Tom Thumb: The Remarkable True Story of a Man in Miniature
By George Sullivan
(Clarion Books, New York, 2011, $20)
At age twenty-five, in 1863, Charles S. Stratton, better known as General Tom Thumb, was two feet eleven inches tall. He had toured theUnited StatesandEurope, singing, dancing, acting, and performing comedy routines, entrancing ordinary citizens and royalty alike. Showman P.T. Barnum had discovered Stratton when the diminutive performer was only four years old. The son ofBridgeport,Connecticutcarpenter, Stratton had attracted stares, comments, and unabashed curiosity since he stopped growing in infancy. However, Stratton thrived on the attention; his love of performing later made him the world’s most famous entertainer. At twenty-five, he married Lavinia Warren, a pint-sized teacher turned performer. Their wedding made as many headlines as today’s Royal Wedding, and the two later toured and performed together with other little people.
George Sullivan explores Stratton’s life and career in Tom Thumb: The Remarkable True Story of a Man in Miniature. Throughout the biography, Sullivan considers Stratton’s prominence in its historical and cultural context. He devotes an entire chapter to P.T. Barnum, who assembled exotic animals, hypnotists, and unusual people – the very large, small, thin, and overweight among them – for New Yorkers at hisAmericanMuseum. In textboxes, Sullivan discusses dwarfism and the position of dwarfs throughout history, exploring how small people have been used and infantilized by mainstream society.
By presenting Stratton and his small colleagues as complex human beings, Sullivan takes his own stand against sizeism. Readers learn about Stratton’s hobbies and his love of luxury – in middle age, he found himself in debt – and the ordinary life he coveted after years of touring. “I love to watch children play,” said a middle-aged Stratton. “I never had much childhood.”
Did Barnum exploit Tom Thumb, his creation? Or was Stratton a savvy businessman in his own right, an entertainer who capitalized on his tiny proportions to attain wealth and fame? Although Sullivan acknowledges that many small people have faced exploitation, he believes Stratton helped engineer his own career – and enjoyed every minute of it. With captivating period photographs, Tom Thumb is an entertaining, thoughtful look at a celebrity, his era, and the nature of inclusion and exploitation.
Dorothy A. Dahm