Categories of difference, such as race and gender, among human beings form the basis of many aspects of our world. They have the potential to influence something as minor as music choice, or as important as life experience. Therefore, it is important to be aware of these categories since they inform our thinking, whether we acknowledge them or not. Ethnicity, social class, and gender are all categories with which the average person is familiar, but there is one which Dr. Lynne Vallone, Professor of Childhood Studies at Rutgers–Camden, believes to be overlooked: Size.
Size is a relative measure, but it determines how we think about ourselves and others. It informs human identity and culture. According to Dr. Vallone, “we … downplay the judgments we make about size and the anxieties attendant upon confrontations with bodies out of scale with our own.”
In her book Big and Small: A Cultural History of Extraordinary Bodies, published in 2017 by Yale University Press, Dr. Vallone tries to better understand this class of difference, and its attendant effects, via an examination of the size question in the historical context of both fictional characters, and real people. Her argument is that size is a crucial category of physical difference which governs our thoughts and actions, but that has often been ignored.
Big and Small is aimed less at the student or scholar, and more at the informed general reader. In it, Dr. Vallone explores literary and folkloric characters such as Gulliver and Tom Thumb, while also looking at real people such as a very large woman called Barbara, and 17th-century court dwarf Jeffery Hudson. This magnifying glass on body size, both tiny and gargantuan, stretches across time and the western hemisphere, from 17th-century England, to modern America, from Jonathan Swift, to President Trump. The treatment of size in literature is an important component of the book, but no more so than in the lives of real-world “extraordinary” people. From the dwarf of the royal court, to the pygmy in the zoo, to the modern obese female, all come under the microscope.
The work has already garnered favorable attention from various reviewers who find the book “a compelling and innovative account of why size matters.” (Times Higher Education Supplement). Though it straddles the line between academia and the general reading audience, the importance of Dr. Vallone’s argument is not diminished. “It is one of the very first books – perhaps even the very first – to examine size as variously a sign of personhood, a marker of difference, and a channel for social anxieties.” (Times Higher Education Supplement).
Big and Small represents about fifteen years of work on the part of Dr. Vallone. What began as a project on miniaturization in children’s literature expanded, picking up the concept of largeness. Soon it broke free from the constraints of literature altogether, and grew to include bodily structure, politics, culture, and other aspects of life, moving away from characters to encompass real people. Over time the project morphed and was completely re-imagined until it came to resemble the recently published book, which includes literature and life, characters and real people, dwarfs and monsters.
One of the primary challenges that Dr. Vallone faced in putting this work together was the research it entailed. The book begins with the 17th-century, which lay outside of her academic specialization in the 18th-and 19th-centuries, and necessitated a lot of research. Another atypical subject of research for Dr. Vallone was that of art history; for Big and Small she had to explore the work of Old Masters such as Velázquez and Van Dyck in depth. Another challenge presented itself in the form of currency. The book stretches to modern day, and she wanted to make it as up-to-date as possible upon publication. This meant keeping up with changes to laws concerning reproductive rights, and the regulation of embryonic stem cell research. Finally, there was the perennial question of what to include. This was particularly challenging in the case of the section on monsters such as Frankenstein, but in the end, the book is about size, not any specific dwarf or monster.
The fact that the work is now complete is a source of great satisfaction to Dr. Vallone, as is the argument itself. However, everything did not go quite as she could have wished with regard to the profusion of images contained in Big and Small. She experienced immense difficulty in tracking down the rights holders for many of the illustrations, and in some cases permission to publish photographs discussed at length in the book was refused. In addition to these challenges, the breadth of the book, touching, as it does, on so many different topics and periods of history, creates the worry that there is more to know and to say about the topics.
In the wake of publication, Dr. Vallone gave a standing-room only book talk on Big and Small in the Raptor Roost in the Campus Center at Rutgers–Camden. She spoke on the development of the book’s idea and argument before showing some images and leading a discussion on some of its themes. These included the notion of the human body as a tool of measurement, and the thought processes and behaviors into which the human measure can lead us.
Big and Small is the result of Dr. Vallone’s education, career, and interests. Her Bachelor’s from William Smith College and her Master’s and Ph.D. from SUNY Buffalo were all in the field of English. After Dr. Vallone earned her doctorate, she went straight into an academic career in English as an assistant professor at Texas A&M University, where she joined the Department of English to teach children’s and young adult literature at both graduate and undergraduate levels. In 2007, by now a full professor, she made the jump to the Rutgers–Camden Department of Childhood Studies, which launched the first childhood studies doctoral program in the United States. In 2008, she became the chair of the department until 2011, and served again from 2013-16.
As her previous books, Disciplines of Virtue: Girls’ Culture in the Eighteenth and Nineteenth Centuries and Becoming Victoria demonstrate, history, especially that of 19th century England, is of particular interest to her. These and other disciplines all come together in Big and Small.
The writing of this book has opened up new corridors of interest for Dr. Vallone, such as early reproductive theories, including that of the homunculus (the microscopic preformed human believed to reside in the sperm cell). Though not currently engaged in writing another book, she is interested in following up some of the concerns raised in Big and Small, and is contemplating writing a cultural biography of the fetus through the lens of history, literature, science, religion, photography, and politics.
Written by Victoria Wroblewski