Monday, January 22, 2018

Lynne Vallone's "Big and Small"

Lynne Vallone is professor of English and childhood studies at Rutgers University. She has written and co-edited several books, including Becoming Victoria and The Norton Anthology of Children’s Literature.

Vallone applied the “Page 99 Test” to her new book, Big and Small: A Cultural History of Extraordinary Bodies, and reported the following:
Big and Small: A Cultural History of Extraordinary Bodies is about bodily size and the means by which we have over time and in many different ways evaluated, depicted, abused and appreciated those with bodies out of scale with the “norm.” The overall argument of this book is that size is an overlooked yet critical marker of difference that informs how we know and view the world. I demonstrate this argument through examinations of persons, characters and figures with extraordinary bodies from life, literature, art and science: the pygmy, dwarf, child, the obese, the ogre, the giant robot, the miniatures and monsters of children’s books, the heroes and villains of folklore and tall tales, the embodied embryos and embryonic stem cells of contemporary scientific and political discourse. Size difference, I suggest, is everywhere and deserves special attention.

The book is separated into two sections, the first on small bodies and the second on big bodies. Yet, it’s impossible to discuss either big or small without reference to its opposite, so big and small always stand in relation to each other, visible through the lens of the human measure (by which we judge size).

Page 99 in the second chapter of the book (on the figure of the dwarf in high and popular culture) considers one of the most famous paintings in western art: Las Meninas (1656) by Diego Velázquez. The work might be described simply as a group portrait of the five year old Infanta Margarita Theresa, her young handmaids and court dwarfs, the painter Velázquez and the back of his enormous painting, Spain’s Philip IV and his queen reflected in a mirror. There is certainly a lot packed into the Velázquez masterpiece, people and problems that appear in the book as a whole. Most significantly, the painting brings together the figure of the dwarf and the child—complex beings of small size so often at the center of negotiations between big and small—as well as statements about class, privilege, gender and the oscillating power of those with extraordinary bodies. These ideas coalesce and help me to highlight size as a category of difference that has always informed our pictures and words, thoughts and actions.
Learn more about Big and Small at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue