Breakthroughs in English

Eric Lehman uncovers the story behind an iconic figure in American history.
Areporter with a microphone stops you on the street and asks you to name some famous entertainers from American history. You scratch your head as the camera light goes on and you rattle off some names — Shirley Temple, Marilyn Monroe, Elvis Presley, maybe P.T. Barnum. Of course, the answers will differ between the young and old. Regardless of your age, however, it is unlikely that you would name General Tom Thumb, even though he is arguably the first American celebrity to garner international acclaim, achieving this distinction before the end of the 19th century. Born in Bridgeport, Connecticut in 1838, Charles Stratton (his given name) was a little person who reached his lifetime height of 24 inches when he was six months old, living in obscurity until he was “discovered” at the age of five by Phineas Taylor Barnum, of the famed Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

Despite the phenomenal fame achieved and sustained from childhood until his death at age 45, Thumb’s place in celebrity history has been relatively obscure, according to Eric D. Lehman, Senior Lecturer in English, who recently published Becoming Tom Thumb: Charles Stratton, P. T. Barnum, and the Dawn of American Celebrity (Wesleyan University Press, 2013).

Lehman, a noted author who has published several books, essays, reviews and stories, became intrigued with the little-known story of this extraordinary Bridgeporter after reading a few biographies on Barnum and other books on the history of the local area. As Lehman explains, “I realized that we had so little on Stratton’s ‘voice,’ just a few letters, no diaries. So I despaired of anyone writing about him until I was researching another book and realized that there are thousands of newspaper articles available on Stratton, including interviews, that no one had ever touched.”  A combination of the Barnum Museum’s holding of around 700 pages of Stratton’s European letters written in 1846-47 and the explosion of digitized newspapers made accessible through electronic databases like the Library of Congress and America’s Historic Newspapers provided important, unique accounts of Stratton’s life.
Tom Thumb Exhibit

Even though newspaper articles were available electronically, the research process was time consuming. Lehman pored through thousands of articles on Charles Stratton, putting together an accurate picture of his life at home and on tour. Mapping out forty years of performances and activities was no easy task, and matching anecdotal stories with hard facts often took weeks. Lehman also dug for insight into Stratton’s private life, something almost completely left out of previous scholarship. The recent discovery of a journal entry about a dinner with Barnum and Stratton, and the transcription by Barnum scholar A.H. Saxon was one of many gems that Lehman used to separate the real human being from the legend.

Lehman attributes the lack of scholarly biographical accounts of Stratton’s life to a variety of factors. For one, the nature of celebrity itself is short-lived, seldom extending past a generation or two, which may account for the dearth of preserved primary sources of the era, such as diaries and letters. Plus, Barnum’s own reputation for hoaxes, exaggeration, and lies, may have indirectly placed Stratton’s unique celebrity into question. Sadly, prejudice towards little people may also have played a part in the historical obscurity of Stratton’s fame. While his fame was almost fairy-tale-like in its time, according to Lehman, Stratton’s form of live entertainment, a mixture of stand-up comedy, song, and dance, was considered “low culture” and may have been looked down upon by subsequent historical scholars.