|Disability Studies Quarterly
Fall 2005, Volume 25, No. 4
Copyright 2005 by the Society
for Disability Studies
Biographies of Scale
The diverse collection of memoirs, lives, and autobiographies of those who exhibited as freaks in the late 18th and 19th century has often been neglected by scholars or treated as simply source material that describes the way in which these individuals were exhibited. By viewing these texts as performances of subjectivity, this essay considers both the complications that arise in the attempt to construct subjectivity and the rhetorical strategies deployed to negotiate them. The analysis will focus on the narratives of four individuals who exhibited as "midgets" in this period.
Keywords: memoirs, freaks, little people, Boruwlaski, Lavinia Warren Magri (Mrs. Tom Thumb)
Autobiography has traditionally been viewed as the form in which great men tell the story of their lives and which both relies upon and reproduces the democratic notion of the unique and autonomous self. It also embodies, in more than one way, the paradox of liberal humanism, especially in the manner that its democratic impetus suggests that all may write, yet its history suggests that some autobiographies are more deserving of the name than others; some lives are more important than other lives. Autobiography speaks to individuality and thus, supposedly, to every citizen, and yet autobiography also, and especially in its more celebrated form, the memoir, demands exceptionality.
This essay charts the paradoxes, problems, and changes that occur when other exceptional individuals, those labeled as "freaks," enter the public realm of self- representation. Such individuals were considered exceptional not because of their achievement, but due to the perceived singularity of their anomalous bodies. Indeed, it is this very quality that made many of them famous as celebrities, for the 19th century was the heyday of the freak show, that form of amusement and recreation that played to the public interest in the strange, the exotic, the curious, and the "abnormal." This appeal not only fed a culture of exhibition, but also generated an outpouring of case studies, biographies, memoirs, and sketches that discursively produced these individuals.
While immensely popular during this period, these autobiographies have been largely neglected within the scholarship on "Freakery." Leslie Fiedler's famous study (1978), for example, relied heavily on literary, medical, and biographical accounts of freaks, but he barely examined those narratives of self, explaining that "Official 'autobiographies' have always been circulated by their exhibitors, but these are invariably ghost written, a part of the act rather than a way of seeing beyond it" (p. 274). This view is neither unusual nor completely inaccurate, but it has tended to promote scholarship which focuses wholly on the construction of the freak as objectified other, rather than investigating the discursive production of the freak self.
Fiedler does not state the basis upon which he claims that these narratives are simply advertisement, part of the exhibition. If it is on the basis of subject matter and style, one would have to admit that they do not always fit the classic autobiographical form, and there is no doubt that they often smack of the handbill or press release. This quality, however, is exactly what is so valuable about these texts, for they can tell us much about the construction of the freak self in all of its historical specificity. This examination does not aim to see "beyond" the act, but to analyze the performance of self within the act, postulating that every autobiography performs rather than reveals self.
In reading four such autobiographical narratives by individuals who exhibited as "dwarfs" and "midgets" in the late 18th through the 19th century, I will argue that these texts are not only important for the way in which they highlight the specificity of particular forms of enfreakment, but also for the way they foreground the logic behind the production of the democratic subject by pushing the limits of autobiography as the literary form of the "exceptional man." On one hand, freaks were the exception, those that stood out from the average, and yet their nonstandard bodies undermined their perceived capacity for selfhood and thus self-representation. On the other, while the autobiographies under examination share a common strategy of arguing for inclusion and the right to representation via normativity (narratives of masculinity, race, nationality, class, self-determination, etc.), they are also limited by the specific requirement that they actually produce extraordinary subjects. Functioning in much the same way as the talk shows of the 1980s and 1990s, these autobiographies demand that their subjects go over and beyond what one would expect from the ordinary citizen precisely in order to have any value. Thus, these narratives reproduce the paradox of freak subjectivity, a paradox that demands both normativity (likeness) and exceptionality (difference).
