I’ve been working on a book project about Victorian representations and narratives of speech dysfluency for a number of years now, and I’m starting to see a dim shape for the entire project. I think it now has an introduction and a skeleton of chapters, but who knows if I’ll radically blow things up and completely reorganize the thing. As of today, I’m staring, with excitement, at what I hope will be a summer of relatively uninterrupted writing, so I thought I would give our readers a glimpse at some extraneous material from my introduction and early chapters. Basically, some of this material is in the book, some of it isn’t, and some of it is in the book but written in different ways. In a sense, the following paragraphs attempt to outline what I see as some fundamental problems in the ways in which Victorian studies and cultural studies appropriate or misuse metaphors of stuttering and stammering, or dysfluency in general. This is my contribution to thinking about speech dysfluency both within the paradigm of disability studies and more broadly in current critical practices in Victorian studies..  

Writing about the countless representations and metaphors of speech dysfluency in Victorian literature and culture is a challenging endeavor because stuttering – whether as an aspect of agency, an experience of embodiment, or as metaphor – is both everywhere and nowhere in literature, criticism, and cultural theory. Give or take a few exceptions, literary and disability critics often ignore actual representations of the mysterious disorder of developmental stuttering, preferring instead to rely on metaphors of dysfluent, blocked, or hesitant speech in their analyses of literature and modern culture from the nineteenth-century to the present. As a result, there is currently no sustained literary criticism of representations and narratives of the mysterious disorder of stuttering, in Victorian studies or elsewhere, although work is forthcoming in an emerging subfield of disability studies that Chris Eagle has recently called “dysfluency studies.” Instead, literary critics too often privilege the ubiquitous trope of stuttering in a wide range of topics in cultural and critical theory, the result of which has been a privileging of stuttering as a concept that actually ignores the peculiar experience of language and embodiment characterized by adult developmental stuttering.

As a kind of corrective, I issue a challenge to literary critics to reflect on stuttering, one of our most privileged of metaphors for describing the aesthetics of involuntary expressions of embodiment and temporality in literature, theory, and philosophy. My thesis is that dysfluency studies must advocate for literary analysis that goes beyond mere metaphorization. Tropes that lack awareness of not only the disorder of developmental dysfluency but also the richness of nineteenth-century medical and scientific accounts of sustained adult stuttering and stammering confirm Elizabeth J. Donaldson’s argument that “metaphoric use of terms like lame, blind, and deaf can misrepresent, in ways that have ultimately harmful political effects, the experiences of living with those physical conditions” (94). Similarly, metaphors of stuttering and stammering in current literary criticism and cultural theory also often seem to lack awareness of the experiences of living with developmental dysfluency. This is but one instance of a larger cultural reduction of stuttering to either blatant misconceptions of the person who stutters as nervous, anxious, bumbling, or mentally challenged, or denial of stuttering as a serious disability that affects approximately one percent of the world’s population. In many cases, as well, literary critics often employ metaphors of stuttering in ways that completely misunderstand what it means to live with the disability of stuttering.

In recent years, Gilles Deleuze’s praise of writers that know how to make “language as such stutter” (107) has influenced broader critical appreciation for writing that intervenes in the normalizing rhythms of language and ideology. As Deleuze acknowledges, in good fiction, “it is no longer the character who stutters in speech; it is the writer who becomes a stutterer in language” (107). Deleuzian displacements of people who stutter are seemingly everywhere in poststructuralist and postmodern literary and cultural criticism, as scholars in the humanities have privileged the “stutterance” (Hartman 236, Migone 123, Yaeger 42) as a speech act that disrupts the smooth flow of language, culture, ideology, and all normalizing discourses. Such work is engaging in its critique of discourses that assume the existence of an inherent fluency between social actors, technologies, media, and institutions, and Deleuze’s privileging of the stutter has the potential to invigorate critical readings of disability and dysfluency.

