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Rhetoric & Public Affairs 4.2 (2001) 328-331

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Book Review

Rhetoric and Political Culture in Nineteenth-Century America

Rhetoric and Political Culture in Nineteenth-Century America. Edited by Thomas W. Benson. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1997; pp. xv + 200. $31.95.

This collection of essays is culled from work presented at the third biennial Conference on Public Address, held at the University of Minnesota in September 1992. In an attempt to reproduce what editor Benson characterizes as the "spirit of eager contestation" (xiii) that suffused the conference, the book is organized around four exchanges between leading figures in public address research. The first finds James Farrell and Stephen Browne discussing Daniel Webster's August 2, 1826, eulogy to Adams and Jefferson. The second includes John Louis Lucaites and James Jasinski examining Frederick Douglass's July 5, 1852, masterpiece, "What, to the Slave, is the Fourth of July?" The third finds Martha Solomon Watson and David Henry exploring the "intertextual" relationships among The Declaration of Independence, the American Anti-Slavery Society's 1833 Declaration of Sentiments, and the Seneca Falls Woman's Rights Convention's 1848 Declaration of Sentiments. The fourth includes Michael Leff and Maurice Charland debating Lincoln's influences upon and appropriations by Henry Grady, Frederick Douglass, [End Page 328] and Jane Addams. The study opens with an essay by Edwin Black and closing observations by Robert Hariman. Taken as whole, then, the book is clearly meant to represent the state of the art of rhetorical criticism, at least as practiced by scholars of nineteenth-century discourse, complete with a carefully crafted intellectual (and one dares say generational) battle between those critics whose textual practices amount to what Hariman calls "a neoclassical revival" and those who rely on a loose "appropriation of poststructuralism" (166).

The most obvious dilemma one faces in considering such characterizations is that neither side--neither the so-called neoclassicists nor those whose work is even vaguely "poststructuralist"--seems to know much about, let alone care for, the premises and practices of the "other" side. For example, Leff opens his essay with a discussion of postmodern criticism, in which "Ordinary rhetors become passive receptacles, since the marks of their subjectivity and their strategic maneuvers are submerged within a larger, fixed pattern, and there is no space to re-articulate elements of that pattern into new formations. In its extreme form, then, the doctrine of fragmentation regards social and cultural constraints on production as a monolith that controls all phases of production" (133). It is difficult to imagine where one might find this "extreme" form of postmodern criticism, as it bears little relationship to the complicated work of Foucault or Certeau or Butler or White or Jameson or Benhabib or Said or Cixous or de Lauretis or . . . well, take your pick. As Charland observes in his response to this essay, "Leff's account of postmodernism is problematic" (157).

Indeed, one may say many things about postmodern criticism, yet the claim that it secretly harbors a theory of culture or history as "monolithic" seems less like an accurate description of one means of criticism than a revelation about the lingering insecurities of some rhetorical scholars in the face of contemporary literary theory. Hence Charland's observation that "Leff expresses anxiety as to his speaking position" (161). This "anxiety" is unfortunate--both for Leff and rhetorical criticism--for like many readers I approach Leff's work with excitement and pleasure. One wishes, then, that he did not feel the pressing obligation to dabble in theoretical work he apparently neither finds useful nor respects, and had instead simply done what he does best: read nineteenth-century texts amidst their rich historical contexts. As it is, Leff writes 5 and one-half pages of prefatory "theory" followed by the same amount of text on Grady, 6 and one-half pages on Douglass, and 3 pages on Addams. One wonders how much more powerful and evocative the piece could be had those opening five pages been full of novelistic description of the periods and speakers considered here. The National Committee...


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