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  • The Elocutionists: Women, Music, and the Spoken Wordby Marian Wilson Kimber
  • Lodewijk Muns
The Elocutionists: Women, Music, and the Spoken Word. By Marian Wilson Kimber. Pp. xvii + 334. Music in American Life. (University of Illinois Press, Urbana, Chicago, and Spring-field, 2017. $28.00. ISBN 978-0-252-08222-1.)

Few readers will guess from the title alone that this book is about a piece of American cultural history, between roughly 1840 and 1940. What Marian Wilson Kimber shows is that during this period there was a remarkable, and now almost forgotten, flowering of the practice of musically accompanied recitation, and more particularly that women took in this a significant, even dominant, part. 'Undoubtedly, many of the famous performers who combined music and the spoken word were male, but I came to understand these figures as similar to high-profile chefs in a world where most cooking is done by women' (p. x).

Unlike cookery, elocution is a branch of an art that since antiquity has been dominated by the male gender. Elocution is a fairly recent, eighteenth-century spin-off from rhetoric, which owes its name to terminological confusion. The mistake is unfortunately repeated in this book: in classical rhetoric, elocutiois not rhetoric's so-called fifth canon, 'the technical means by which a written work would come to be spoken' (p. 6). That is pronuntiatio. Instead, elocutiois the third, roughly equivalent to style, or choice of words.

With elocution, as understood by the original eighteenth-century British elocutionists and their followers, the vocal interpretation of texts has become an art distinct from oratory. The latter remained a male prerogative; holding speeches involved a kind of public exposure deemed unsuitable for women. It was another thing when a woman wanted to entertain her family or a select (mostly female) audience by [End Page 138]reciting a story or poem. Unlike oratory, elocution could be cultivated and propagated as a homely art, or 'parlour rhetoric'.

As Kimber shows, elocutionary practices had their heyday and decline in America during the Progressive Era (around 1890–1930). Female reciters performed mostly in the closed circles of family or clubs, but the Chautauqua movement, which brought culture and entertainment to rural communities, provided a more public venue for female musicians and readers. An overwhelming female dominance of the profession around 1900 was soon followed by a reaction. Elocution came to be seen as an antiquated educational model and an artificial performance style. Nonetheless, the author has stretched her narrative well into the twentieth century with a chapter on two notable composer-reciters, Phyllis Fergus and Frieda Peycke, both of whom died in 1964, and another on choral speaking in the 1930s and 1940s.

We may conclude from this that elocution was an educational project that initially made it possible for women, within strict limits of propriety, to take part in higher cultural aspirations. Elocution could be both liberating and, through its strict behavioural code, restricting. It allowed, however, the establishment of a tradition of female performance that could outgrow the style and methods of its origin.

That quite often recitation was combined with music has escaped notice. 'The history of the intersection of music and elocution in American culture has fallen through the disciplinary cracks between music, theatre, dance, speech, and literary history' (p. viii). We may be grateful, therefore, for this exploration and the wealth of materials unearthed from journalism, memoirs, fiction, and unpublished archival materials. They help to fill those cracks, supplementing a growing literature on what I consider the subject's three main angles of interest—genre, gender, and the rhetorical tradition. The intersection of gender and rhetoric in particular has received ample attention in the past two decades (for instance, David Gold and Catherine Hobbs (eds.), Rhetoric, History, and Women's Oratorical Education: American Women Learn to Speak(London, 2013), and Nan Johnson, Gender and Rhetorical Space in American Life, 1866–1910(Carbondale, Ill., 2002)).

Of those three main angles, genre, gender, and rhetoric, the last is treated rather meagrely. Chapter 2 ('Making Elocution Musical') summarily addresses questions vital to the synthesis of recitation and music: how musical is speech, how language- or speech-like...


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