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Rhetoric & Public Affairs 4.2 (2001) 337-339
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Angelina Grimké: Rhetoric, Identity, and the Radical Imagination
Angelina Grimké: Rhetoric, Identity, and the Radical Imagination. By Stephen Howard Browne. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1999; pp. 201. $50.00 cloth; $24.95 paper.
Angelina Grimké: Rhetoric, Identity, and the Radical Imagination is neither a rhetorical biography nor a collection of critical essays about texts produced by the same rhetor. What Stephen Howard Browne has given his fortunate readers is a work too nuanced to allow for simple generic classification, and too full of insight to limit its appeal to a single discipline. Through sustained close textual analysis, Browne unravels from Grimké's rhetoric strains of religion, community, moral action, and violence long enough for the reader to appreciate these separate strands before he reweaves them into a complex tapestry representing her public identity. He manages, moreover, to blend the seemingly incommensurable elements of graceful close textual analysis and insightful theoretical observation.
The book, Browne explains at its onset, "is one account of the ways in which identity--Grimké's public self, her ethos--was symbolically fashioned and put to the purposes of moral reform" (1). It argues, overall, "that Grimké managed the resources of her art as to create from the limitations of her world new possibilities for collective moral action" (16). Despite the existence of several highly regarded biographies of Grimké, Browne manages to shed new light on her identity as a moral reformer by analyzing key public and private texts produced from 1826 through 1839. His particular contribution to our knowledge about Grimké is that he demonstrates convincingly that Grimké used rhetoric to construct her philosophy of moral action "by establishing publicly compelling relationships between Self and Community" (16). But Browne gives us more than insights on this single, though significant, rhetor, for in the course of the study he broadens our understanding of the relationships among rhetoric, moral reform, community, violence, and identity.
The first chapter takes up the private journal Grimké began keeping in 1826, treating it "as an interesting text in its own right," rather than drawing upon it as merely a source for biographical information (18). In the course of demonstrating how a rhetorical critic might accomplish a productive reading of a private text such as this one, Browne locates nascent patterns of thought and action that would shape Grimké's rhetorical practice in the coming years as she developed into a public reformer. Grimké came to see herself, he demonstrates, as an individual possessed of rights and duties, and especially the right to vocalize her disagreements with structures of authority.
Violence as a site for symbolic opportunity rather than rhetorical constraint is the theme of the second chapter, which fixes upon Grimké's 1835 letter to William Lloyd Garrison. Here Browne contributes to the reconceptualization of existing [End Page 337] notions of the interactive relationships among rhetoric, violence, community, and identity, despite his profession in the introduction that he is little concerned with theorizing for purposes of this work. Violence, he argues, affords an opportunity for the "reordering and reconstitution of community" by "offering up a new vocabulary, a symbolic means to transform events and ideas into a new rationale for human relations and collective action" (37). This conclusion is illustrated vividly by Browne's Browne's reading of Grimké's letter, in which he observes Grimké constructing an identity that allows her to recast violence from a force destroying community to one that can unify community.
The Appeal to the Christian Women of the South is the best known of Grimké's works, yet it is, perhaps, the most difficult among them to comprehend fully. The primary function of the Appeal, Browne writes, was "to recover from the ruins of her past a new rationale for collective action; to invest her Southern sisters with a moral agency long forgotten but never gone; and in the process to repair and strengthen herself for the battles to come." But here I must quibble with Browne, who in the introduction reveals his manner...