The Cultural Politics of Littleness

Tony Pollock
University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign

A significant contribution to the study of non-normative bodies in early modern culture, Deborah Needleman Armintor’s The Little Everyman: Stature and Masculinity in Eighteenth-Century English Literature (Washington, 2011) provides us with the first book-length treatment of the “odd, and oddly unanalyzed, fact that English literature and art of the eighteenth century abounded in miniature men of diverse kinds” (x).[1] Armintor illuminates the relevance of “little-man representation” to a number of critical methodologies: scholars working in disability studies, queer studies, thing theory/object-oriented ontology, and gender studies will benefit from engaging with Armintor’s broad historical argument and her readings of individual texts (xi). Her book makes persuasive connections between the representation of non-normative male bodies and developments in English social history, tracing the effects of the “fundamental shift” from an “ideology of patronage, elitism, and aristocracy” to a “potentially emasculating” world of “consumerism, companionate marriage, sentimentalism, and other supposedly democratizing principles of the new bourgeoisie” (xiv). Emasculation anxiety links the different parts of Armintor’s study, each of which unfolds her central insight that little men served as a “perfect metaphor for the perceived devolution of Englishmen” in relation to these historical changes (xi).

The book opens with a “visual prehistory” for the eighteenth-century representations of little men that follow (3), showing how just as paintings of real court dwarfs began to disappear near the end of the seventeenth century, “publicly available” representations of real and metaphorical little men became more prominent (4). Looking at court portraits by continental artists and later satirical works by William Hogarth (and others), Armintor charts the little man’s transformation from a dependent aristocratic object to a more self-determining, even paradigmatic English subject who paradoxically embodies both the new valuation of merit over birth and the continuing necessity of subordination to monarchy and to class-based hierarchies. This point frames the second chapter’s analysis of Alexander Pope, a figure at once “quintessentially middle-class yet socially and ideologically aristocratic, thoroughly modern yet strikingly anachronistic” (30). With his diminutive physical stature, Pope evinces Armintor’s broader argument about the metaphorical link between two simultaneous historical phenomena: the movement of dwarfs from courts to the public sphere, and the movement of writers from a system rooted in aristocratic patronage to market-based publication controlled by printers and booksellers. Reading anti-Pope satires (Popiana)—including texts by Colley Cibber and Lady Mary Wortley Montagu—with Pope’s responses to them, Armintor argues that Pope effectively “resignifi[ed] . . . his own stature” by “appropriat[ing] his critics’ use of dwarf metaphors” against him (34, 33).[2] As Armintor shows, by embracing his supposed dwarfishness, Pope foregrounded early eighteenth-century writers’ continuing need to flatter their superiors in a publication market still pervaded by formal and informal modes of patronage. What Pope’s critics anxiously feared—and what Pope himself frankly acknowledged—is that “all writers are either successful and self-aware” in strategically negotiating their inevitable dwarfishness, as Pope himself did, or they are “paranoid and socially/artistically inferior want-to-be-dwarfs” like Pope’s envious detractors (55).

Continuing the analysis of satirical dwarfishness, chapter 3 reads the “curiously gendered and sexualized eighteenth-century culture of microscopy” as a subtext for understanding Jonathan Swift’s targets in “A Voyage to Brobdingnag,” the oft-discussed second part of Gulliver’s Travels (57).[3] Building on previous historical studies of the Royal Society and of women’s increasingly widespread use of microscopes in the period, Armintor discusses Robert Hooke’s emasculation anxiety at the “metaphorical shrinkage” and “symbolic castration” implied by “the microscope’s devolution,” during the later seventeenth century, “from a productive tool of male scientists into a miniaturized plaything”—the commodified portable pocket microscope —“in the hands of frivolous [female] amateurs” (65).[4] In Armintor’s account, it is precisely this “microscopical masculinity crisis” that Swift mocks through his representation of Gulliver in Brobdingnag (68). Citing Bill Brown’s notion of the “thing” as a means of naming “a particular subject-object relation,” Armintor argues that Gulliver’s “thing-ness”—as he becomes a pocket-sized “microscope-dildo”—is “marked less by his physical body than by its scientific and sexual usage in the hands of giant women” (76).[5] Ultimately, Swift emerges from Armintor’s analysis as a “sexual satirist exposing the latent gynophobia behind Enlightenment science’s aversion toward the new consumerism” (79), with “A Voyage to Brobdingnag” serving as his “joke at the expense of ‘enlightened’ male scientists who [wrongly] imagine themselves to be far removed from the world of women and commodities” (59).

