Peer Reviewed

Exclusive to M/m Print Plus

How to Read a Person: Elsie Lincoln Benedict’s Science of Human Analysis

Wonder Woman controls crowds, stops traffic, and makes all your wishes come true. This is not a description of the comic-book heroine invented by William Moulton Marston in 1941 but of Elsie Lincoln Benedict (1885–1970), who earned the “Wonder Woman” moniker for her self-help secrets and life-changing lectures (fig. 1). Instead of evil supervillains, she battled naysaying and bad habits. Instead of ensnaring the weak with a lasso of truth, she entranced audiences with her unmatched public speaking prowess. Her X-ray vision could diagnose a person with a single glance.

“See and Hear the Wonder Woman!” The Los Angeles Times, February 21, 1929, 4.
Fig. 1. “See and Hear the Wonder Woman!” The Los Angeles Times, February 21, 1929, 4.

From Suffragism to Self-Help

Billed as “the World’s best-known lecturer” in her day, Elsie Benedict may be the most popular woman orator that nobody has ever heard of (fig. 2). A forgotten star of the suffrage movement who used her oratorical skills to convert even the most resistant counties to the women’s cause, Benedict was hailed as the model for fundraising and recruitment by none other than Carrie Chapman Catt, director of the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and the founder of the League of Women Voters. After working to secure women’s right to vote, in the 1920s, Benedict turned her talents of persuasion to self-help, penning over a dozen manuals on personality, practical psychology, and the science of success. She disseminated her teachings on subjects from worry to career not only through manuals and lectures, but also her “Benedict School of Opportunity,” which introduced what she called the “science of human analysis”: a method of “learn[ing] to read people as easily as you read books—if you will take the little time and pains to learn the rules which compose your working alphabet.”[1]

“The World’s best-known Lecturer,” The Age, Melbourne, Australia, November 1, 1930, 21
Fig. 2. “The World’s best-known Lecturer,” The Age, Melbourne, Australia, November 1, 1930, 21.

Benedict’s writings offer a tantalizing—albeit sometimes conservative—countervoice to the modernist period’s enthusiasm for flappers (caricatured with their “bobbed hair, . . . toddle, . . . [and] exposed kneecaps”!), jazz (dismissed as a “Passing Fad” and blind addiction), and Sigmund Freud (denigrated as too sex obsessed).[2] As part of the broader New Psychology movement which rose to popularity in the 1920s, Benedict’s methods at once drew upon and offered an alternative to psychoanalysis’ unsettling behavioral categories and protracted diagnostic procedures. Her popularizations of psychoanalysis comforted readers that it was not the sex instinct but the ego instinct that most dominated the individuals’ motivations (“the fright has gone out of Freud,” as she averred).[3]

Her immensely popular manual, How to Analyze People on Sight, published in 1921, instructs readers on how to navigate its taxonomy of the five most prominent human characters: The Alimentive Type, The Thoracic Type, The Muscular Type, The Osseous Type, and the Cerebral Type—or, in the layman’s translations Benedict provides: the Enjoyer, the Thriller, the Worker, the Stayer, and the Thinker. She argued that both the national economy and individual happiness depend on the proper diagnosis and accommodation of type: “the first problem of your happiness is to find out what type you are yourself . . . The second is to learn how to analyze others to the end that your relationships with them may be harmonious and mutually advantageous” (How to Analyze, 30). Though her classifications can conjure a complacency reminiscent of Mrs. Dalloway’s villain Dr. Bradshaw, with his “almost infallible accuracy in diagnosis,” Benedict’s belief in the detrimental consequences of not being able to express or inhabit one’s type also had a progressive element shared by some of her novel-writing contemporaries, such as Ford Madox Ford and Joseph Conrad, whose fictions depict the misunderstandings and even tragedies that can ensue when one fails to read a person right.[4]

Benedict’s strategic guides to forming and producing impressions offer a fresh context for the literary impressionism being advanced by the modernists of her time. For the modernists,  much like their self-help counterparts, as Jesse Matz observes, impressionism was seen as “the key to success in life” and considered crucial “to a life well lived.”[5] During the same years as Benedict was teaching readers how to “impress, convince, persuade, and understand” other people (fig. 3), modernists were advancing their own art of impression management.  Ford advised fellow writers to “[a]lways consider the impressions that you are making upon the mind of the reader, and always consider that the first impression with which you present him will be so strong that it will be all that you can ever do to efface it.”[6]

“7 Free Lectures: How To Read People At Sight,” The San Francisco Examiner, October 1, 1919, 1
Fig. 3. “7 Free Lectures: How To Read People At Sight,” The San Francisco Examiner, October 1, 1919, 1.

