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Victorian Talk: Human Media and Literary Writing in the Age of Mass Print


“Victorian Talk: Human Media and Literary Writing in the Age of Mass Print” investigates a mid- to late-Victorian interest in the literary achievements of quotidian forms of talk such as gossip, town talk, idle talk, chatter, and chitchat. I argue that such forms of talk became inseparable from the culture of mass print that had fully emerged by the 1860s. For some, such as Oscar Wilde’s mother, Lady Jane Francesca Wilde, this interdependence between everyday oral culture and “cheap literature” was “destroy[ing] beauty, grace, style, dignity, and the art of conversation,” but for many others, print’s expanded reach was also transforming talk into a far more powerful “media.” Specifically, talk seemed to take on some aspects of print’s capacity to float free from the bodies of individual speakers and endlessly reproduce across previously unimaginable expanses. Yet talk—before the emergence of “talk media” such as the radio—stayed rooted to human bodies for circulation and therefore remained unique from print in other ways. Newly visible as strangely hybrid “human media” in this period, talk presented opportunities for literary innovation and experimentation. My chapters explore Charles Dickens’s and William Makepeace Thackeray’s chatty, editorial journalism; town talk and viral publicity in Robert Browning’s poetry; idle talk in Stevenson’s and Mark Twain’s adventure fictions; drawing-room chatter in Ella Hepworth Dixon’s and Oscar Wilde’s Society comedies; and journalistic disfluency in Joseph Conrad and Ford Madox Ford’s collaborative science fiction.

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