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ParaliteraryThe Making of Bad Readers in Postwar America$
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Merve Emre

Print publication date: 2017

Print ISBN-13: 9780226473833

Published to Chicago Scholarship Online: May 2018

DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226474021.001.0001

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Reading as Imitation

Reading as Imitation

(p.17) Chapter One Reading as Imitation

Merve Emre

University of Chicago Press

How might one learn to speak like a work of fiction? Chapter One approaches the question of literary imitation through the lens of women’s colleges, where students like Mary McCarthy and Jacqueline Kennedy read novels as a means of aesthetic self-stylization: to learn how to treat the self as a mimetic work of art. Their teacher was Henry James, who, this chapter argues, helped launch early international communications programs as part of an effort to reform the speech of American women who were poised to “conquer the globe” (James) as members of the leisure class. The teaching of reading in the women’s college thus turns on a persistent slippage between the literary aesthetic of Jamesian fiction and exercises in international speech education. This pedagogy also shapes the formal and thematic choices made by James’s readers turned novelists: Gertrude Stein’s QED, McCarthy’s Birds of America, and the novels of dozens of little-known female writers from Smith, Bryn Mawr, and Marymount Colleges. Taken together, the historical and fictional archive reveals the tension between literary impersonation, conceived of as an act of feminized self-stylization, and the “compulsory masculinity” (Talcott Parsons) of mid-century communications policy.

Keywords:   Henry James, Gertrude Stein, Mary McCarthy, women's colleges, gender performativity, speech, manners, discourse pragmatics, Cold War

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