An early example of the intersection of politics and self-help, Benedict’s work and biography also link the modernist period to the present.[7] Her investment in the power of diagnosis to effect self-improvement and social reform suggests that these projects may not be as mutually incompatible as they appear, at the same time as her determinations of type exhibit the disturbing alignment of these aims with discourses of physiognomy, eugenics, and other problematic and enduring racialized models of collective progress.

Benedict’s career also brings to the fore a little-addressed aspect of self-help’s history, which is its number of powerful and persuasive female figures. She lies at the secular end of a spectrum of charismatic self-help speakers and leaders that also included Ella Wheeler Wilcox, Phoebe Marie Holmes, Genvieve Behrend, Elizabeth Towne, and Aimee Semple McPherson, the popular evangelist and pioneering radio celebrity whom Benedict is rumored to have sheltered for periods in her house in Carmel, California.[8] It initially seems puzzling that Benedict would have so seamlessly transitioned from her career as a suffragist to a self-help accommodationist, from advocating women’s rights to advising, through the use of color psychology, that women who want a “contented hubby” ought to paint their living rooms green.[9] Her career thus also offers an opportunity to examine the buried links between these seemingly polarized endeavors.

A brief scan of the headlines and journalism associated with Benedict’s work immediately testifies to her skill as an orator and rhetorician. She was arrested for blocking traffic at a suffrage rally in Lincoln, Nebraska, after a crowd that started with nineteen people purportedly snowballed into a group of 3,000 individuals.[10] When a similar scene erupted in Ilion, New York, a journalist noted that “Those who have studied suffrage in New York State said tonight that never in 66 years has such a scene been enacted at a street meeting.”[11] The strongest endorsement of Benedict’s powers of persuasion came from Catt, who, in a letter to her field workers, related the lesson of how Benedict won over Genesee County, Michigan: “Last year I visited this county and put it down as the sourest lemon in our basket of lemons. Two clubs in Batavia, neither led by influential people, hated each other so fervently that the cause was in a position of actual disgrace.”[12] Following seven months raising money, organizing meetings, and converting town leaders to the cause, Benedict’s report was, according to Catt, “easily the most triumphant turned in by any organizer in any district, and when taken in conjunction with the state of apathy which existed in the country it furnishes encouragement and hope for all the State” (Catt, letter to field workers, 1915) (fig. 4).

Carrie Chapman Catt, letter to field workers, Schlesinger Library, Harvard University.
Fig. 4. Carrie Chapman Catt, letter to field workers, Schlesinger Library, Harvard University.

Benedict’s ability to reassure her audience links her suffragist and self-help successes. Her suffrage work assured male voters that the influence of biological nature was so strong they need not fear women would become anti-domestic simply by having the vote. She maintained that marriages and domestic lives would be more peaceful if women were able to express their opinions and true characters, for she believed that the entire community benefits when people are allowed to pursue their types. (Along these lines, one of her more eccentric ideas was a system of “double mothering”: a social arrangement in which the “brainy” women would bear the children and then the more nurturing ones would raise them).[13]

Her self-help work extended Benedict’s suffragist insistence on the importance of women’s social and political participation, even as it emphasized the necessity of self-expression. In her model, every individual’s contentment depends on the ability to pursue and express natural inclinations, which are in turn necessary for social harmony. In Mental Analysis, for example, she argued that women need to feel “part of the big world” and to pursue the vocations for which they are best suited (Mental Analysis, 277–78). More simply, her conviction that individual agency improves reality links these two sides of her career.

