Disability Studies Quarterly
Fall 2005, Volume 25, No. 4
Copyright 2005 by the Society
for Disability Studies


Betty M. Adelson. Lives of Dwarfs; Their Journey from Public Curiosity Toward Social Liberation. Piscataway, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2005. Cloth: $34.95, 480 pp. 25 color & 91 b/w illustrations.

Reviewed by Michael M. Chemers, Carnegie Mellon University

Research into the demi-monde of freakery is particularly fraught with the worst of the perils that face all historians. Information is spotty and inconsistent, marred by the ableist assumptions of those who collected it, corrupted with anecdote, infected with religious rhetoric, and above all, conditioned by a positive theatricality (motivated in large part by greed or perversity as much as wonder) that renders stunningly dubious whatever scant shreds of evidence might actually struggle to the surface. So when a book like Adelson's materializes, with rigorous research, unflagging critical methodology, and above all an unpretentious clarity, it is as if someone has opened a window, letting a blast of fresh air and light into the cobwebby underside of "traditional" history, which is where those of us who pursue "the freak" must spend most of our time.

It is impossible to say that this is the best book on the history of dwarfs, because there has never before been a serious scholarly work of historical research of this magnitude on the subject of the role that persons of short stature have played in human history. Most, if not all, of the extant works on the subject are really little more than juvenile literature, catering to infantilizing "inspirational" narratives or titillating bizarrity; almost all books on the subject quickly become part of the mechanisms of humiliation, which persons of short stature continue to suffer in our culture. Adelson's book is not this; it is an astonishingly well-researched, charmingly well-written and comprehensive survey of the history of dwarfs. Beginning with evidence of dwarfs in prehistory and, stopping along the way for a particularly revelatory look at the complex position of disability in classical Athens, taking the reader through the strange chronicles of jesters and other prominent dwarfs of European courts all the way to films, legal cases, and political activism as recent as 2003, the book was written, in Adelson's words, to "offer a truer narrative to dwarfs and their families and to a society that had all too often been unwelcoming and uncomprehending" (p. xv). In this, The Lives of Dwarfs aspires to the finest motive of historical inquiry: the recovery of evidence from the past to improve the condition of living persons.

Adelson also provides the reader with a startling amount of information on individual figures in history. The book gives excellent details of the lives of eminent dwarfs including Philetas of Cos, Alexander Pope, Benjamin Lay, and Paul Leicester Ford, always with a critical eye and an effort to properly contextualize these brief biographies in their historical contexts, eschewing juvenilia and rumor. Having done so, the book repositions Goffman's stigma theory specifically for dwarfs, then moves on to examine representations of dwarfs in mythology, art, literature (particularly children's), and theatre and film. It devotes a substantial number of pages to reviewing the work of famous contemporary dwarf actors, including Billy Barty, David Rappaport, and Peter Dinklage, and also the work of disability activists like social psychologist Tom Shakespeare, geneticist Judith Badner, and Secretary of Labor Robert Reich, among many others. Positing Pharonic Egypt as a zenith in the affirmative socialization of dwarfs, the book just as unreservedly examines the Nazi period, an obvious nadir. Turning an unflinching eye on the special horrors reserved by the Reich for short-statured persons, Adelson also refuses to softball the psychotic Josef Mengele, who has received some inexplicably gentle treatment of late (notably in Armand LeRoi's unforgivably ableist Mutants). The book concludes with an examination of the participation of short-statured persons in freak shows and other controversial activities.

For an issue of DSQ primarily concerned with freak shows, this section of Adelson's book is of particular interest. Adelson is appropriately critical (without resorting to knee-jerk condemnation) of the checkered history of dwarfs as courtly pets and professional freaks, but she once in a while takes the morally facile "high ground" of condemning freak shows as a single tradition generally damaging to the lives of short-statured people. As Adelson justifies this supposition on the grounds that freakery legitimizes and normalizes the maltreatment of persons of short stature, this is a mite grating to a freak show historian, but will probably not be to most readers. Unusually, however, Adelson's profoundly self-reflexive methods ensure that her own values do not prevent her from analyzing freak show performers on an individual basis, and the stories she uncovers are nuanced and complex. No voices are silenced, so a rich tapestry gradually emerges. Throughout the book, Adelson shows this remarkable scholarly restraint, and is able to deliver a deeply critical and objective analysis without disguising her personal rage against the injustice suffered by dwarfs over the centuries. The book is consistently in line with the understanding of disability as a social construction, and deftly places its historical subjects within the complexities of their social, political, economic, and aesthetic matrices wherever possible. At all stages, she treats her subjects as individuals, and records their voices with remarkable candor and, in this reviewer's estimation, great success.

In sum, then, The Lives of Dwarfs is a smart, enchanting, and powerful work, which will prove to be a watershed in the development of this sort of history. Rigorous enough to please the most pedantic scholar, it is also accessible to a general, educated readership. A welcome addition to any library, persons of short stature, within the scholarly community or not, will find this book a must-read if looking for a nuanced, sophisticated record of the history of dwarfs. For those of us concerned with the lived, material histories of disabled persons, and for any teacher planning an undergrad-or-higher course on disability history, I would call this remarkably thorough text indispensable.