Although largely forgotten today, elocution was a popular form of domestic and professional entertainment from the late nineteenth century until around World War II....

Although largely forgotten today, elocution was a popular form of domestic and professional entertainment from the late nineteenth century until around World War II. Elocution is the dramatic reading of poetry, adapted plays, and other types of monologues by a solo performer. Dr. Marian Wilson Kimber’s new book, The Elocutionists: Women, Music, and the Spoken Word (University of Illinois Press, 2017) is the first study to examine elocutionists who recited spoken word accompanied by music and proscribed movements that reflected the emotional meaning of the piece. Informed by archival sources gathered all over the country, Wilson Kimber engages with this practice through multiple lenses, including gender, race, and class as she untangles not only how elocution was performed, but also what it meant to its practitioners and audiences. She highlights important figures that some may know from other areas such as Kitty Cheatham, an advocate for and performer of African American spirituals, and the actress Fanny Kemble. However, most of the women she profiles were performers, entrepreneurs, and composers whose work has disappeared from public view as their artform fell out of favor. In addition to reciting in concert halls and for women’s clubs, professional elocutionists usually taught others and many founded their own schools in towns and cities throughout the United States. Their work helped create opportunities for women to move into professional occupations and contributed to twentieth-century conceptions of middle-class respectability. Dr. Wilson Kimber has videotaped several reconstructions of elocution performances which can be seen on her YouTube channel here. They are surprisingly humorous and address topics that people will recognize today including the pressure on women to dress fashionably, the excitement of a summer romance, and the aches and pains of aging. Learn more about The Elocutionists here.

Marian Wilson Kimber is a professor in the School of Music at the University of Iowa. Her work centers on gender and music of the long nineteenth century in Germany and the United States. She has published articles on anti-Semitism in the reception of music by Felix Mendelssohn in The Mendelssohns: Their Music in History, the piano work of Fanny Mendelssohn Hensel in The Journal of Musicological Research, and issues of feminist biography in the life of Fanny Hensel in NineteenthCentury Music. The Elocutionists has been supported by subventions from the Society for American Music and the American Musicological Society, as well as research funding from the National Endowment for the Humanities and the Mellon Foundation. She is also an active member of the American Musicological Society and the University Iowa Chapter of the American Association of University Professors.


Kristen M. Turner, Ph.D. is a lecturer at North Carolina State University in the music department. Her work centers on American musical culture at the turn of the twentieth century and has been published in several journals and essay collections.

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