Rethinking Elocution: The Trope of the Talking Book and Other Figures of Speech
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104 Rethinking Elocution The Trope of the Talking Book and Other Figures of Speech To read without uttering the words aloud or at least mumbling them is a “modern” experience, unknown for millennia. In earlier times, the reader interiorized the text; he made his voice the body of the other; he was its actor. —­ Michel de Certeau, The Practice of Everyday Life The performer sits under a spotlight surrounded by books on performance. She touches, smells, and tastes some of the books. She holds one of the books up to her ear. She notices you are there. She looks up to speak. —­ D. Soyini Madison, “Performing Theory/Embodied Writing” The intellectual currency of “performance” has stimulated a rediscovery of elocution by literary historians1 and a resuturing of elocution and oral interpretation into the intertwining disciplinary genealogies of English, speech, theater, and performance studies (Jackson 1999; Lee 1999). Earlier historical studies of elocution and oral interpretation were written from a history of ideas perspective: the explication of theories and practices in order to trace a line of ideas, issues, debates, and pedagogies.2 Perhaps the most influential example of this kind of scholarship is Wallace A. Bacon’s 1960 article, “The Dangerous Shores: From Elocution to Interpretation,” a metadisciplinary essay in which he named and thereby enacted a watershed moment for the field at midcentury. This signal publication—­ arguably the flagship essay for the new interpretation of literature movement—­ charted an historical course from elocution’s “just and graceful management of the voice, countenance, and gesture” to a rethinking elocution  105  “modern view of interpretation as the study of literature through the medium of oral performance” (Bacon 1960, 149). Bacon theorized the performance of literature as a site for encountering and developing what he called a profound “sense of the other” (Bacon 1976). Drawing on two strands of Bacon’s scholarship—­ his landmark historical research on elocution and his theoretical research on “a sense of the other”—­ I attempt to rethink and revive interest in elocution by investigating it from the perspectives of those “others” against whom it erected its protocols of taste, civility, and gentility. Because the major theorists and exemplary practitioners written into the extant history of elocution are overwhelmingly white and privileged, I want to relocate elocution within a wider sociohistorical context of racial tension and class struggle. I approach the elocutionary movement from “below,” from the angle of working-­ class and enslaved people who were excluded from this bourgeois tradition and disciplined by it but who nonetheless raided and redeployed it for their own subversive ends.3 Drawing on slave narratives, working-­class histories, and other historical documents, this essay excavates a hidden history and radical tradition of elocution and oral interpretation. Voices That Matter To reach the higher rungs of class respectability, voices had to be “legible ,” assessed in elocutionary terms of “clarity” and “purity of tone.” Anna Russell’s The Young Ladies’ Elocutionary Reader described an uncultivated voice as smudged like a printer’s error: “It resembles, in its effect to the ear, that presented to the eye, when the sheet has been accidentally disturbed in the press, and there comes forth, instead of the clear, dark, well-­defined letter, executed distinctly on the fair white page, a blur of half-­ shade” (Russell 1853, 15). Elocution was tinctured with printer’s ink. It would do for platform and social performance what printer’s type did for scribal culture: systematize, standardize, and reproduce exemplary models in which the idiosyncrasy and excess of the oral could be repressed, regulated, and recirculated. Elocution developed and flourished in the 18th and 19th centuries during the crucial period of the rise of industrial capitalism and advance of science, reason, engineering, and commitment to progress and improvement. E. P. Thompson argued that the industrial “pressures towards discipline and order extended from the factory . . . into every aspect of life: leisure, personal relationships, speech, manners” (Thompson 1963, 401). As part of the same histori- 106  cultural struggles cal and cultural milieu, elocution drew from the same vocabulary: One of its early formations was called the “mechanical school” of elocution (Mattingly, 1972; Roach, 1985). Elocution expressed in another key the body discipline so characteristic of industrial capitalism, but this was a discipline imposed on the bourgeoisie, a way for them to mark “distinction ” from the masses (Bourdieu 1984). Punning on the title of Walter Benjamin’s (1969) well-­ known essay, we can think of elocution as the management of voice in the age of...