Faculty Q&A: Modernist Authors on the Popular Lecture Tour with Robert Volpicelli

News Story categories: English Faculty Writing
A man on a lecture tour.

Randolph-Macon English Assistant Professor Volpicelli describes the modernists—who include Oscar Wilde, W.B. Yeats, Gertrude Stein, Rabindranath Tagore, and W.H. Auden—as authors who sought to present their work as “serious, difficult, and, quite frankly, elitist,” which makes his account of their very popular lectures tours through America all the more surprising. This summer, Professor Volpicelli, through the Oxford University Press, has published Transatlantic Modernism and the US Lecture Tour, the first comprehensive study of modernist authors who toured the U.S. in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

We sat down with Dr. Volpicelli to hear more about his research and the book he has recently published.

Why did these authors, who lived primarily overseas, come to America and tour the country?

They typically joined the lecture tour, or the “circuit,” for the money. Making profit as a poet has always been pretty difficult, but the US lecture tour was a lucrative affair and thus served as a way for these authors to fund their literary writing. All across the country during this period, Americans would flock to lecture halls (sometimes even on a Saturday night!) to hear entertaining lecturers speak on any variety of subjects. The popular traveling shows that emerged in the late nineteenth century, such as P.T. Barnum’s famous circuses, also included orators and public speakers directly alongside their other, more exotic attractions. In short, public speaking was a big business, one that was made possible by the fact that the country had newly invested in a major transportation network, the transcontinental railroad, that could shuttle these speakers from one town to the next.

The men and women you write about were international celebrities of their era. You share that they were greeted by press, and throngs of people. What did they lecture about?

This was a time when poets were our national spokespersons, and the authors that I examine in this book arrived in America to much fanfare. When W.B. Yeats’s steamship docked in New York City in the fall of 1903, he posed for photographs in his new chinchilla fur coat (purchased expressly for the trip) and fielded questions from dozens of reporters. The experimental writer Gertrude Stein, whose first book had only sold a couple hundred copies in the US, routinely drew such large audiences for her lectures that she requested they cap them at 500 attendees. These authors were some of our first cultural celebrities—and, as celebrities often do, they spoke out on a variety of subjects. They would lecture about their writing, but they were also asked to weigh in on the major questions of their day, including political questions. For example, Americans were always eager to hear how Yeats felt about the British empire and Ireland’s quest for national independence.

In archival research for the book, you unearthed tour ephemera like pamphlets and cartoons, unpublished lectures, and lots of interesting stories about these very well-known writers. What are some of your favorite anecdotes?

Looking through newspaper archives, I came across an extremely dramatic story about the Bengali poet Rabindranath Tagore, who was the first Asian writer to win the Nobel Prize for literature. Tagore’s Nobel victory in 1913 caused a major stir, and he quickly became quite a controversial figure on the US lecture tour—so much so, in fact, that he was almost assassinated in the lobby of a California hotel. Apparently, police got there just in time to intervene and safely escort him to a nearby city. As one could imagine, the newspaper headlines afterwards were just absolutely sensational.

Some of my other favorite stories have to do with the way the lecture tour produced interesting, and highly unlikely, encounters between international authors and US audiences. Here, I’m thinking of the time when Oscar Wilde lectured to miners from Colorado on how to beautify their homes; or when W.B. Yeats sat down with President Theodore Roosevelt to discuss Irish fairies; or when Gertrude Stein was drawn into a conversation about US college football when she was being interviewed on an NBC radio show. These are just some of the instances in which the lecture tour blended high modernist literature with other types of culture.

Is the lecture circuit a bygone past time, in your opinion? Are their authors today whom you could see on tour?  

Yes, and no. In my book, I trace the history of the lecture tour’s decline by the mid-twentieth century. This has to do with the rise of research universities in America and the way these institutions claimed lecturing as their own special domain. So, after 1950 or so, you no longer really had authors traveling around to all of these popular venues, where they would interact with many different types of American audiences. Instead, writers generally became entrenched in educational institutions as “writers-in-residence,” or they did reading tours that focused almost exclusively on colleges and universities. Dylan Thomas is an example of a poet who undertook such tours in America. This is a phenomenon that still continues today with our major literary icons. I remember seeing Toni Morrison speak when I was in graduate school, and she had easily sold out a university auditorium that seated a couple thousand people. And then the other phenomenon we have today that continues the legacy of the lecture tour would be something like TED talks, which certainly blur the line between education and entertainment in the same way that the lecture tour did some one hundred years ago.