Sickening Enthusiasm

I would like to acknowledge Foreign Correspondent‘s interest in enthusiasm, extremes, and opposites. I noticed throughout the way that the book comments on the undesirability of extremes. For example, it does so first, and most blatantly, when Johnnie warns the reader, “These are fraught times we find ourselves in: where managing to appear bubbly but not too, sincere but not too, intellectual but not too, political but not too, edgy but not too, flirtatious but not too, etc.,…is a skill that can carry you” (17-18).  She tells us that to be successful, especially as a foreign correspondent, one must be “successfully assimilated” (17). Unfortunately, she doesn’t seem to realize that she is about to demonstrate to us that she is in fact not “neutralized” (17), and, furthermore, she is not a successful foreign correspondent.  

Even before this moment, the idea of extremism, polarity, and opposites is introduced. Johnnie tells us that people who are “quick to pick fights…are also quick to classify the world in terms of threat vs. shelter, extortion vs. compensation” (12). This concept of the undesirability of extremity interested me from this point on, especially considering the way that Johnnie acts and writes in a rather extreme manner – with exaggerated dramatic phrasing – in many of her correspondences.  But when the sports reporter described Johnnie’s behaviors as “sickening enthusiasm” (88), I laughed and became even more interested – and definitely more empathetic – partially because it began to seem like a weakness that Johnnie just couldn’t manage to overcome no matter how hard she tried and partially because  I thought of myself. (It has been a bit of a joke between Bailey and I for the last year or so to use the word enthusiastic as a euphemism for some of my own characteristics – such as my tendency to talk a lot and to be very intense about school. Bailey has assured me that I’m not strange, just…enthusiastic.) Howard doubtlessly portrays Johnnie as a pitiable character – even the phrasing of “sickening enthusiasm” implies that the sports writer pities her and that the reader should pity her. Her enthusiasm is unavoidable; it’s a sickness. It’s a constant compulsion to act extremely that cannot be tamed. We are meant to sympathize with Johnnie for this: We want to tell her that if she didn’t try so hard to correspond with Scooter then she might have more success, and we want to stop her from sending each next letter because we know that when people act “too” anything, they become strange and unrelatable. But we also know that Johnnie’s enthusiasm means that even if we could tell her she’s being too extreme, we wouldn’t really be able to stop her from doing it – neither can the sports reporter, neither can Johni, and neither can Scooter’s discontinued correspondence. Even when Johnnie herself recognizes that she has made “grave tactical errors of correspondence” (74), she still can’t quell her enthusiasm. Enthusiasm persists – it’s stronger than logic and stronger than the knowledge that something may not really be appropriate. 

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