“And with all she lived with casual unawareness of her value to civilization”: Close-reading Eleanor Roosevelt’s Autofabrication
Full recordShow full item record
AbstractEleanor Roosevelt’s presumable modesty and shyness are among her most habitually applauded private characteristics, by academic historians and public educators alike (e.g. Binker and Farrell, Ken Burns, Doris Kearns Goodwin), and yet she remains the most powerful American female political agent who has never run for democratic office. This paradox is often understood as part and parcel of Eleanor Roosevelt’s enigmatic quality, but doing so mystifies rather than explains the rhetorical and cultural mechanisms that produced ER’s audacious modesty as a crucial factor in her success. This article uses methods from literary studies to analyze the rhetorical strategies and transnational reception of Eleanor Roosevelt’s self-presentation and reticence, in order to show how these created a position of great ‘soft’ power for her. I will close-read excerpts from Roosevelt’s “My Day” columns and magazine articles against contemporary and later representations of her invisible power and powerful invisibility. First I trace how ER cast an impression of modesty and reticence, and through that, of a seemingly innocent but powerful agency. Then I turn to American and transatlantic receptions of Eleanor Roosevelt’s self-presentation in the American and international establishment, focusing particularly on fictional and non-fictional projections of ER as a globally recognized maternal figure or, within the American context, a potential presidential candidate. I argue that what Roosevelt herself once termed “casual unawareness of her value to society” was crucial in the construction of a feminine power position that enabled her to wield unusual influence, both as first lady and as a public intellectual and diplomat. The article, through analyzing discourse and cultural construction, sheds new light on the detailed rhetorical mechanics of how Eleanor Roosevelt put her temperament to work in realizing her ideals.