Friday, July 4, 2014

"She Was Probably the Tallest Girl In the World...."

P.T. Barnum
About six years ago I went through a phase where I read all the books that had been turned into musicals. I began with Gregory Maguire's Wicked, went straight through Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera, made a left at Dubose Heyward's Porgy, went a few miles with Hugo's Les Miserables, and finally ended up in the middle of nowhere with a copy of Struggles and Triumphs, the autobiography of 19th century American showman P.T. Barnum. Struggles and Triumphs wasn't the official source material for the Cy Coleman-Michael Stewart musical Barnum, but the no doubt mined it for material. I thought the book might be a bit of a slog but it was surprisingly engaging. Barnum was famous for his various schemes to amaze, astonish and occasionally humbug his audiences with Siamese twins, dwarves, wolfboys, living skeletons and other human curiosities. I settled in for an intriguing portrait of this "first purveyor of mass entertainment" (as the editors at Penguin Classics called him), already planning to move on to E.L. Doctorow's Ragtime when I was done.

And then, on Page 283, everything changed. A single sentence had the same effect as a flat tire on a road trip; it was something which forced me to stop for breath.

“I first heard of her through a quaker who came into my office and told me of a wonderful girl, seventeen years of age, who resided near him at Pictou, Nova Scotia and who was probably the tallest girl in the world. I asked him to obtain her exact height, on his return home, which he did and sent it to me, and I at once sent an agent who in due time came back with Anna Swan. She was an intelligent and by no means ill-looking girl, and during the long period while she was in my employ, she was visited by thousands of persons. After the burning of my second Museum, she went to England where she attracted great attention.”

"She was an intelligent and by no means ill-looking girl..." This sentence struck me hard. In the short space that Barnum devotes to Anna Swan, what do we learn about her? No one was expecting a detailed biography about her birthplace, parents, schooling or nine brothers and sisters (there would be ten, but one was born two years after Barnum's book). But during her time in Barnum's employ, Anna Swan gave lectures and performed Shakespeare. In 1863, she went to England and met the Queen. Writing in 1869, Barnum could have mentioned one of these salient points. Instead, what does he choose to tell us?  She was tall. And she wasn't ugly.

PT. Barnum's Autobiography....and the paragraph which started it alll

I didn't know about Anna Swan when I first read Struggles and Triumphs. I didn't know that she stood somewhere around seven feet, eleven inches or that two years after Barnum said she was "by no means an ill-looking girl", she would marry Martin van Buren Bates, a former Confederate soldier who was eight feet tall. I didn't know that she had survived three fires while in her employ with P.T. Barnum, one of which she only escaped with the aid of a fireman's derrick that hoisted her safely to the ground. How could I know any of these things? The paragraph Barnum wrote was 160 words long - 161 if you count ill-looking as two separate words.

Barnum had lots of things he could have told us; he chose to focus on how Anna Swan looked. Has anything really changed? Aren't women still being celebrated (or demonized) because of their beauty and size? When a woman has reached almost mythic proportions, is it ever possible for us to see beyond her measurements? Equally intriguing is Barnum's use of the word intelligent; for this singular remark to make it onto the page means Anna Swan's personality must have been as memorable as the size of her shoes. Yet Barnum could not bring himself to dwell on this and so today we know nothing of who Anna was. We know only what Barnum wanted us to know in his various advertisements: that she was a woman who was notable for being tall.

It was these thoughts which eventually led to my book The Thunder of Giants. Since it's fiction, I can't say it's a definitive portrayal of who Anna Swan was. But I hope I'm in the right ballpark; I hope that if Anna Swan was to read the book, she would recognize something of herself. However small it may be.

No comments:

Post a Comment