In a general fashion, these texts face many of the same issues as other marginalized life stories of the period, but there are specific and significant differences. Perhaps the most obvious issue raised by these texts revolves around authenticity and authority. Like slave narratives, these texts rely on authentication by "more reliable" witnesses, due to the lack of authority imputed to the teller, but they are caught within a very specific type of paradox due to their production within the culture of exhibition and its reputation for deluding the public through false representation. Given the public's awareness of the confidence game, popularized so effectively by P.T. Barnum and elaborated upon in his own autobiography, the manager's authorizing introduction could actually undermine the perceived truth of the narrative.
Another key problem the texts engage is the contradiction between the non-standard or disabled body of the autobiographical subject and the requirement of traditional autobiography that the narrative follow a trajectory of transformation and self-improvement. As I will discuss below, different rhetorical strategies are brought into play to provide other evidence of self-determination; however, this general issue remains and is further complicated by the specific enfreakment of these individuals. While those who exhibited as "midgets" differed from other enfreaked individuals who were often bought, sold, and exhibited without consent, they were still miniaturized as dolls or small children for the purposes of exhibition, and this undermined their supposed capacity to author a "true" and "valid" life story. Indeed this infantilization proved particularly problematic for the three male authors discussed below, especially in conjunction with the fact that their labor was that of display and objectification.
These narratives are fascinating in the array of rhetorical strategies deployed and in the way they participate within the cultural preoccupations of the period–such as debates over racial degeneration, manhood, and national stature–however, for the purposes of this essay I will simply be focusing on one or two key points within each text in order to provide a sampling of the type of textual analysis these works can generate.
A Dwarf Rousseau: The Memoirs of the Celebrated Dwarf, Joseph Boruwlaski, A Polish Gentleman.
Joseph Boruwlaski was born in Polish Russia in 1739 and grew into a "perfectly formed" miniature child. At the age of 9, he was taken from his family and began his life as a "companion" of aristocratic ladies. As a boy, he traveled extensively with a Countess Humieska, but was later forced to leave her household when he refused to give up his engagement to a young lady whom she also patronized. Finding himself with decreasing opportunities for patronage and increasing family responsibilities, Boruwlaski published his memoirs in hopes of support. These memoirs were published in English in 1788 and were frequently republished in various forms and cited in essays on dwarfs in American and English periodicals.
The same period that produced Boruwlaski's memoirs also produced a more famous narrative of self, one which many view as the first modern autobiography -- Jean Jacques Rousseau's Confessions (1782). Published a few years later, Boruwlaski's Memoirs fit firmly into the cult of sensibility of the second half of the 18th century that Rousseau exemplifies. Unlike other "freak" narratives, Boruwlaski does not simply detail his path to public success and decline with accounts of various patrons and exhibitions, but describes his feelings about patronage, manhood, and, most importantly, the romantic encounters that, in Rousseauvian fashion, mark the defining moments in his life history. Unlike Rousseau, however, who wrote the Confessions to clear his reputation, Boruwlaski writes to support his family due to declining patronage. Furthermore, while Boruwlaski's text manifests an emphasis on individual feelings and thoughts (sensibility), this emphasis is made in order to demonstrate his affinity to men of standard size, and thus the text diverges from the Rousseauvian objective of establishing absolute uniqueness of self. As a dwarf in the eighteenth century subject to economic and social disadvantages, Boruwlaski was by definition marked as different. This difference had to be negotiated carefully, for it was his sole claim to fame and income, but it could also mean rejection from the public world of letters. Such an outcome would have material consequences for an individual who was constantly threatened by the dreadful fate that awaited most individuals exhibited as "freaks of nature" when they no longer held the interest of the public.
It is, however, precisely this back and forth play between episodes designed to prove normativity and episodes that underline Boruwlaski's difference that make this text so intriguing. For example, most of the accounts of royal and noble visits are related as if Boruwlaski was treated with honor and respect. Indeed, the text insistently emphasizes his courtly attributes and his acceptance within aristocratic circles as a charming, intelligent, and talented young man, rather than as a dwarf who was exhibited, but the specter of difference repeatedly interposes itself:
Even episodes that blatantly attempt to construct a normative identity by constructing a more anomalous other reveal this tension, as exemplified in the account of Boruwlaski's meeting with "Bebe," another famous dwarf of the time. According to Boruwlaski, Bebe was thrown into a fit of temper by the King of Poland's declaration that while the former was "amiable, cheerful, entertaining, and full of knowledge," Bebe was "but a little machine" (p. 41). Boruwlaski relates how Bebe died shortly afterward and that "everybody attributed his death to his jealousy, and to the vexation which the difference, that was said to be between us, had given him" (p. 43). But if the text emphasizes difference, it also admits the close affinity between the two, declaring that Bebe "who (I am sorry to say it, for the honor of our species) had, both in his mind and way of thinking, all the defects commonly attributed to us" (p. 39, my italics).