The discussion of emasculation anxieties re-emerges in chapter 4, which reads Henry Fielding’s Tom Thumb plays (1730–31) in relation to several relevant contexts: 1) contemporary developments in female consumer activity; 2) the increased emphasis on female choice in bourgeois marriage; and 3) the literary context of “anthropomorphic dildo poetry,” a satiric genre featuring personified (male) sex toys as protagonists. Armintor begins by discussing the cultural effects of the period’s “dramatic rise in female consumption” (82), focusing on how writers (like Fielding) projected anxieties about the new consumer economy onto the ostensibly voracious female body.[6] Armintor links this anxiety to contemporaneous male panic about the “new rules of . . . companionate marriage” (83), which turned women from “goods exchanged between two families” into “discerning buyers in a marriage market” (83).[7] As Armintor points out, critics have overlooked how representations of little men like Tom Thumb (and his “unacknowledged forebears” in the dildo poems) suggest that these cultural anxieties were projected onto the emasculated bodies of men as well. Through readings of dildo poems (by John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, Samuel Butler, and others) and the Tom Thumb plays, Armintor convincingly connects disparate cultural materials through their shared depiction of the new companionate husband as a little man reduced to the status of (by turns) an enslaved laborer, a cannibalized object, and a sexualized automaton at the mercy of female consumers—women Fielding gynophobically represents as “queer, defiantly unreproductive, and autoerotically self-interested” (100). For Fielding, the dildo functions “as a symbol for the tenuousness of modern masculinity in an age in which women have the freedom to choose and to consume both spouses and things” (102), thereby making “the labor of little men . . . the vocation of every modern husband and male suitor” (101).[8]

Armintor’s final two chapters examine the function of sentimental discourse in little-man representation during the later eighteenth century. In her fifth chapter, Armintor analyzes how texts by Christopher Smart, William Hay, and Laurence Sterne respond to the kinds of anxieties represented in the work of Pope, Swift, and Fielding. Countering Fielding’s depiction of the little man as a helpless toy, Smart and Hay successfully appropriate aspects of the idealized “man of feeling” prototype as a means of asserting their dignity against those of “normal” size who would degrade them on the basis of their physical abnormality. Armintor provides a helpful discussion of how the reform-minded culture of sensibility, in its “privileging of refined male sentiment over macho brute force,” ultimately enabled writers like Smart and Hay to assert an “inverse relation between stature and sensibility” (107), suggesting that “small bodies are better suited to [the idealized qualities of] temperance, good taste, and sentiment” (115).[9] Armintor offers a rejoinder to critics of disability who have read Hay’s Deformity: An Essay (1754) as primarily reiterating stereotypes, emphasizing Hay’s “downright subversive . . . manipulation of [the] discourse of sentiment for the purpose of establishing the little man as an empoweringly superior man of feeling” (115).[10] The chapter concludes with a provocative discussion of Sterne’s Tristram Shandy (1759–67) as a novelistic “amalgamation of disability and feeling” which insists upon the relation between sentimentality and small stature through the figure of the homunculus (116). Although Sterne initially uses the vulnerable homunculus to exemplify the “little man” as “a paradigmatic autonomous individual” worthy of sympathy (117), by the end of the novel, the diminutive Walter (Sterne’s “modern little man”) is “disempowered” by his capacity for feeling, “shrunken, unsentimentally mocked, and . . . mercilessly satirized” in a way that undermines the more optimistic deployments of little-man representation by Smart and Hay (121).

