- Stowe, Dickinson, and the Rhetoric of Modernism
- Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory
- Johns Hopkins University Press
- Volume 47, Number 3, Autumn 1991
- p. pp. 1-16
- View Citation
BRYAN C. SHORT Stowe, Dickinson, and the Rhetoric of Modernism The work of nineteenth-century American women writers influenced the development and shape of literary modernism to an extraordinary extent. Yet that influence is hatd to describe in a manner which does justice to the disparate perspectives proposed by feminist scholars: on the one hand the muting of Victorian women asserted by Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar in The Madwoman in the Attic, and on the other Nina Baym's argument that women "dominated " the "literary marketplace" from mid-nineteenth century on (50); on the one hand Elaine Showalter's identification offemale expressivity with a "wild zone" of discourse outside cultural sanctions, and on the other the dissatisfaction of feminist critics like Elisabeth Meese with essentialist theories of linguistic sexual difference; on the one hand the call for canon reformation (Lillian Robinson, Jane Tompkins), and on the other condescension toward the popular, sentimental, or domestic nature of much nineteenth-century literature by women (Ann Douglas ). I believe that rhetorical analysis, properly construed, can mediate these theoretical differences and draw a sharper picture of the nineteenth -century female literary voice than one stressing the thematic or formal categories on which literary history, even revisionist literary history, has often depended. In so doing, it reveals lines of filiation among women writers as different as Harriet Beecher Stowe and Emily Dickinson. Rhetoric addresses a concern raised by Baym in explaining why she doesn't "do feminist literary theory": "it becomes clear that the theory of women's language is closely tied to a theory of the feminine personArizona Quarterly Volume 47 Number 3, Autumn iqqi Copyright © 1991 by Arizona Board ot Regents issn 0004- 1610 Bryan C. Short ality" (52). Voice, in other words, implies psychology. Baym takes exception to the explicit or implicit Freudianism underlying much feminist criticism, a concern symptomatic of issues addressed by rhetorical theory from classical times on. Aristotle divides the rhetorical act into three facets: ethos, the image projected by the rhetor; pathos, the moving of the audience; and logos, the expressive medium or argument. Of the three, Aristotle asserts, ethos is the most important ; he goes on to say that ethos derives from the rhetor's language rather than antecedent reputation (25). In the later Roman tradition summarized by Quintilian, Aristotle's technical definition of ethos is replaced by the idea of "the good man speaking well," a notion that elides distinctions between persuasive discourse and social authority. The Greek idea of a voice independent of background conditions and wedded to the truth of the moment (kairos) gives way to an elaborated concern for style and decorum, and philosophical rhetoric, as commentators such as George Kennedy, Gérard Genette, and Brian Vickers have asserted, goes into a decline. Modern criticism, distanced from its Greek roots, has tended to reach out to theories of "personality" or culture—psychological, phenomenological, or material—to ground its judgments, thus promulgating the style of thought leading to Baym's demurer. The space of a feminist rhetorical theory is opened by the doubleness of the idea of a good person speaking well—a concept which distinguishes ethics ("good") from style ("well") only to link them in a shotgun marriage. What the Romans take for granted is that rhetoric— persuasive discourse—implies ideology: "speaking well" depends on whatever society finds attractive or repellent in a given context. Aristotle moves in this direction when he distinguishes his analytic system from the productive practice of the sophists; yet Aristotle wishes to retain the power implicit in the Gorgian doctrine of kairos, whereby rhetoric not only tesponds to and ornaments but also shapes and reveals the human truth of the moment. Rhetorical disciplines like literary criticism form and reform themselves around the interplay of style and ideology. Deconstruction, as Sharon Crowley has demonstrated, comes down on the side of the sophists by placing truth in language, while the views Baym critiques reflect a Roman practice of reference to an implicit social grounding, notable in the legacy of Matthew Arnold and T S. Eliot. Literary "voice" participates in this history and thus carries Stowe and Dickinson contradictory meanings. In a feminist context these contradictions (not always unproductive) underlie...