There are three overlapping lines of interpretation we can take to understand why this text, which, on the surface, seeks to present its subject as worthy of notice simply based on his achievements, continually returns to his mark of difference. First is the Rousseauvian model with the injunction to tell all -- humiliations as well as triumphs, feelings as well as acts -- in order to prove to the reader that this is a true reflection of the self. Another reading might point out how this persistent return to difference occurs because Boruwlaski as a marginal subject is already presupposed as different and thus is caught up in the bind inherent in universalist discourses of individualism. In other words, Boruwlaski's claim for inclusion as a dwarf actually produces the difference it seeks to deny. Finally, we could look at the general operation of the text itself. The narrative seems to function as if difference "slips in," undermining the text's main argument for normativity, but perhaps the mark of difference is actually essential to the operations of the text. After all, the point of the autobiographical narrative, and especially one that calls itself a memoir, is that the subject is somehow worthy of interest precisely because he is different from others. In this reading, what the text attempts to obscure is not the fact of difference, but the conditions of its production: the midget as a commodity (whether of a corporeal or textual form) sold as an object of curiosity specifically because of difference from the norm. The text has its own ideological workings, and that is to present as its purpose a successful argument for sameness, while at the same pandering to the curiosity of the "normate" reader.
Christian Suffering and Bourgeois Self-Reliance: Sketch of a Life of Colonel R.A. Steere and Wife
The Sketch of the Life, Personal Appearance, Character and Manners of Col. R.A. Steere and Wife (1883) moves us from the aristocratic circles of Europe to the height of freak exhibition in the United States and from the romantic sensibility of the late 18th century to the ideologies of sentimentality and individualism at play in the hustle and bustle of the industrial 19th century. The Steere narrative reflects these changes both in the manner in which Steere and his wife are exhibited as "midgets" and in its deployment of specifically 19th-century American ideologies. Like Boruwlaski, Steere evinces the proper gentlemanly disdain for public exhibition, but the sensibility that he calls upon relies less on the 18th-century mode and more on the bourgeois sentiments of self-reliance and Christian piety.
Steere was born in Gloucester, Rhode Island, in 1838 to parents of "ordinary size," "temperate and industrious farmers" (p. 3). As he grew older, people began to call him " a second Tom Thumb," an appellation that made Steere extremely unhappy, as he was "anxious to be as large as men in general." Striking a note of Christian resignation, he writes, "But, alas! I lived to learn that my wishes and sorrowful reflections could avail me nothing, and I must try to be happy and contented with my lot, whatever it might be" (p. 3). It wasn't until the age of 31 that, prompted by a "desire to see a little of the world," he accepted an offer from the manager of a museum connected with a circus (p. 5).
What is notable throughout the narrative is the way the text works to accommodate this "extraordinary" aspect with the dignified tone of an ordinary American citizen anxious to live as a solid member of the middle class. Thus Steere describes not only his dislike of exhibition, but also attempts to dignify it through a reversal of the gaze between himself and the public: "At first, it was very hard for me to sit and be stared at, and have so many personal questions asked, but it soon passed away, and I have often had much enjoyment in studying human nature, and marking the difference in talk and appearance of one State with that of another" (p. 5). After a few years of the business, Steere became so disgusted that he returned to farming for a few years, but being "besieged" with many offers from showmen, he returned to exhibition.
