Before reality TV, there was P.T. Barnum. The 19th-century showman made a fortune by filling his American Museum with native peoples, conjoined twins, acrobats, animals and complete humbugs like the “Feejee mermaid” and charging people a quarter to come in and look at it all. (Sometimes, he got more than a quarter: A sign proclaiming “This Way to the Egress!” deposited vocabulary-challenged folks back outside, where they had to pay for readmission.)
While modern Americans might find distasteful the way Barnum’s employees were exploited for their physical appearance, a pair of new novels shows how two women used the public’s desire to gawk at them to carve out lives of greater independence than were generally available to 19th-century females.
1. During her lifetime, Mercy Lavinia Warren Bump was so famous that her wedding knocked the Civil War off the front page, Melanie Benjamin writes in The Autobiography of Mrs. Tom Thumb (Delacorte, $25). Clocking in at 32 inches tall, the former Massachusetts schoolmarm cannot imagine a fate drearier than to sit at home, protected from danger and curious eyes by her fearful but loving parents. A “cousin,” Col. Wood, offers her a job performing on a Mississippi riverboat. Vinnie, as she’s called, wants to be a singer like Jenny Lind. Wood has other ideas. “I found, to my disgust,” Vinnie says, “that I was expected to be displayed. Like an unusual seashell, or a rock resembling a toad.” After the start of the Civil War extricates her from Wood, she is hired by Barnum, whose biggest success thus far is Charles Stratton, whom he scooped up at age 5, passed off as an adult and renamed Gen. Tom Thumb. For her part, Vinnie is smitten — not with Stratton, but with his boyish manager, who becomes her closest friend. Always career-savvy, Vinnie agrees to marry Stratton and reluctantly recruits her even smaller sister for the Tom Thumb Company. Unfortunately, Benjamin glosses over the company’s world tour, in which they met presidents and queens and toured Australia and Asia. She also skips the last 40 years of her heroine’s life, sans Barnum. But Benjamin, whose previous novel was “Alice I Have Been,” knows how to combine research and readability. And she’s given Vinnie such dignity and courage — “secure,” as Vinnie puts it, “in my matchless decorum and bearing” — that her heroine commands attention from the first page. “Yes, my height would be the first thing people noticed about me, but it would not be the last.”
2. Barnum is a less benevolent figure in Stacy Carlson’s first novel, Among the Wonderful (Steerforth, $24.99). Here, the impresario is once again presented as an “overgrown boy” — but one whose carelessness causes havoc with other people’s lives. “Among the Wonderful” is set in the 1840s at the American Museum and follows two of Barnum’s employees: a French taxidermist, Emile Guillaudeu, who is reeling from his wife’s death and appalled at the new owner’s lack of regard for scientific method; and Ana Swift, “professional giantess,” who is completely jaded after a lifetime on display. (Her father got her started, building a booth during the year his young daughter lay bedridden as her body grew 11 / 2 inches a month.) Carlson has based Ana on Anna Swan, “The Nova Scotia Giantess,” although she moves her debut at the American Museum up by two decades and, like Benjamin, disregards the decades of her heroine’s life after Barnum. (A Swan-like character appears briefly in “Mrs. Tom Thumb,” but that shy and defeated woman bears little resemblance to the gloriously formidable Ana.) For residents, life in the American Museum is hours of tedium while being stared at, followed by card games in their apartments on the fifth floor, just past the Sioux encampment and the beluga tank. “People exclaimed and whispered around us,” Ana notes of her workday. “It was always the same, even in the distant past of my girlhood. The only difference is that when I was young I had known everyone who whispered.” Carlson delves into the theme of metamorphosis as she recreates 1840s Manhattan as vividly as she portrays Grizzly Adams and Cornelia the Sewing Dog. While “Among the Wonderful” is the more fully realized work, both novels show that one’s humanity has nothing to do with size and that it’s the same world, no matter how far off the ground one’s view.
Zipp regularly reviews books for the Christian Science Monitor and The Washington Post.