(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Leslie Fiedler has been a critic of international reputation for several decades. Many of his viewpoints have stirred controversy in the literary world, and his latest work, Freaks, is sure to arouse commentary both favorable and unfavorable. This history of those he terms “freaks” discusses human beings unfortunate enough to be doomed, from causes science has yet to explain, to a life of “otherness.” It is largely a history of exploitation, and Fiedler’s fascination with the subject is apparent in chapter after chapter on what P. T. Barnum called “curiosities.”

The oldest surviving record of freaks is a Babylonian clay tablet dated about 2800 B.C. The abnormalities described thereon were considered auguries of the future, and were classified as those with something extra, those with something less, and those with something doubled. The “something extra” might include children born with six fingers on each hand, considered by diviners as omens of ill portent. Those children born without one or more essential body parts were ambiguous signs, sometimes presaging good furtune, sometimes ill. “Something doubled,” monstres doubles, were likewise ambiguous: the birth of a hermaphroditic baby boded ill, while a janicepts infant (one with a head upon his head) was good fortune. Fiedler notes, however, that the more prosaic Romans thought of all classes of monsters as ill-omened.

The Romans, like many other cultures ancient and modern, disposed of malformed children at birth by culturally determined methods, including exposure or ritual sacrifice. In modern times the method may be the withholding of life-support systems or, in the case of therapeutic abortions, direct action to destroy the life of what may only be suspected to be a monster. Chang and Eng, the most celebrated of modern Siamese twins, who gave the popular name to what is more scientifically described as conjoined twins, may have narrowly escaped infanticide in nineteenth century Siam. Likewise, the Egyptians, who numbered animal-headed creatures among their deities, mummified the bodies of dwarfs and other anomalies, perhaps after ritual sacrifice.

But as Fiedler notes, genocide has never been directed against freaks in general until modern times, first when Hitler included dwarfs in the ranks of those to be removed from the Aryan race.

Fiedler explains that, despite the expressed wish of these unusual people not to have the term “freak” applied to them, he prefers the word to the more doubtful “monster.” He thinks that since the 1930 appearance of C. J. S. Thompson’s The Mystery and Lore of Monsters, which studied physically deviant humans, the term “monster” has been preempted (due no doubt to movies and television) for creatures of artistic fancy like Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, the Wolfman, and King Kong. He feels justified, moreover, by the acceptance of the terms “freak” and “freaking out” by young people who use them to describe their antipathy to contemporary society and its values. Youth, of course, do not confuse monsters (make-believe horrors) with anomalies of nature such as dwarfs, giants, hermaphrodites, Siamese twins, and multilimbed individuals whom Fiedler covers with the term “freaks.”

The acceptance by society of some types of unusual people seems to be a matter of some interest to Fiedler. As he notes, the dwarf or midget has been a well-documented, and in most cases well-loved, addition to royal families since the Renaissance. We know what dwarfs are long before we leave babyhood, and indeed even young children know the twenty-one or more words in modern English for little people. The oldest name, “pygmy,” derives from a Greek word meaning the distance from the elbow to the knuckles of a normal-sized man. Thus, when nineteenth century European explorers discovered tribes of dwarfs in Africa, the most obvious name for them was “pygmy.” They are, however, not noticeably different from any of their neighboring tribes except in size.

Dwarfs have a long and varied history, dating in modern times from the dwarfs of Bartholomew Fair in Elizabethan England, through the dwarfs of the court of Catherine de Medici to the last dwarf kept as a pet, by novelist William Beckford in England of the nineteenth century. Contemporary dwarfs have fared well, serving in almost every capacity that normal-sized people fill. During World War II, for example, the insides of bomber wings were worked on by crews of dwarfs; and in contemporary entertainment dwarfs have played many roles. Members...

(The entire section is 1880 words.)


(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 17)

Atlantic. CCXLI, February, 1978, p. 93.

Harper’s Magazine. CCLVI, February, 1978, p. 90.

Library Journal. CIII, March 15, 1978, p. 664.

New York Times Book Review. March 5, 1978, p. 9.

Newsweek. XCI, February 20, 1978, p. 82.

Time. CXI, February 20, 1978, p. 95.