As if to underline this portrait of independent manhood, the narrative closes with an address to the reader that asserts that the Steeres should not be viewed as small children, but as adults who can take care of themselves:
However, this demand that they not be pitied is followed by a verse that almost undermines the former address in its reference to their "affliction":
This plea calls upon what Rosemarie Garland Thomson describes as a new mode of representing disability, one that emphasized both Christian suffering and self-reliance, and one that was intricately connected to the middle-class reform movement and the discourse of sentimentality, but the contradictions that are elided by the ideology are here highlighted (1998). The two addresses to the reader (do not pity us for we do not require it; pity and admire us for our fortitude through suffering) exemplify the two means by which the argument attempts to assert a dignified subject (the positive assertion of middle-class behavior, thoughts and feelings, such as self-reliance, and the affirmation of Christian sentiments of fortitude through suffering) but these do not quite harmonize; thus their conjunction reveals cracks in the very bourgeois ideology that the argument calls upon. What the argument tries to refute is the extraordinary aspect of the Steeres' life. It does so by calling upon a variety of bourgeois clichés in order to claim a position within the middle class, but this overemphasis expresses itself as contradiction, for to be a member of the middle class is not about Christian deportment and fortitude, but about an economic position that allows one to avoid circumstances that demand extraordinary Christian fortitude. What this illuminates is the process by which the middle class sustains itself ideologically, assuming contradictory qualities that are really employed in opposite ways: dignity as a positive descriptive quality of the class and fortitude preached to others. When this freak narrative accepts the assumption at face value, bringing both qualities into play as defining characteristics in order to claim a position within that class, the argument goes awry. The very attempt to illustrate how the Steeres adhere to every principle of bourgeois ideology only further points to the fact that they are not of that class, but "midgets" living an extraordinary life as curiosities.
Gender, Sexuality, and the Miniature Body: The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb
As P. T. Barnum's most famous female dwarf, Lavinia Warren Stratton ("Mrs. General Tom Thumb") appeared frequently at his American Museum in New York, as a popular "curiosity" in his large collection of animals, freaks, humbugs, and "savages." Around the turn of the century, Warren sat down to commit her memories to paper. The result was an autobiography describing her childhood, career, marriages, and relationship with Barnum. Although Warren was one of many "tiny princesses" who exhibited throughout the 19th century, her autobiography is unusual in that most autobiographies penned by those exhibited as dwarfs were male-authored. We might ask then what difference gender makes: What strategies does the text use to position its narrator as ordinary, extraordinary, the same, or different, in its construction of a female "midget" self?
Warren is similar to the other three writers in that, as a white woman of "respectable American stock" who exhibited herself as part of Barnum's menagerie of exotics, she walked a thin line between freakery and normality, circus life and middle-class respectability. Her dwarf body disrupted 19th-century mappings of race, nationality, gender, and class, since its "abnormality" defined her as "other" along any of these lines, in direct opposition to the way she was marked based on family background, race, and class – a perfect illustration of the blurring and shifting of supposedly fixed categories. Also, as in the male-authored texts, one can observe the subject's own positioning among this tangled mapping and examine how, in the attempt to open up a space for herself through the insertion of hegemonic discourses, she resurrects the naturalized categories her body had disrupted in the first place.
Warren's autobiography is different from the others in its presentation of size. While the male-authored narratives played up manhood in order to de-emphasize small stature, Warren's text often constructs normative femininity as and through smallness. Indeed, physical descriptions of her body are a key element of the memoirs, and she often relies heavily on others' accounts. In Chapter Three, for example, she quotes directly from Barnum's own autobiography in order to include a description of his first meeting with her: "I found her to be a most intelligent and refined young lady, well educated and an accomplished, beautiful and perfectly developed women in miniature" (p. 50). Immediately following are clippings from various newspapers that describe her first "reception" in New York. Echoing Barnum's comments, these clips build a descriptive narrative which portrays Warren as small, but beautiful; tiny, but "exceedingly symmetrical"; miniature, but enjoying "perfect health"; extraordinary, but of "great mental aptitude" (p. 50-51) She is an "absolutely choice specimen of feminine humanity," and if she "were of average size she would be one of the handsomest of women" (p. 50-51).
Warren's appeal and "non-freakishness" is generated through what Lori Merish (1996) has described as an aesthetic of "cuteness," for she is presented as a charming toy, a doll that replicates in miniature the measurements and qualities of the ideal woman. Her "abnormality" is subsumed by making her "one of us," for she is perfectly proportionate, but her size is, at the same time, exaggerated in order that we may enact this process of domestication, pulling her off the street and into the drawing room. In fact, Warren's size in a certain way adds to the extreme femininity upon which the text can make a claim for "normality," for, unlike the male dwarf who is emasculated by miniaturization, she becomes hyper-feminized, countering the fact of unladylike public exhibition.