How to Analyze People on Sight gave voice to the intensifying feeling in the early twentieth century that entanglement with others was the new reality and social necessity. Benedict’s promise that she could teach how to read people like “an X-ray” would soon be taken up by Dale Carnegie’s textbook on human relations, How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936), which is similarly premised on the argument that one’s happiness depends on one’s ability to navigate the weaknesses and desires of other people (How to Analyze, 11).

Early self-help’s strategic emphasis on the skill of diagnosis was tied to its preoccupation with the economic consequentiality of social relations. Using language Carnegie would soon emulate, Benedict exclaims, “did you ever stop to think how everything you want out of life is within the hands of other people to give you or withhold from you?”[14] She hypothesizes, “if we could bring together all the people with whom a man has come into contact from the cradle to the grave we would find that his life had been a failure or success in proportion as they had opened or closed the avenues of opportunity to him” (How to Utilize, 121, emphasis in original). She concludes, “every person who had used their influence for or against that man would tell us he acted according to the impression he had of that man” (121).

As such passages suggest, impressions determine the course and quality of a life. Benedict’s writings are equally concerned with how to produce a desirable impression and how to refine one’s impressions or perceptions of others. Each section of her book begins with a description of a different social type and ends with practical advice for accommodating, pleasing, and persuading this kind of person, whether in business or social settings. For example, her chapter on the “Alimentive type” (Enjoyer) enumerates this individual’s love of comedy, girly shows, and the circus, his avoidance of quarrels and ill-suitedness for social reform. In contrast to the Alimentive type is the Cerebral individual, a genus common to academic departments who “writes better than he talks,” can be spotted in the library’s research section, even in summer, is often poor, and clumsily endures “a life-long feud with inanimate things” (How to Analyze, 243, 238).

As the reference to girly shows might indicate, and despite the intriguing points of convergence between Benedict’s feminist and self-help endeavors, her writings on type often relied on conservative conceptions of social roles and relations. Her physiognomic belief in appearance as a window into character evoked the arguments about racial and biological destiny being advanced by eugenics. A pointy nose, for instance, denotes an “active mind,” while a bony physique indicates a steady and reliable temperament.[15] As she writes: “Human Analysis explains those fundamental traits which run through every race, color and nationality, according to the externals which always go with those traits” (How to Analyze, 22).[16] Along with Arnold Bennett and William James, who argued that dissolute behavior and slothful habits make their imprint on our minds and physiques, Benedict maintains that we should be disciplined and prudent not because God is watching or society will suffer but because our body will remember our transgressions. For such authors, the truth of the individual does not reside in internal psychology, such as stream of consciousness depicts, but in the contours of one’s muscles and the wrinkles on one’s skin.

This view of the body as a reliable index to temperament forms the justification for Benedict’s emphasis on the authority of the impression; a term also being invoked by modernists such as Ford and Woolf to explain their new narrative method. Rather than the “impressionist problematic” that Michael Fried defines as the writer’s struggle with the materiality of literary composition, or the post-Enlightenment “Impression mediation” that Matz describes in his pivotal study of modernist aesthetics, for Benedict and her fellow practical philosophers, impressionism designates a way of navigating the postwar reputation economy (Matz, Literary Impressionism, 9).[17] Matz’s sequel to his first book traces the contemporary legacies of impressionism in works of behavioral economics and how-to guides to popular cognition such as Malcom Gladwell’s Blink, whereas Benedict helps to make visible that impressionism’s therapeutic and professional connotations were already prevalent in the modernist period.[18] In celebrating perception as an alternative to the narrative reporting associated with the Victorians, modernists retooled the rhetoric of impressionistic immediacy and influence being advanced by mass-cultural guides.

Modernist Impression Management

Self-help and modernism share a fatalistic view of the impression’s irrevocable social consequence, but modernist narrative flourishes where first impressions go awry. For example, in the 1923 speech that would become “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” Woolf describes the importance of judging type to surviving the interwar social scene:

every one in this room is a judge of character. Indeed it would be impossible to live for a year without disaster unless one practised character-reading and had some skill in the art. Our marriages, our friendships depend on it; our business largely depends on it; every day questions arise which can only be solved by its help.[19]

Like Benedict’s handbook, Woolf’s essay argues for recognizing the importance of something as vague, quick, subjective, and intuitive as the impression to social flourishing.  While Woolf’s modernism shared with the self-help of the period a desire to recognize one’s impressions and to investigate their meaning, the impression is often figured in her texts not only as an aesthetic ideal but also as an overwhelming influence one struggles to escape: “The impression [Mrs. Brown] made was overwhelming. It came pouring out like a draught” (“Mr. Bennett,” 195).[20] In Mrs. Dalloway, Peter Walsh muses that his “susceptibility to impressions had been his undoing” (71).