Armintor’s negative reading of Sterne sets up her compelling analysis, in the book’s closing chapter, of Josef Boruwlaski’s compromised self-assertion as a dignified little man in his Memoirs of the Celebrated Dwarf (1788). Boruwlaski, a Polish court dwarf, left his home country for England to get away from the scandalous fallout of his having married a normal-size woman, and to achieve economic independence from aristocratic patronage. In Armintor’s account, Boruwlaski hoped to gain respectable bourgeois autonomy in two ways: first, by publishing his memoirs through subscription, a mode of publication which functioned as a bridge between literary patronage and market-based independence; and second, by fashioning himself as an agential husband entering into “a sentimental companionate marriage based on [reciprocal] feeling and mutual admiration” rather than objectification (129).[11] In the case of this particular marriage, of course, the liberating dynamic of the conventional companionate structure is reversed: it is not primarily the wife but the little man—formerly abused by aristocratic women as a sexual prop—who overcomes objectification by entering into conjugal partnership. Boruwlaski’s strategies have broad implications, as he attempts “to create a new . . . modern masculinity that seems to elevate him from the status of a felt female object to a feeling male subject” (130). For Armintor, however, Boruwlaski’s affirmative self-representation fails for several reasons: his status as a “modern-day Englishman working for a living” is based on exhibiting himself to audiences who delight in his ongoing objectification; his wife Isalina, despite their ostensibly equalizing companionate partnership, undermines his dignity by relentlessly calling him her “little Joujou” (132); and the sentimental bourgeois domestic portrait of his family (the memoirs’ frontispiece) emphasizes his wife’s “physical dominance” at the center of the image, making Boruwlaski “appear as just another one of her accessories” (135).

By the book’s close, Armintor has convincingly made the point with which she begins her final paragraph: “critics of eighteenth-century gender and disability studies must begin to acknowledge” both “the powerful metaphorical significance of physical stature to the sexual and body politics of the period” and the importance of “the little man as a shifting cultural signifier” (136). Armintor’s careful research should serve as a touchstone for scholars interested in questions of gender, sexuality, and disability in the British eighteenth century. With all of these strengths, however, there are two related issues in the book’s argument that could benefit from further elaboration: 1) the specific contours of the story being narrated across the book’s several chapters (xiv, 136); and 2) the status of the several little men Armintor analyzes as paradigmatic (xiv), or as broadly representative of British masculine identity.

In the preface and the opening chapter, Armintor outlines the key stages in what sounds like a linear story of progress for the little-man-as-Everyman. The book’s conceptual anchoring in the idea of a “fundamental shift” in eighteenth-century British culture—from “an ideology of patronage, elitism, and aristocracy” to “new . . . worlds” shaped by the “principles of the new bourgeoisie” (xiv)—helps to explain the trajectory of the book’s “Everyman,” who goes from representing “humble subservience in the face of royalty, to an emboldened supplanting of [his] social superiors, to an even more radical disregard for the very markers of class privilege” (14). As the book proceeds, however, it is hard to gauge the extent to which this idealized narrative gets realized in the specific case studies. Does the book ultimately argue for a story of progress, or do Armintor’s key examples suggest a narrative of repetition, of circularity, or of incommensurable particularities? Armintor addresses this difficulty by occasionally problematizing the very notion of progress, foregrounding how “modes of little-man representation both changed and persevered throughout the century” (xi): the first chapter then discusses how potentially emancipatory eighteenth-century representations of little men were often complicated by regressive “psychosocial holdovers from previous eras” (19); the fifth chapter reveals the “residues” of “pre-sentimental” (i.e. mocking) representations of little men even in the more sympathetic texts of the later century, as the sign of a “persistent interplay” between “contradictory traditions” (110); and, finally, Armintor’s negative reading of Tristram Shandy acknowledges that by the 1760s “the little man’s apparent ‘progress’ from woman-dependent court dwarf to sentimental hero has come full circle” (121). These complexities could certainly be mapped out—if not exactly resolved—by an epilogue, but as it stands, the overarching structure of the little man’s story seems a bit unclear.