Yet, as Marc Shell has suggested in his critique of such misappropriations of tropes of stuttering, “Students in the humanities […] often seem to know more about metaphors and themes of stuttering in the arts than about stuttering itself and its actual bearing on aesthetics” (1). Certainly, as an embodiment and a disorder, stuttering does manifest itself as involuntary disruption, betrayal, blockage, hesitation, and refusal to speak in the body of the person who stutters. The stutter can be an appropriate metaphor for all kinds of thinking about the relationships between embodiment, disability, aesthetics, rhythm, temporality, technology, culture, and industry. The problem is that the polymorphous metaphor of the stutter, or the stammer, in cultural criticism all too often seduces theorists from awareness of the actual disability of developmental disfluency in preference for seductive descriptions of the “stuttering” rhythms of modern life, literature, art, and aesthetics. Reliance on stuttering metaphors reduce the “stutterer” to a non-place in humanities scholarship.

Despite the Deleuzian influence in critical thinking about the inherent stuttering of all language systems, literary criticism’s persistent focus on metaphorical rather than actual “stutterances” in Victorian literature is not simply a failure of literary criticism or current critical paradigms. Admittedly, actual representations of the agency of people who stutter in nineteenth-century British literature and culture are sporadic, even though the Victorian era’s medical and scientific mobilization of knowledge about dysfluent speech was extensive, owing to the cultural consolidation of elocutionary methods of “proper” speech in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Novelists, poets, and playwrights as prominent as Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Robert Browning, Wilkie Collins, Charles Dickens, “Michael Field,” Thomas Hardy, William Morris, Alfred Lord Tennyson, and Oscar Wilde, among numerous others, frequently employ metaphors of stuttering or dialogic voice markers of dysfluency (he “stuttered”, she “stammered”) that highlight broad Victorian aesthetic preoccupations with the physiological constitution of the self or the interactions between private and social realms of everyday life. To stutter or stammer in the Victorian era, it seems, was to encounter, at the same time and often in confused or contradictory ways, philosophical questions about fundamental human desires to communicate and the melancholic realization of the impossibility of any real communicative act in an increasingly industrial and technical era.

Unlike American literature, with its rich nineteenth- and twentieth-century tradition of characters who stutter (Herman Melville’s Billy Budd, for example), the Victorian literary tradition lacks “high” literary representations of characters who stutter in any sustained or developmental way. When Victorian writers reference speech disorders, they tend to focus on either minor humorous or grotesque representations of stuttering individuals or the trials and tribulations of “major” contemporary public figures who stuttered, such as Charles Lamb, Charles Kingsley, and Lewis Carroll. Stutterers in Victorian literature thus occupy a marginal space in that they represent a limit point of Victorian engagements with stuttering. In either case, stutterers and stammerers in the Victorian literary tradition are typically metaphorical in their position in the text. They almost always seem to represent something else. The person who stutters himself (or herself in rarer instances) is seemingly never sufficient as a case study of the melancholic, and thus always already failed, striving for community that Victorian medical experts and elocutionists recognized as the stutterer’s lot in life.

When characters in Victorian literature do suffer from what we might recognize as developmental stuttering, such as Mr. Pecksniff in Dickens’s Martin Chuzzlewit or Mr. Bashwood in Wilkie Collins’s Armadale, they are more often than not flat, comedic, grotesque, or pathetic individuals with little emotional or psychological depth, or they serve to illuminate, by way of metaphor or similar troping strategies, cultural issues of speech, elocution, and embodiment that have little to do with actual contemporary medical accounts of developmental stuttering. Certainly, popular works of literature such as Martin Tupper’s “The Stammerer’s Complaint” and James Malcolm Rymer’s The Unspeakable: or, the Life and Adventures of a Stammerer do explore the experiences of people who stutter. But such “minor” works are virtually unknown today, so my book project attempts to illuminate their essential differences from “major” Victorian literary texts and their preoccupations with mere metaphors of stuttering.

