Sharing History’s Secret
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).
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.