Literary modernism developed alongside the emergence of a new set of diagnostic categories designed to describe degrees of supposedly subnormal intelligence. Guided by the emergent discipline of psychometry in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, terms that had signaled developmental delay and physical frailty in the early nineteenth century, such as idiocy and imbecility, began to signal degrees of deviation from cognitive norms.
Betty Miller opens her 1946 “Notes for an Unwritten Autobiography” provocatively, branding herself a “Fifth Columnist” who had at one time worked to undermine her country from within. Rather than any clandestine operation that she participated in as an adult, however, Miller’s stint as a “Fifth Columnist” occurred when she was just a child. While a young girl in a nursery in Ireland, Miller increasingly became captivated by the image of the German Kaiser Wilhelm II. Although Miller understood that the Kaiser must be “the most wicked man on earth,” she nevertheless felt a combination of powerful fascination and pity because he was so seemingly friendless and ostracized.