, I felt somewhat hurt by the remark, for who is not vain enough to wish to look good enough to eat? Fancy being shipwrecked off the Fiji Islands, and discarded by cannibals as a tough subject, while your companions are literally killed with attention! Can you not imagine, that, under such circumstances, a peculiar jealousy of the superior tenderness of your friends would be a thorn in the flesh, rendering existence a temporary burden? If we lived among people who adored squinting, should we not all take to it, and cherish it as the apple of our eye? And if we fell among anthropophagi, would not our love of approbation make us long to be as succulent as young pigs? What glory to escape from the jaws of death, if the jaws repudiate us? So long as memory holds a seat in this distracted brain, I shall entertain unpleasant feelings toward the embossed young gentlemen who did not sigh to fasten their affections—otherwise their teeth—on me. It was worse than a crime: it was bad taste.
Roaming among the wild animals, I made the acquaintance of the cassowary, in which I have been deeply interested since childhood’s sunny hours, for then’t was oft I sang a touching hymn running thus:
“If I were a cassowary
Far away in Timbuctoo,
I should eat a missionary,
Hat, and boots, and hymn-book too.”
From that hour the cassowary occupied a large niche in my heart. The desire to gaze upon a bird capable of digesting food to which even the ostrich never aspired, pursued me by day and tinctured my dreams by night. “What you seek for all your life you will come upon suddenly when the whole family is at dinner,” says Thoreau. I met the cassowary at dinner. He was dining alone, having left his family in Africa, and I must say that I never met with a greater disappointment. Were it not for the touching intimation of the hymn, I should believe it impossible for him to eat a missionary. A quieter, more amiable bird never stood on two legs. A polite attendant stirred him up for me, yet his temper and his feathers remained unruffled. Perhaps if our geographical position had changed to Timbuctoo, and I had been a missionary with hymn-book in hand, the cassowary might have realized my expectations. As it was, one more illusion vanished.
In order to regain my spirits, I shook hands with the handsome giant in brass buttons; and speaking of giants leads me to the subject of all lusus naturæ, particularly the Circassian young lady, the dwarf, the living skeleton, the Albinos, and What-is-it. I have dropped more than one tear at the fate of these unfortunate beings; for what is more horribly solitary than to live in a strange crowd, with
“No one to love,
None to caress?”
Noah was human. When he retired to the ark, he selected two of a kind from all the animal kingdom for the sake of sociability as well as for more practical purposes. Showmen should be equally considerate. To think of those Albino sisters with never an Albino beau, of the Circassian beauty with never a Circassian sweetheart, of the living skeleton with never another skeleton in his closet (how he can look so good-natured would be most mysterious, were not his digestion pronounced perfect), to think of the wretched What-is-it with never a Mrs. What-is-it, produces unspeakable anguish. May they meet their affinities in another and a more sympathetic world, where monstrosities are impossible for the reason that we leave our bones on earth. Since gazing at the What-is-it, I have become a convert to Darwin. It is too true. Our ancestors stood on their hind legs, and the less we talk about pedigree the better. The noble democrat in search of a coat-of-arms and a grandfather should visit a grand moral circus. Let us assume a virtue, though we have it not; let our pride ape humility.
Were I asked which I thought the greater necessity of civilization, lectures or circuses, I should lay my right hand upon my left heart, and exclaim, “Circuses!”