Another means by which "normality" is claimed is by the text's construction of Warren as a sane and intelligent documentarian. This positioning is gained, as in the previous two narratives, by constructing herself in relation to others. Indeed, the manipulation and reversing of the gaze from her extraordinary body to others' is one of Warren's most effective strategies. In these descriptions, Warren's rhetoric is remarkably similar in tone to that which would have been used to describe her own body in a medical journal or museum pamphlet:
As Warren describes this "specimen," she poses herself as an expert, one who can tell the difference between different "types," and one who is familiar with the language of Darwinism, the racialized discourse of hygiene, and the concept of the "Noble Savage."
Despite this production of a normative subject, the text, like the others is continually drawn back to the mark of difference and is furthermore haunted by the specter of sexuality, one that threatens both the aesthetic of the miniature and the text's project for claiming affinity with the middle-class "normate" reader. As Susan Stewart (1993) has argued, the miniature only functions when its border are sealed off from the outside world. One particular threat to the miniature is contamination: the possibility that its role as the guarantor of the borders between inside and outside can be undermined. Such a threat is often represented as the destruction of the miniature's perfect proportions, for the miniature must present a world that is, to the very last detail, a diminutive version of our own. Lack of proportion suggests a contamination from that larger world and propels the miniature into the grotesque or hybrid object.
Miniaturization did serve to transform the "freakishness" of those labeled as midgets, but its corporeal materialization foregrounds the instability of that aesthetic, for despite the domestication of Warren as a perfectly-proportioned miniature doll, the grotesque in the form of sexuality and reproduction lingers at the margins of her exhibition. This is exemplified by the New York Herald's (1863) account of the wedding in which the editors hint at the public titillation caused by Warren's marriage to Tom Stratton ("General Tom Thumb"):
While one could argue that the desire incited by the corporeal miniature–the titillation of sealed borders that deny entrance–is very much a part of the exhibition's appeal (an explanation hinted at by the Herald) sexuality threatens Warren's fragile positioning as normative. Sexuality generates anxiety over the unbounded female body, a body that can be penetrated and can reproduce, which then transforms the miniature into the grotesque and re-positions Warren within the very category of the freakish that she seeks to escape. One particular form of this threat is the specter of miscegenation, for dwarf bodies functioned as primary sites of racial anxiety in both the culture of exhibition and in scientific discourse. White middle-class concern about racial degeneration, for example, suffused the scholarly debates about whether dwarfs should be considered as "missing links" or as constituting another race or even species.
Warren's narrative attempts to negotiate this specifically gendered obstacle to normativity through a more romantic version of the wedding and by a thorough avoidance of the topic of motherhood. However, the specter remains, and, like the element of extraordinariness in the male texts, could be interpreted as functioning very much as part of the voyeuristic appeal of this text, one which purports to claim an affinity with the reader, but which must also give a behind-the-scenes view of the private life of the wife of "General Tom Thumb."
Winner and Wife: A Business Model for Traveling Salesmen
The History of the World's Greatest Midgets, Major N.G.W. Winner and Wife, (1904) dramatizes the variability of freak subjectivity. As the title suggests, it admits quite openly to being a promotion piece; there is no concern with the possible vulgarity of self-promotion and exhibition. Instead of the autobiography of sensibility or suffering and self-reliance, what we have here is a first-person history very much influenced by the developments of the last century in advertising particular to the culture of entertainment. This is a piece that blatantly admits its commercial purposes, and, indeed, the self that is produced in the history is neither the European man of sensibility nor the middle-class American gentleman, but the Yankee businessman.
The third-person sketches that open the narrative follow the typical format of the freak biography. The reader is given the details of Winner's birth and family, with the usual emphasis on the non-racial explanation for his size: Winner was born in 1869 to parents who were taller than the average; and all of the other family members were of "standard" size. We are then told that he worked hard at school and went into business, opening up a confectionery and tobacco store. Later, he was approached by a representative of the Ringling Brothers and commenced a life of exhibition.
