Clarke and Halloran, _Oratorical Culture in 19th Century America_

Clark, Gregory, and S. Michael Halloran, ed. Oratorical Culture in Nineteenth-Century America: Transformations in the Theory and Practice of Rhetoric. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1993. (281 pages)

Clark and Halloran, Introduction: Transformations of Public Discousre in 19th Century America

Clark and Halloran in their introductory chapter, look at the rhetorical shifts in ninetheenth century oratorical culture. From neoclassical to individualistic to professional.

They begin by establishing that the rhetorical discourse taught within American colleges and universities was primary neocultural at the start of the century. Neoclassical rhetorical discourse sought to “form and sustain a public consensus, intellectual and moral, as the basis of civic action” (2). C/H also point to the embrace of the traditional rhetorical ideal or “the good man skilled in speaking” in this early rhetorical discourse (7). A key element, then, of this rhetorical sentiment was the “insistent refusal to draw a sharp line between contemplation and action, between the academy and the public forum, was in fact a key element of [Witherspoon’s (he doesn’t matter)] ‘complete orator’” (7). As C/D describe, a communitarian ethos underlie the complete orator as opposed to some kind of personal, individual achievement.

Transitioning away from neoclassicism toward individualism is, in part, due to “the private property that the American landscape offered to its citizens, property that, for them, warranted individual claims of natural rights and political autonomy” (10). In other words, a material individualism emerged alongside a discursive, rhetorical one. C/H also refer to “bureaucratic individualism” as a consequence where “people intensified their allegiance to the very ideology of self-interest of which they were victims, one that justified withdrawal form others in order to protect and provide for themselves” (11). This transition also saw the emergence of a rhetoric of identification: “A speaker would present to an audience a personality that was recognizable yet idealized and thus would invite them each to become their own versions of that better self…spectators define themselves as an assemblage of autonomous individuals” (14). This rhetoric of identification is in contrast to a rhetoric of argument which function to collaboratively build public knowledge (per Bitzer). A renewed focused on “taste” emerges: “a kind of knowledge of objects shared by members of a community and thus was part of the sensus communis, the common understanding that provided the ground for moral and political judgment” (16).

Branching from this individualistic public morality was an emphasis on professionalization, expertise, and specialization. “Expertise, whether specifically scientific or not, came to be understood in the new professional sense as a privately held commodity and was for many in the new class the means of advancement” (20). This commodification of knowledge contributed to the emergence of the current-traditionalist movement. C/H write that, while others claim that it emerged from psychology and scientific fields, they claim that it is more likely a feature of this professionalization and commodification of expertise: “this professional ethos created the need for a rhetoric of morally neutral and exclusionary discourse, and current-traditional rhetoric arose to fill the need” (21).

To conclude, Clarke and Halloran summarize the theme of the book: Collectively, these essays suggest that American neoclassical rhetoric wasn’t simply replaced by something different but rather was transformed by changing cultural realities that required shifts in theories and practices of public discourse in order to meet changing cultural needs” (26). As mentioned early in the chapter, the book focuses on “transformations” in the Burkean sense: as the political, economic, and material realities of American community changed, so did the theories and practices that attempted to explain them (3).


Russel Hirst, The Sermon as Public Discourse

Hirst unpacks the conservative homiletic tradition in the 19th century oratorical culture. At it’s fundamental level, its proponents, Austin Phelps, sought to convert and edify individuals’ moral and spiritual dispositions toward a Christ-like character. In doing so, such transformation would be key to long-lasting social change. This idea is in opposition to direct engagement with social issues in the form of mass movements such as the abolitionist or anti-abolitionist discourse. Such mass confrontation would incite division and violence (79). However, while Phelps’ homiletic tradition focuses its energy on the individual and their salvation (thus retaining features of individualism), Hirst sees, at the core of this tradition, a neoclassical discourse, geared toward collective social betterment. In that sense, the culture of professionalism began to erode such harmony, threatening “the ideals of organic unity; they deposed the ideal of patriotic/spiritually dedicated civil (or civil/spiritual) servant who used his oratory for the benefit of the whole community” (83).