Additionally, the book might more fully specify what is meant by the “paradigmatic” function of the little man in eighteenth-century British culture. Part of the problem, in this case, has to do with the flexibility of the book’s central tropes: Armintor argues that the little man represents (or is represented by) a wide range of things—the declining aristocracy, the emergent middle class, the modern writer, the homunculus, primates, pygmies, microscopists, microscopes, toys, commodities, laborers, dildos, the modern companionate husband, the young unmarried woman—and, as mentioned earlier, what seems to unify these heterogeneous figures is their shared connection to modes of emasculation anxiety. In that light, it would be fair to argue that the little man paradigmatically embodies diverse forms of male panic in the period, particularly the anxieties associated with men in specific social categories: the modern writer in chapter 2, say, or the Enlightenment scientist in chapter 3, or the companionate husband in chapter 4. But unless Armintor’s claim derives axiomatically from something like a poststructuralist reversal of the margin-center binary—a principle of inversion never explicitly mentioned—it seems less clear how the varied little men treated in this study could supplant other eighteenth-century masculine types other scholars have studied in terms of their relationship to cultural normativity.[12] Ultimately, though, these questions indicate the richness of the interpretive field initiated by Professor Armintor’s research, which should be required reading for scholars working in a number of specializations in eighteenth-century studies.



[1]. The studies most relevant as background to Deborah Needleman Armintor’s intervention include Betty M. Adelson, The Lives of Dwarfs: Their Journey from Public Curiosity Toward Social Liberation (New Brunswick, 2000); Barbara M. Benedict, Curiosity: A Cultural History of Early Modern Inquiry (Chicago, 2001); Helen Deutsch and Felicity Nussbaum, eds., “Defects”: Engendering the Modern Body (Ann Arbor, 2000); Katherine Park and Lorraine J. Daston, “Unnatural Conceptions: The Study of Monsters in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century England,” Past and Present 92 (1981): 20–54; Rosemarie Garland Thomson, “Introduction: From Wonder to Error—A Genealogy of Freak Discourse in Modernity,” in Freakery: Cultural Spectacles of the Extraordinary Body (New York, 1996), 1-22; and Dennis Todd, Imagining Monsters: Miscreations of the Self in Eighteenth-Century England (Chicago, 1995).

[2]. Important interlocutors for Armintor’s argument here include Deutsch, Resemblance and Disgrace: Alexander Pope and the Deformation of Culture (Cambridge, Mass.; 1996); J. V. Guerinot, Pamphlet Attacks on Alexander Pope, 1711–1744 (New York, 1969); and Marjorie Nicolson and G. S. Rousseau, “This Long Disease My Life”: Alexander Pope and the Sciences (Princeton, 1968).

[3]. As Armintor points out, an inaugural scholarly treatment of this issue can be found in Nicolson, “The Microscope and the English Imagination,” Smith College Studies in Modern Languages 16, no. 4 (July 1955): 1–92.

[4]. Key background is provided here by Marian Fournier, The Fabric of Life: Microscopy in the Seventeenth Century (Baltimore, 1996); two of Michael Hunter’s studies, The Royal Society and its Fellows, 1660–1700: The Morphology of an Early Scientific Institution (London, 1992), and Science and the Shape of Orthodoxy: Intellectual Change in Late Seventeenth-Century Britain (Woodbridge, 1995); Joseph Roach, “The Artificial Eye: Augustan Theater and the Empire of the Visible,” in The Performance of Power: Theatrical Discourse and Politics, ed. Sue-Ellen Case and Janelle Reinelt (Iowa City, 1991), 131–45; Larry Stewart, The Rise of Public Science: Rhetoric, Technology, and Natural Philosophy in Newtonian Britain (Cambridge, 1992); and Catherine Wilson, The Invisible World: Early Modern Philosophy and the Invention of the Microscope (Princeton, 1997).

