restricted access Nineteenth-Century Rhetoric–The Big Problem
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Nineteenth-Century Rhetoric–The Big Problem

William Keith, Christian Lundberg, and James M. Farrell have thoughtfully reviewed my effort to explicate how modern public speaking came to be conceptualized on the basis of antecedent text genres.1 My argument was that a new understanding of oral rhetoric emerged between 1890 and 1930 as authors experimentally and variously appropriated concepts and frameworks from elocution (in its several iterations), from oratorical composition (as given in new-rhetoric treatises, advanced rhetorics, and composition books), and from varietal popular or professional works (of extemporaneous speaking, debating, and audience-adapted preaching). More broadly, my “Inventing Public Speaking” represents an effort to rebalance the larger history of rhetoric, 1730–1930, along the lines of orality in the context of a post-1980 emphasis upon writing-centered schoolbooks and pedagogies. Here my three colleagues usefully expand this principle of disciplinary balance by showing how the text-based conceptualizing of rhetoric may be enhanced, in Farrell’s telling, by deeper understandings of the professional and institutional roots of the modern communication discipline and, from Keith’s and Lundberg’s perspective, by historically sensitive refinements of pedagogy to promote speechmaking that is communicative, communitarian, and deliberative. But before exploring intersections between my article and the commentaries of Farrell, Keith, and Lundberg, I wish to expand a bit on what I see as the Big Problem in [End Page 155] American rhetorical history faced by theoreticians, teachers, and historians alike; this is the need for greater understanding of the still murky linkages between the eighteenth and twentieth centuries.

Nineteenth-century rhetoric often has been treated as a kind of terra incognita. Not only must the scholar contend with tensions inherent to understanding rhetoric variously as theory or pedagogy and with complications coming from rhetoric’s sundry interfaces with allied literatures and social practices, but the major books of this period appear discrepant when juxtaposed to seemingly more conventional works produced during the Enlightenment and amid post-World War I modernism. The contrastingly eclectic and heterogeneous character of nineteenth-century rhetoric was brought home to me early in my career when, as a graduate student visiting home, I always returned to school with an armload of old texts that my father had culled from his weekly round of Ohio rural estate sales. Having transformed the family hobby of attending auctions into a postretirement antiques business, Dad kept me well supplied with volumes that, while sometimes carrying familiar titles of “public speaking,” “composition,” or “debate,” more often were deployed under covering rubrics variously strange (“orthoepy,” “orthophony,” “reciter,” “elocutionist,” “expression”) or oddly matched (“rhetorical reader,” “rhetoric and composition,” “speaker and reader,” “speaker and entertainer,” “oratorical composition”). And it almost always proved the case that the books I was shelving contained further perturbations either in tables of contents or conceptual development.

Of course, my sense that something was theoretically or pedagogically amiss sprang from a particular sociointellectual perspective—namely, that of a rhetoric-focused 1970s graduate student in speech communication. I and my cohorts of the era were informed chiefly by the classical focus on oratory, by Douglas Ehninger’s fourfold typology of eighteenth-century works (classical, psychological-epistemological, belletristic, and elocutionary),2 by twentieth-century research categories under the aegis of I. A. Richards, Kenneth Burke, Jurgen Habermas, and others, by the several methodologies of rhetorical criticism, and by the standard panoply of lower-division textbooks. What was one to make of Dad’s auction finds that, variously, equated reading and speaking, treated rhetoric as English composition, mixed grammar and delivery, or presented elocution as an entertainment form? [End Page 156]

The dominant approach to the nineteenth century’s seemingly discordant theoretical and pedagogical panorama was then—and even today largely remains—that of clinging to certain islands of familiarity within a sea of consternation. Everybody recognized that George Campbell, Hugh Blair, and Richard Whately loomed large, that eighteenth-century elocution extended into the succeeding hundred years, that certain American writers apparently contributed important books (John Quincy Adams, for example), that written composition somehow absorbed a lot of rhetoric, and that speech study evidently grew out of activities ongoing in the English department. Similarly common was recognition that these...