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  • Twentieth-Century American Success Rhetoric: How to Construct a Suitable Self
  • Clarke Rountree
Twentieth-Century American Success Rhetoric: How to Construct a Suitable Self. By John Ramage . Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005; pp xi + 249. $45.00.

In 1938, Kenneth Burke published his classic essay, "Literature as Equipment for Living," in a little magazine called Direction. In one passage he referenced Dale Carnegie's recent book, How to Win Friends and Influence People (1936), to illustrate the "equipment" function of literature, noting:

We usually take it for granted that people who consume our current output of books on "How to Buy Friends and Bamboozle Oneself and Other People" are reading as students who will attempt applying the recipes given. Nothing of the sort. The reading of a book on the attaining of success is in itself the symbolic attaining of success. It is while they read that these readers are "succeeding." I'll wager that, in by far the great majority of cases, such readers make no serious attempt to apply the book's recipes. The lure of the book resides in the fact that the reader, while reading it, is then living in the aura of success. What he wants is easy success; and he gets it in symbolic form by the mere reading itself. To attempt applying such stuff in real life would be very difficult, full of many disillusioning difficulties.

(Philosophy of Literary Form, 3rd ed., 299)

John Ramage reports that this is Burke's only word on the subject of such "success" literature (25). But, what would Burke say today about the extraordinary popularity of Norman Vincent Peale, Dale Carnegie (who sold 15 million copies of the book Burke parodied), Stephen Covey, and Tom Peters and Robert Waterman? Ramage attempts to tell us in his new book on twentieth-century American success rhetoric.

Methodologically, Ramage takes his cue from Burke's admonition that "we must keep trying anything and everything" as critics (12). He also draws extensively from Burke's corpus to shed light on the success literature he examines, adeptly applying dozens of Burkean concepts, including representative anecdote, literature as equipment for living, occupational psychosis, bureaucratization of the imaginative, debunking, dramatism, identification, hierarchy, paradox of substance, the pentad, and the "Dictionary of Pivotal Terms," among others. But this isn't all he has in his critical arsenal, as he constantly draws upon texts in philosophy, literature, and popular culture to shed light on a genre not known for its sophistication, invoking Cicero as readily as Monty Python, Don Quixote as well as Being There (the Peter Sellers film), and Alasdair McIntyre or The Bell Curve to make his points.

If this sounds like a "shotgun" approach to explaining the rhetoric of success, it is. Indeed, the book is a bit too meandering for my taste, particularly at [End Page 160] the end. It begins rather slowly, considering the threat posed by today's success gurus and promising to update the modest work done on this genre with a consideration of recent success books such as Stephen Covey's 7 Habits of Highly-Effective People. It gives a chapter to describing "this great shaggy beast" that is Kenneth Burke's rhetorical "system" (15). In chapter 2 we get a fascinating examination of Bruce Barton's 1925 book The Man Nobody Knows, which refers not to Barton (whom few will know), but to Jesus, whom Barton constructs as the ultimate marketing man. Chapter 3 examines the "insipid" prose of Peale and Carnegie as well as offering an odd foray into Richard Nixon's Six Crises (purportedly a "self-help" book, which Ramage admits no one could hope to emulate). Chapter 4 takes on the most recent success gurus, Peters and Waterman (In Search of Excellence), who give "a postmodern twist" to promoting thinking "outside the box" (9), and Stephen Covey, whose Mormon roots are shown to underlie the 7 Habits he touts.

The final chapter dwarfs the Nixon "meander" with a full-fledged tangent in taking up the problems academics face in speaking to lay audiences, looking particularly at Deborah Tannen's efforts to talk about gender to larger audiences and Stanley Fish...


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