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John Harvard's Journal

Marc Shell

January-February 2006

Marc Shell
Photograph by Stu Rosner

Marc Shell is Babbitt professor of comparative literature, a professor of English, a MacArthur Prize Fellow, and these days, as he puts it, “a more or less inaudible stutterer, or stammerer.” That he was “slow of speech” was conspicuous in his youth, when he failed the fourth grade in his hometown of Montreal. His school principal explained to him that stuttering was a “sure sign” of being mentally deficient. He had also had polio, which some local doctors thought lowered the IQ. Today, when he lectures to an anglophone audience in Montreal and finds himself about to stumble over an English word—“money,” say—he substitutes argent, perfectly legal in that bilingual place and a stutterer’s coping device called interlinguistic synonymy. He’s learned other such tactics and tells of them and of much else about this enigmatic disorder in his fascinating new book, Stutter (Harvard University Press). Shell works in several general areas. One is aesthetics and economics, where he has done a two-part study of “the internalization of monetary form in literature and philosophy,” starting with Heraclitus. Another is Renaissance studies, where he has written of sixteenth-century European politics and the works of Elizabeth I. A third is language and nationhood. His Harvard website notes, “Professor Shell says that these three areas are closely interrelated.” Shell is also co-director of the Longfellow Institute for the comparative study of the non-English languages and literatures of what is now the United States. He is married, with two grown children. These days his son, reports Shell, “is the only person I know who counts himself free to tease me about my speech.”