The homiletic tradition sees the pulpit as the natural means to create civil peace and harmony; As Hirst writes, “civil peace and harmony had been considered to have a natural and necessary relation to spiritual health” (82). But more, while such a tradition sees the sacred realm as ideal for such social change, such a tradition also shies away from the alter because of the “encumbrance of the mystical” (91). The homiletic tradition also embraced the ideal orator, one who was “the holy man skilled in speaking, the man who had advanced through the Christian equivalent of Quintilian’s Institutio Oratoria” (84). Ethos, then, became a central feature of this sacred oratorical practice, but Phelps (the proponent of this tradition) made certain to distinguish between “true ethos” and “counterfeit ethos.” Truth ethos, for Phelps, was not “anything individualistic or charismatic”, but was trusted by his congregation because “he stood as a covenanted, organic part of the community and had become a good discipline of Christ, just as they were trying to do” (98). The counterfeit ethos, on the other hand, places oneself at the center of the discourse as opposed to the congregation’s individual salvation, creating a tendency to form personality cults that exploited the orator’s private, personal, and emotional lives (98).


  1. Joy Rouse, Margaret Fuller: A Rhetoric of Citizenship in 19th Century America

Rouse looks at Margaret Fuller and her “revision of the transcendentalist notion of self-culture” (110). Her revision focuses primarily on fostering self-culture—or “the life of free self-development” (122)—among individuals and specifically women to participate as citizens in public, civic, and communal discourse. A champion of individualism, she also advocated for the an understanding of self-control to include marginalized groups; thus advocating for social change.

Rouse points to two ideals of womanhood that laid the foundation to Fuller’s agenda. Republican Motherhood revised notions of citizenship that included domestic, private spaces and motherhood generally as a political function of the state. True Womanhood advocated for the ideal woman who reflected Christian, God-fearing values and took the solemn responsibility to be “redemptive daughters and mothers” (114). However, in both of these ideals, women who resisted private domesticity were “betrayers of the family ideal and, ultimately, the country” (113). Fuller rode the tide of these ideals in order to argue for women’s education, but eventually, after make inroads, used her pedagogy “to show her students that they had choices that could take them beyond predetermined domestic responsibilities…[and] challenge the limitations of self-culture as male privilege” (115).

Much of her teaching aligned with rhetorics of citizenship for women. The duel purposes of the rhetorics of citizenship were described by Rouse as follows: “The strength of the polis was dependent on the civic virtue of individuals who were committed to active citizenship and the public good that they identified or argued for in public discourse” (115). As men emerged as champions of the public realm, women “were expected to be the upholders of civic virtue”; in this way, women positioned themselves “as agents of polis and identified themselves as having a responsibility to work not only for the good of the family unit but for the common good of the community as well” (116).

Rouse also points to Fuller’s embrace and revision of the transcendentalists’ focus on the individual and self-culture. Where transcendentalists embraced the individual—as did Fuller, they also “encouraged people to search for what was divine in themselves through nature” (117). On this point, Fuller places some distance between herself and the transcendentalists: her focus on the self-culture of women, in fact, was a matter of social as well as material reform (tenets obviously in opposition to those of transcendentalists principles of isolation and spiritual introspection). Rouse writes, “Although she shared the transcendentalists’ desire to subjugate material life to spiritual life, her attempt to achieve this for women…ultimately brought her back to the material life she struggled to transcend…Her need to connect, to recognize the real and tangible, distinguish her from a majority of other transcendentalists. Fuller’s experience as a woman led her to recognize the situatedness of individuals” (119). Toward this latter point, Fuller’s theory of identity (“what individuals bring to their discursive acts” pg 120) is bound by context, allowing her concept of self-culture for women that “provides a way for the marginalized to create community unity in a recognition of politically and socially imposed barriers, which is its most radical departure from individualism” (130).

