- Rhetorical Landscapes in America: Variations on a Theme from Kenneth Burke
Once again we are indebted to the University of South Carolina Press for a fine contribution from its Studies in Rhetoric/Communication series. Gregory Clark sets parallel aims: to apply Kenneth Burke's critical vocabulary to cultural history, and to read American tourist sites and literature in the frame of Burke's notion of "identity" (147). Clark sees the American public landscape as "constituting in individual citizens a shared sense of common identity as members of a national public" (148). He claims that such shared experiences are as rhetorical as are more typical instances of public discourse. Thus American tourism has contributed to developing us into a national community.
Clark supports his theme of rhetorical influence with six case studies: New York City, Shaker villages, Yellowstone National Park, the Grand Canyon, the Lincoln Highway, and the 1915 San Francisco Panama Exposition. While Burke's vocabulary offers a handy point of departure, the real news is in [End Page 172] Clark's discussion of the meaning and prominence of each of his six exemplars as cultural icons.
This may be most evident (and endearing) as Clark recalls his own boyhood visits to Yellowstone, where he stood in the parking lot and was as captivated by the variety of license plates from across the country as by the hot springs and mudpots (69). This too was a celebration of nationhood. Equally fascinating is his consideration of the efforts of Stephan Mather, Mary Colter, and the Fred Harvey Company both to preserve national parklands and to develop a befitting "National Park Service Rustic" architectural style to enhance the natural landscape (this long before Disney's theme parks). Such typical excerpts almost cry out for Ken Burns or the History Channel to recreate the optimistic climate of a Romantic Post-Bellum civic culture depicted by Clark.
The book becomes more tedious when its repeated invocation of Burkian terms tilts toward veneration. In his lifetime, Burke was unnerved by uncritical academic worship. He sought understanding, not deification. As he remarked, "They are an evangelical brood, bejeez. So . . . I [became] an observer at my own funeral."1 His wariness of academic enthusiasm is well taken. It does no disservice to Burke, for example, to recognize that his "identification" is a reworking of Vico's "ingenium" outfitted in creaky 1920s literary machinery.2 Shorn of some of the cumbersome Burkian baggage, the book's exemplars emerge as epideictic celebrations of the American tourist phenomenon and its part in shaping a national Romantic consciousness:
And as rhetoric they traffic not in actions but in attitudes. People can encounter them without ever thinking of themselves as anything but spectators. Even in that role they are being educated . . . in matters of individual and collective identity.(148)
Seen thus as reminders of our forebears' vision in pioneering the development of a national landscape trust, Clark's work edifies and opens us to the quiet excitement of meditative discovery. Clark guides us to monuments of cultural memory; his project is remarkably readable and a uniquely American enterprise.
1. Letter to Malcolm Cowley, dated 11 August, 1955. Newberry Library Collection, Chicago.
2. Cf. M. Mooney, Vico in the Tradition of Rhetoric (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1985), 151. [End Page 173]