12 November 2010

Hunting the “Lunatic Fringe”

In Little Town on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder (and her uncredited co-writer, daughter Rose Wilder Lane) portrayed young Laura as wishing for a new hairdo, and put these words in Ma Ingalls’s mouth: “Mary Power is a nice girl, but I think the new hair style is well called a ‘lunatic fringe.’”

That scene is set in 1881-82, but the phrase “lunatic fringe” was usually attributed to Theodore Roosevelt three decades later. He first used it in a review of an art exhibition review for The Outlook magazine in 1913:

It is vitally necessary to move forward and to shake off the dead hand, often the fossilized dead hand, of the reactionaries; and yet we have to face the fact that there is apt to be a lunatic fringe among the votaries of any forward movement. In this recent art exhibition the lunatic fringe was fully in evidence, especially in the rooms devoted to the Cubists and the Futurists, or Near-Impressionists.
Roosevelt also used the phrase in his autobiography, published the same year:
Then, among the wise and high-minded people who in self-respecting and genuine fashion strive earnestly for peace, there are the foolish fanatics always to be found in such a movement and always discrediting it—the men who form the lunatic fringe in all reform movements.
And in the next chapter, “As I have already said, there is a lunatic fringe to every reform movement.” That last has become widely quoted. The phrase spread rapidly, showing up in one New Jersey man’s Congressional testimony against woman suffrage in 1914. The term was often credited to Roosevelt in that decade, though sometimes as “the fringe of lunacy.”

However, a few years back the Yale librarian and researcher Fred Shapiro reported finding much earlier examples of the phrase “lunatic fringe” in a non-political context. Indeed, he found them precisely as Ma Ingalls used the words. Sophie May’s story “Four Days” in the February 1874 issue of Oliver Optic’s Magazine for Young and Old includes this sentence:
“The girls!” exclaimed Miss Lizzie, lifting her eyebrows till they met the “lunatic fringe” of hair which straggled uncurled down her forehead.
The Yale Alumni Magazine quoted a couple more citations from the next two years, indicating this was indeed the name of a fashionable hairstyle. As alumnae writing to the magazine have pointed out, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s recollection from the late 1800s was accurate. Roosevelt was playing off a phrase he’d no doubt heard in his youth.

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