[5]. See Bill Brown, “Thing Theory,” in Things (Chicago, 2004), 1–22.

[6]. Armintor’s discussion here is informed primarily by two essay collections: Ann Bermingham and John Brewer, eds., The Consumption of Culture, 1600–1800: Image, Object, Text (London, 1995); and Brewer and Roy Porter, eds. Consumption and the World of Goods (London, 1993); see also Elizabeth Kowaleski-Wallace, Consuming Subjects: Women, Shopping, and Business in the Eighteenth Century (New York, 1997).

[7]. Armintor’s major sources here include Katherine Sobba Green, The Courtship Novel, 1740–1820: A Feminized Genre (Lexington, 1991); Susan Staves, Married Women’s Separate Property in England, 1660–1833 (Cambridge, Mass., 1990); and Lawrence Stone, The Family, Sex, and Marriage in England: 1500–1800 (New York, 1977).

[8]. For relevant accounts of real and metaphorical sex toys in the period, see Paul-Gabriel Boucé, “Aspects of Sexual Tolerance and Intolerance in Eighteenth-Century England,” The British Journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 3 (1980): 173–91; Emma Donoghue, Passions Between Women: British Lesbian Culture, 1668–1801 (New York, 1993); Peter Wagner, “The Discourse on Sex—Or Sex as Discourse: Eighteenth-Century Medical and Paramedical Erotica,” in Sexual Underworlds of the Enlightenment, ed. Rousseau and Porter (Chapel Hill, 1988), 46–68; and Harold Weber, “ ‘Drudging in Fair Aurelia’s Womb’: Constructing Homosexual Economies in Rochester’s Poetry,” The Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation 33, no. 2 (Summer 1992): 99–117.

[9]. For the resources on sentimentality important to Armintor’s argument, see G. J. Barker-Benfield, The Culture of Sensibility: Sex and Society in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Chicago, 1992); Benedict, Framing Feeling: Sentiment and Style in English Prose Fiction, 1745–1800 (New York, 1994); Janet Todd, Sensibility: An Introduction (London, 1986); and Ann Jessie Van Sant, Eighteenth-Century Sensibility and the Novel: The Senses in Social Context (Cambridge, 1993).

[10]. See Lennard J. Davis, “Dr. Johnson, Amelia, and the Discourse of Disability in the Eighteenth Century,” in “Defects,” 54–74.

[11]. Armintor engages primarily with two previous studies of Josef Boruwlaski’s work: Benedict, “Displaying Difference: Curious Count Boruwlaski and the Staging of Class Identity,” Eighteenth-Century Life 30, no. 3 (2006): 78–106; and Kerry Duff, “Biographies of Scale,” Disabilities Studies Quarterly 25, no. 4 (2005): n. pag.

[12]. See, for example, the figures discussed in Philip Carter, Men and the Emergence of Polite Society, 1660–1800 (New York, 2001); Michèle Cohen, Fashioning Masculinity: National Identity and Language in the Eighteenth Century (New York, 1996); George Haggerty, Men in Love: Masculinity and Sexuality in the Eighteenth Century (New York, 1999); Karen Harvey, Reading Sex in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge, 2004); Tim Hitchcock and Cohen, eds., English Masculinities, 1660–1800 (New York, 1999); Erin Mackie, Rakes, Highwaymen, and Pirates: The Making of the Modern Gentleman (Baltimore, 2009); Shawn Lisa Maurer, Proposing Men: Dialectics of Class and Gender in the Eighteenth-Century Periodical (Stanford, 1998); Hans Turley, Rum, Sodomy, and the Lash: Piracy, Sexuality, and Masculine Identity (New York, 1999); and Weber, The Restoration Rake-Hero (Madison, 1986).