However, she also seemed to embrace “the single woman” who develops “self-impulse” and independence from isolation, “which gives the renovating fountains time to rise up” (Fuller 119, in Rouse 131). In conclusion, Rouse writes that “individual freedome doesn’t exist in a vacuum, that it might and often does come at the expense of another’s right” (135).


Nan Johnson, The Popularization of 19th century Rhetoric: Elocution and the Private Learner

            Johnson looks at the historical, political, and contextual factors involved in the popularization of rhetoric in the 19th century. Her focus primarily lands on the shifting professionalized American culture at the time as contributing to the commodification of rhetorical knowledge. “Academic rhetoric was able to offer [the middle class] a more encompassing definition of the relevance of rhetorical skills to careerism and social success because the disposition of 19th century theory favored defining rhetoric as a comprehensive art of communication” (140) Defining rhetoric as “a general expertise in speaking and writing applicable to a wide range of public and professional uses and settings” (140) became a central motivation for the poplar rhetoric movement.

In this way, Johnson points to practical elocution as a mainstay of rhetorical education during this period, known as the elocution movement. Such attention to elocution also aided in the development of a physical culture, with attention on a “whole body” approach to expression that included voice, expression, and gesture: “the state of mind of the speaker can be inferred from tones and inflections of the voice, movements of the body, and expressions of the face” (144). The focus of this approach was making “impression of ideas and emotions” upon an audience through “the natural properties of the voice and of action” (145).

While much of this teaching in elocutionary rhetorics was received in formal, systematic pedagogy, the importance of elocution in everyday contexts of conversation and private discourse made such education relevant “to a whole group of people for whom formal training in oratory was irrelevant or impractical” (157). Self-teaching manuals for that “truncated versions of elocutionary theory” began to emerge.


  1. Michael Halloran, The Rhetoric of Picturesque Scenery

Halloran argues that “19th century picturesque representation was an attempt to articulate an American identity” namely, through epideictic speech (a means of articulating to the public who ‘we’ are) (227). As he writes, viewing such scenes and interacting with these historical artifacts, we rehearse an American ethos, “participating in a rite of the civic religion” (227).

Halloran outlines three qualities of the picturesque: “1, it depicts an inviting natural landscape touched lightly be human cultivation; the scene is pastoral. 2. It conveys a strong sense of harmonious visual composition…3. The scene is supposed to excite a moral response in the viewer” (229). Across these qualities is the connection between aesthetic harmony in nature and spiritual harmony of people. But Halloran specifically looks toward this third point in his discussion, using Hawthorne as an example. As Halloran writes, Hawthorne’s method of invention is not located in the oratorical tradition (discursive treatises of morality); rather, “he affirms a process of inspiration through direct communion with nature” (232). Halloran then marks a transition away from the oratorical (explanation) and more toward “an aesthetic of showing” (233). In this sense, there is a tension between two sensibilities:

  1. “of explicit moral principles that can be codified in treatises and sermons
  2. of a joyful and deeply personal morality drawn from communion with nature and friends” (234).

This embrace of nature, however, is also social and political. “Man can also commune with man through nature…this picture is evidence not only of a singular contemplation after a transcendental model, but of a sharing through communion, of a potential community” (Novak 15, in Halloran 238). Halloran points to the communion developed among the economic elite who saw travel and visiting “sacred places” as “a celebration of one’s success in the meritocracy as well as of one’s identity as an American” (239). But Halloran also notes a focus on taste—not just sacred places; in other words, “viewers bring honor upon themselves” by privately knowing how to appreciate the picturesque (240).

Halloran concludes by saying that drawing inspiration from nature could, in fact, be a means of becoming: “one could be ignorant of the classical languages, of the rhetorical figures and tropes, even of ‘our’ literature and oratory and art, and yet know all it takes to be American” (245).





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