Like Woolf, Ford is more interested in the imperfections of impressions than in their accuracy or status as a window into the other person’s true self. While Benedict claimed to have developed a science of first sight, Ford emphasizes the inaccuracy of his characters’ first impressions in a way that exposes the importance of knowing how to read others, but also asserts the dangers of overconfidence in one’s people-reading skills. The Good Soldier offers a lesson in the perils of the people-reading illiteracy Benedict sought to correct. Benedict admonished in a 1922 lecture, “Most people use less brains in selecting the person with whom they are to spend their lives than they do in choosing an automobile, a bicycle or a cut of steak,” and Ford’s adultery tale dilates on the consequences of such neglect.[21] John Dowell of The Good Soldier, for instance, boasts of his capacity to form accurate judgments about others upon first sight, noting that during his “short incursion into American business life” he found that “to rely upon first impressions was the best thing I could do.”[22] But Dowell’s complacency is misplaced, for he errs in his impression of the Ashburnhams to be financially and morally “good people” and also in perceiving the adultery-prone Florence as an eligible and desirable wife (Good Soldier, 34).

Ford’s critique of the authority of instantaneous diagnosis comes across in his well-known account of his friend Joseph Conrad’s novelistic method:

You meet an English gentleman at your golf club. He is beefy, full of health, the moral of the boy from an English Public School of the finest type. You discover, gradually, that he is hopelessly neurasthenic, dishonest in matters of small change, but unexpectedly self-sacrificing, a dreadful liar but a most painfully careful student of lepidoptera and, finally, from the public prints, a bigamist who was once, under another name, hammered on the Stock Exchange. . . . Still, there he is, the beefy, full-fed fellow, moral of an English Public School product. To get such a man in fiction you . . . must first get him in with a strong impression, and then work backwards and forwards over his past.[23]

Such passages raise the possibility that a guide to reading people on sight is redundant because that is what everyone is already doing. “The impression is as hard and definite as a tin-tack,” Ford warned (“On Impressionism,” 39). Our snap judgments of others are in fact part of the problem for these novelists, whose narratives document just how reluctant most individuals are to change their minds. Modernism’s descriptive investment in the impression stems from an implicit belief in its importance to “success in life,” as Matz noted, while Benedict explicitly aims to teach readers to be two steps ahead of the impression so that the Dowells of the world would not be duped so easily again. Unlike Ford’s and Conrad’s narrative method, Benedict uses her diagnostic taxonomy to undermine the illusion of exceptional individualism; everyone is some combination of her five essential types, which she claims can be ascertained with a single glance. In contrast, the limitations of first sight appear to be built into the modernist enterprise, not only through the representation of character but also through the formal techniques of encoding, difficulty, and allusiveness.[24]

Bristling against what they perceived as oppressive, late-nineteenth century social and aesthetic norms, Benedict and the modernists of her time argued in favor of the necessity of self-expression to social progress, whether this took the political form of women’s rights, and parenting and marital freedoms, or of the aesthetic incorporation of more inclusive, subjective, and unorthodox narrative representations. Benedict and modernism meet in their belief that living, like writing, is largely a matter of managing impressions. However, modernism’s answer to the question of how to read people on sight might be that one simply can’t.


Notes

My thanks to Alex Creighton and Michelle Taylor for their crucial assistance with different stages of this article’s preparation during my maternity leave and after.

[1] Elsie Lincoln Benedict and Ralph Paine Benedict, How to Analyze People on Sight Through The Science of Human Analysis: The Five Human Types (East Aurora, NY: Printed and bound by the Roycrofters, 1921), 23.