Beyond representations of actual stuttering in Victorian literature and culture, navigating through the countless minor references to stuttering in Victorian literature also requires that literary critics are prescient of moments of “stuttering” in Victorian literature when characters express social uncertainty or nervousness. To cite but two of countless examples in Victorian literature, Dickens’s David Copperfield, who “stammer[s], with a bow” (135) when the eldest Miss Larkins invites him to dance, and Thomas Hardy’s Bathsheba Everdene and her “stammered” (127) rejection of Boldwood’s marriage proposal in Far From the Madding Crowd are both devoid of the gravitas of either plot or character momentum necessary to their overall narratives. Nor do they address directly instances of the speech disorder of stuttering, preferring instead to illuminate the supposed realism of character development through detailed attention to physiological signs of inner turmoil. In short, David Copperfield is not known for his “stammer,” but rather, for his fortitude in overcoming the misfortune of a low birth. That he stammers does not reveal anything significant about his character and Dickens does not exploit, in this instance, the metaphoric possibilities of David’s stammer nor translate this temporary impediment into a broader comment on his character’s psychological state. Similarly, Bathsheba’s momentary stammering highlights what Hardy sees as the complexities, especially for women, of negotiating one’s way through the demands of the social order or confirming to gendered traditions and social expectations. Such instances of temporary dysfluency suggest that the Victorians were prescient of moments when speech acts and utterances verge on the inarticulate and involuntary, when speech fails, and when meaning trembles in the translation of speech from self to other. Such instances are everywhere in Victorian literature, so the question remains: how does one begin to catalogue and critically analyze one of the period’s most consistent dialogic markers of speech?

An extensive archive of primary materials about the era’s cultural and aesthetic fascination with dysfluency exists, if only critics would accept a little nudge in the right direction. To date, though, Victorian studies seems to have ignored both close readings and contextual analyses of Victorian textbooks about stuttering and anxieties about dysfluency in literature, preferring instead to merely allude to provocative anecdotes about stuttering, such as those of Charles Kingsley and Lewis Carroll, or metaphors that might situate the Victorians within an emerging consciousness of modern aesthetics and the rhythms of everyday life. Like the ubiquity of references in the literature of the period, an exhaustive list of metaphors of stuttering in Victorian studies would be too numerous to catalogue here. Whether referring to the “ghostly stutter” (Groth 151) of Cameron’s photography, Hetty’s inability to kill herself, which “stutter[s] along in finite desolation” (Zemka 145) in Eliot’s Adam Bede, the “halted stutter of a new language” (Davis 68) in Dickens’s Dombey and Son, the “stuttering and uncertain” flow of information in Gaskell’s Sylvia’s Lovers (Pettitt 619), among countless other adoptions of the trope of stuttering in Victorian studies, even our best literary critics seem acutely aware of the aesthetic nature of stuttering as a description of that which hesitates or resists the fluency of meaning. Emphasis on a few of the more intriguing appropriations of stuttering in recent years highlights both the limitations of current thinking and the ways in which literary critics might enrich their understanding of where metaphors of stuttering come from and how they might be developed more provocatively.

It is no surprise that literary criticism of Dickens’s fiction offers the most sustained reliance on metaphors of stuttering in the absence of actually dysfluent characters. Dickens’s work is unique in the era because of its frequent recourse to both metaphors of stuttering and representations of minor characters who actually stutter. Garrett Stewart has developed an influential reading of Dickens’s mastery of language that relies extensively on problematic metaphors of dysfluency that, in its unacknowledged Deleuzian spirit, reduces stuttering to linguistic playfulness rather than symptoms of a debilitating speech disorder with no known cause or cure. Stewart’s analysis of Little Dorrit focuses on the dense, suffocating syntax that Dickens relies on in his analysis of London society. “That such language should stutter,” Stewart writes, “under the onus of an asphyxiating society and its literal imprisonments is to be expected in a novel whose chief symbol of political stultification is named for a notorious figure of speech [circumlocution]” (“Dickens and Language” 144). Stewart’s reference to circumlocution as a “degenerate habit of language” (144) produces a problematic mixed metaphor at the heart of his thesis about language. His conflation of circumlocution with stuttering condenses an inability to speak with an excessive wordiness, both of which become “degenerate.” Yet, as Dickens himself knew, as the father of a son who stuttered, circumlocution is often a necessary survival technique for people who stutter, more a way of working around blocks and hesitations, than it is a degenerate habit of speech. Certainly, many late-Victorian alienists and criminologists did view stuttering as a symptom of degeneracy, as Anne Stiles has suggested in her reading of the late-century theories of criminality (329). However, such appropriations as Stewart’s reveal an inconsistency in current cultural and literary notions of stuttering and stammering. Assuming that stuttering is akin to excessive speech is the equivalent in this instance of a refusal to consider stuttering on its own terms as a disability of speech.

