Date of Award


Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Graduate Group


First Advisor

Heather K. Love

Second Advisor

Emily Steinlight


This dissertation argues that issues of vocal disability are crucial for understanding the literary culture of the nineteenth century. It uses the term “dysfluency” as an umbrella to designate modes of articulation that deviate from normative expectations of pace, pitch, and fluency such as stammering, lisping, and mutism. Dysfluent speech populates an extraordinary amount of nineteenth-century texts, ranging from the novels of Charlotte Brontë and William Thackeray to the autobiographical writings of Frederick Douglass and Charlotte Tonna, while also playing a formative role in the lives of some of the period’s most influential writers, including Lewis Carroll and Henry James. However, it remains underexamined by literary scholars due to assumptions about the supremacy of print literature over vocal expression in the period. By contrast, my cultural history of dysfluency reveals that both the authorial writing body and the characterological written body were constituted in relation to the nineteenth century’s vocal prescriptions and deviations. I turn to a wide range of textual genres featuring dysfluency to explore this dynamic: lisping lovers in courtship plots, a baby-talking fairy in a fantastical children’s story, a mute detective in a sensation novel, a stammering aristocrat in a stage comedy, a range of vocal disabilities in life-writing, and more. Using text to apprehend vocal disability is a historical necessity as audio-recording technologies were not widely available until after 1877; however, this necessity demonstrates how nineteenth-century efforts to standardize the voice occurred first and foremost textually, whether through the explicit directives of elocution manuals and pronunciation dictionaries or the more implicit ideological workings of literature. The project builds on the insights of disability studies, but departs from one of the field’s foundational claims that disability acquires its modern definitions through regimes of visuality. Instead, I show that emphasizing the oral/aural elements of disability expands its capacity as a category of discrimination and identification. My analysis of how dysfluency generated its own forms of discipline as well as its own types of pleasure in a crucial moment in the history of human speech elucidates vocal hierarchies of ability that remain influential today.


Available to all on Saturday, September 09, 2023

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