[2] Elsie Lincoln Benedict, quoted in Mrs Martha Lee, “Jazz Drags its Blinded Addicts Back Towards the Mental and Emotional State of the Savage,” The Atlanta Constitution, Sunday, February 26, 1922 ; see Elsie Lincoln Benedict and Ralph Paine Benedict, How to Unlock Your Subconscious Mind Through the Science of Mental Analysis (East Aurora, NY: Printed and bound by the Roycrofters, 1921), 228–229.

[3] Elsie Lincoln Benedict, quoted in “World Emerges from Sex Cloud,” The San Francisco Examiner, Sunday, July 17, 1927.

[4] Virginia Woolf, Mrs. Dalloway (San Diego, CA: Harcourt, Inc., 1925), 95.

[5] Jesse Matz, Literary Impressionism and Modernist Aesthetics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), 1, 6.

[6] Ford Madox Ford, “On Impressionism,” Critical Writings of Ford Madox Ford (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1964), 33–55, 39.

[7] In addition to the democratic candidate Marianne Williamson, who is also a self-help guru, Donald Trump was a devoted member of Normal Vincent Peale’s Manhattan congregation. See Chris Roycroft-Davis, “Did this positive thinker’s self-help book make Donald Trump president?Sunday Express, November 16, 2016.

[8] In particular, Benedict’s work on the five human types is an early and pivotal example of the role of women in spearheading what became the two billion-dollar industry of Type, according to Merve Emre’s immersive history of Katherine Briggs and Isabel Briggs Myers, founders of the MBTI. See Merve Emre, The Personality Brokers: The Strange History of Myers-Briggs and the Birth of Personality Testing (New York: Doubleday, 2018), xviii.

[9] Elsie Lincoln Benedict, “Want Contented Hubby? Put him in Green Room,” The Salt Lake Telegram, Saturday, July 8, 1922.

[10] See the Lincoln Journal Star, September 16, 1915, 10.

[11] “Police chief increases crowd from 19 to 3,000,” The Woman’s Journal, September 25, 1915.

[12] Carrie Chapman Catt, letter to field workers, [April] 1915. Helen Brewster Owen Papers, 1867–1968, Box 3, folder 46, Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.

[13] “Prophesies a System of ‘Double Mothering’: Lecturer Thinks Time Will Come When the Brainy Women Will Bear Children and the Calm, Comfortable Women Will Care for Them During Their Early Years,” Detroit Free Press, May 28, 1922.

[14] Elsie Lincoln Benedict and Ralph Paine Benedict, How to Utilize Your Mind Through The Science of Practical Psychology (East Aurora, NY: Printed and bound by the Roycrofters, 1922), 121, emphasis in original.

[15] Fay King, “Do You Know Why You’ve Got a Dimple? Were you Meant to Be a Blacksmith?” The San Francisco Examiner, December 22, 1918; See How to Analyze, 100.

[16] As an example of such racialized traits, Benedict claims that “Love of self-government, plus fighting pluck, both of which are inherent in the Muscular Irish race, are responsible for the long struggle for their independence” (How to Analyze, 169).

[17] Michael Fried, What Was Literary Impressionism? (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2018), 23.

[18] See Jesse Matz, Lasting Impressions: The Legacies of Impressionism in Contemporary Culture (New York: Columbia University Press, 2016), 254–281.

[19] Virginia Woolf, “Mr. Bennett and Mrs. Brown,” in The Virginia Woolf Reader, ed. Mitchell A. Leaska (Orlando, FL: Harcourt, 1984), 192–212, 194.

[20] For more on Woolf and self-help, see Beth Blum, The Self-Help Compulsion (New York: Columbia University Press, 2020).

[21] Elsie Lincoln Benedict, lecture at Scottish Rite Auditorium, 1922, quoted in Wikipedia.

[22] Ford Madox Ford, The Good Soldier: A Tale of Passion (London: Penguin Books, 2002), 124.

[23] Ford Madox Ford, Joseph Conrad: A Personal Remembrance (London: Duckworth & Co, 1924), 129, first ellipsis in original.

[24] This belief in the partiality of first sight is key not only to modernist practice but also to the traditions of close reading and the “hermeneutics of suspicion.”