Dickens scholars have also discussed in passing Sissy Jupe’s well-documented confusion of “stuttering” and “statistics” in the early chapters of Hard Times. Richard Menke has suggested that this early scene from the novel illuminates Victorian anxieties about the acceleration of communications technologies that seemed at the time to radically produce information that “might well seem fragmented and disjointed” (19). Menke’s brief analysis of Sissy’s insistence on referring to the science of statistics as a type of stuttering reinforces his sense that Dickens views the new statistics of the period as a “discourse so fitful and obstructed that it blocks communication and meaning” (19). Critics of Dickens often refer to similar instances of metaphors of stuttering in Dickens’s fiction and journalism (Davis 68, Greiner 104-07, Koven 115-16, Stewart’s Framed Time 254), but all such instances, reduce stuttering to a disembodied, abstract concept for describing the stilted rhythms of meaning production in Victorian culture.

As these examples from Dickens scholarship suggest, one of the problems of documenting incidences of misappropriated metaphors is that the concept of stuttering is such a provocative term for describing the staccato, hesitant, and involuntary rhythms of modernity in all of its technological and communicative developments. From a Deleuzian point of view, such readings of Dickens also situate his novels within a tradition of fiction that has the ability to make language itself stutter. Rae Greiner’s recent study Sympathetic Realism in Nineteenth-Century Fiction offers the most sustained reading of Dickens via Deleuzian stuttering to date (104-07). Yet, one cannot help wondering about the unintended consequences of reducing stuttering to merely a linguistic oddity divorced from an embodied experience of the world.

Victorian scholars also employ metaphors of stuttering to describe the ways in which literature engages with mass culture, urban experiences, class differences, and technological mediation of the speaking voice. Deborah McLeod’s reading of Joseph Conrad’s The Secret Agent, for example, argues that “the only voice truly willing to speak for the multitudes [in the novel] turns out to be a stuttering one, that of young Stevie (121). McLeod is not alone in Conrad studies when it comes to her reliance on metaphors of dysfluency, as Ivan Kreilkamp has made a similar point about Conrad’s fascination with the mediation of the voice in his reading of the phonographic logic of Heart of Darkness, referring as he does to a “stuttering perception of a ‘voice’ that fails to articulate or lead back to a clear identity” (232) in the novella’s narrative technique. In recent studies of Victorian print culture, Mark W. Turner alludes to the “stuttering rhythms of the marketplace” (121). Fleshing out the trope of stuttering as a descriptor of class differences between elite and everyday experiences, Catherine Robson argues that the Victorian memorization of English literature in British schools resulted in a contrast between children “mumbling [Thomas Gray’s “Elegy”] in the most elite institutions” and lower-class children “stuttering out its phrases in the lowliest of surroundings, thanks to the specific requirements of the nation’s burgeoning system of mass elementary education” (135). In each of the above instances, stuttering and stammering become provocative descriptors of all kinds of modern phenomena and experiences. But the person who stutters disappears into the intellectual ether, becoming an absent presence in critical discourse. One of my goals in this book project is to make Victorian people who stutter at least a little less murky and a whole lot more tangible.

Metaphors of stuttering and stammering are even more prevalent in current studies of Victorian poetry. Recent critical interest in the embodiment of the poetic voice introduces subtle, albeit unexamined, metaphors of dysfluent speech. Kirstie Blair’s recent study of the intersections of form and faith in Victorian poetry engages with Herbert Tucker’s well-known readings of Tennyson’s In Memoriam. Blair argues that Tucker’s critical analysis of the poem introduces a “stutter of doubt” (181) in the practice of interpretation. Likewise, Martin Dodsworth refers to the “stuttering formulation” (25) of suicide in Tennyson’s “The Two Voices.” In similar fashion, Gregory Tate’s essay on the embodied mind in Tennyson’s poetry contains a minor reference to the poet’s “stuttering metre” (66). Outside of Tennyson studies, C.D. Blanton refers to Matthew Arnold’s poetry and its penchant for “stuttering into half lines” (759) while Brian Donnelly discusses the “halting, hesitant stuttering” (484) lines of Christina Rossetti’s “Found.” Problematically, Donnelly argues that the formal effect of stuttering in Rossetti’s lines produces an anxiety in the reader, confirming yet again that Victorian scholars seem to struggle reading stuttering outside of the context of irritation and discontinuity.  We see more of evidence of this struggle in Melissa Schaub’s suggestion that Barrett Browning’s “The Runaway Slave at Pilgrim’s Point” contains “tortured syntax” and pauses that “both mimic and produce in the reader the stuttering and mental confusion found in moments of extreme emotional crisis” (562).