The rest of the text is written in the first person and is entitled "Our Trip to Canada." This section is a detailed account of everyday life as a traveling dwarf, and is more of day journal than memoir. What is most interesting about this piece is the in-depth description of the way in which Winner conducts business. The husband and wife do not have a manager and do not attach themselves to any circus or museum. They earn a living by making their own engagements with various shoe and clothing stores; their part of the bargain being to sit in the shop and attract business. Dates, times, appointments, meals, and hotels are described in great detail, but one is most struck with the business ingenuity of its subject. If delayed by trains, Winner employs the time to scout out new opportunities at various stores. He is also not averse to refusing to fulfill his part of the deal, if it does not meet his requirements. In Hamilton, for example, the manager of a clothing store wanted the pair to sit in the window instead of in the back of the store where they usually sat due to winter temperatures. "I told him we did not work that way," writes Winner, describing how he went over the manager's head to the owner at the company headquarters where he achieved his goal (p. 12). The pair fulfilled their engagement by sitting in the back where it was warmer and more comfortable.
In this plain recital of the facts, there is no commentary about the humiliations of being small, no pleas to the reader. This factual tone presents Winner as an ordinary businessman who may encounter additional irritations, but who deals with them with the minimum amount of fuss. Nowhere in the narrative is there any overt attempt at establishing "normality," nor is there much recognition of difference. The narrator assumes that what interests the reader is not the private life of a "midget," but the experienced comments of a businessman who has traveled and worked in Canada.
After 12 pages of travel advice, the text ends abruptly, leaving the reader's expectations of an autobiography unfulfilled by simply stating that "We did quite well in Canada, but we did not like the ways of lots of the people. Some of them are about 10 to 15 years behind the times" (p. 17). In this manner, the text plays a rather clever trick on the reader, who, led by the advertising title of the history, expects an exaggerated narrative of the private life of a "freak." Actually what the reader gets is closer to the conventional understanding of the truth, for there is no humbug here, no tales of fantastic births or exotic locales; it is simply an everyday account of the life of a rather savvy individual who exhibits himself as "Major Winner, the World's Greatest Midget." The blurring of genres– travel guide, day journal, memoir – that in some ways undermines its status as an autobiography in the classic sense, ironically aids in the presentation of an enfreaked self that is quite ordinary. In other words, affinity is established by noncompliance to the rules of a narrative of interiority. Thus Winner's narrative, in contrast to the other three texts, avoids the paradox of freak autobiography by avoiding interiority itself.
This essay has examined particular life narratives in order to better understand the process by which an enfreaked individual is made visible as an autobiographical subject. As we have seen, these texts are caught within a paradox generated by the exclusionary logic of traditional autobiography. They must prove that their subjects are of significance–different from the average individual–in order to be worthy of an autobiography, and yet due to their subjects' marginalized position as non-standard, they are also forced to make an argument for normality in order to prove that they are capable of self-representation. The Winner narrative attempts to avoid this paradox by avoiding interiority all together, which seems to suggest a rather pessimistic conclusion about the possibilities for enfreaked subjectivity. However, as we have seen in the other texts, the very reiteration of norms by the enfreaked subject produces fissures in those ideologies that destabilizes binaries of norm/deviant and thus allows some space in which the subject can materialize.
On a final note, I would like to make a claim for the value of these texts. If they speak specifically to the issue of enfreaked subjectivity, they also more generally highlight the operations of autobiography and foreground the paradox of liberal humanism: how can we be both individuals (unique) and equal (all the same)? As Thomson (1996) has argued, the very appeal of the freak registers a cultural ambivalence about the increasing standardization and anonymity of every day life. Thus, the fact that these texts continually return to sites of difference is perhaps instigated as much by a general cultural preoccupation of the period –how does one matter or signify within the new modernized democratic project -- as by voyeurism or due to the specific problematic of their marginalized subjects. To dismiss these texts as simply duplications of other narratives, to claim that they do not deserve the title of autobiography, is to misunderstand the way all autobiography is a recitation of available scripts and, further, is to ignore their significance for a broader range of issues and scholarly inquiries.
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