Each of these instances aligns dysfluency with hesitation, uncertainty, poetic arrhythmia, and intellectual irritation. Yet, unlike Max Nordau in his infamous critique of the degenerate poetry of the Victorians, Victorian studies scholars have embraced technical, linguistic, and prosodic stutters as intrinsic to the brilliance of poetic technique. In this regard, Schaub’s misappropriation, is especially problematic because of its implicit, and thoroughly incorrect, assumption that stuttering and mental anguish are coterminous symptoms. Like Stewart’s conflation of stuttering and circumlocution in his reading of Little Dorrit, such problematic assumptions that stuttering is an embodiment of mental anguish reveal how little literary scholars actually know about the etiology and symptomatology of stuttering and stammering, as they were understood both in the Victorian era and today. That literary critics so persistently employ metaphors of stuttering suggests how implicated criticism is with a widespread normative desire for fluency in the humanities, even when such critical fluencies attempt to articulate the tensions, contra-rhythms, hesitations, and pauses of cultural and literary phenomena that otherwise resists articulatory drives in the pursuit of knowledge. Again, one of my larger goals in the book project is to introduce a space for contemplating dysfluency without any latent or manifest desire for a fluency of meaning and epistemology.

Clearly there is much work to do in literary scholarship of the still-emerging field of dysfluency studies. While scholarship of modern and contemporary literature has embraced the topic of stuttering and stammering in recent years, criticism of Victorian literature could benefit from an examination of the assumptions about fluency that inform our thinking about Victorian culture. Metaphors of stuttering and stammering are very enticing as descriptions of wholesale changes in the industrialization of modern life beginning in the nineteenth century. However, when we rely too extensively on metaphors of discontinuity, hesitation, and disruption, and stoppage, we run the risk of defaulting to normative assumptions. This is a problem not only in literary criticism of the Victorian period, but also of current literary and critical theory in general.

Works Cited

 Blair, Kirstie. Form & Faith in Victorian Poetry and Religion. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2012.  

Blanton, C.D. “Arnold’s Arrhythmia.” SEL 48.4 (2008): 755-67.

Cunningham, Valentine. Victorian Poetry Now: Poets, Poems, and Poetics. Chichester: Wiley-

Blackwell, 2011.

Davis, Philip. Why Victorian Literature Still Matters. Chichester: Wiley, 2008.

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Donnelly, Brian. “Sonnet-Image-Intertext: Reading Rossetti’s The Girlhood of Virgin Mary

and Found. Victorian Poetry 48.4 (2010): 475-88.

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Groth, Helen. Victorian Photography and Literary Nostalgia. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2003.

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Shell, Marc. Stutter. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 2005.

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– – -.  Framed Time: Toward a Postfilmic Cinema. Chicago: Chicago UP, 2007.

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the History of Ideas 70.2 (2009): 317-39.

Tate, Gregory. “Tennyson and the Embodied Mind.” Victorian Poetry 47.1 (2009): 61-80.

Turner, Mark W. “Companions, Supplements, and the Proliferation of Print in the

1830s.” Victorian Periodicals Review 43.2 (2010): 119-32.

Yaeger, Patricia. “Consuming Trauma; or, the Pleasures of Merely Circulating.” Extremities:

Trauma, Testimony, and Community. Ed. Nancy K. Miller and Jason Tougaw. Champaign: U of Illinois P, 2002. 25-51.

Zemka, Sue. Time and the Moment in Victorian Literature and Society. Cambridge: Cambridge

UP, 2011.


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