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  • "Everything Has Two Handles":The Rhetoric of Metonymy in Emerson's Later Work
  • Sean Ross Meehan (bio)

All conversation, as all literature, appears to me the pleasure of rhetoric, or, I may say, of metonomy [sic]. " To make of motes mountains, and of mountains motes," Isocrates said, "was the orator's office." Well, that is what poetry and thinking do. Whatever new object we see, we perceive to be only a new version of our familiar experience and we set about translating it at once into our parallel facts. Of course, we have hereby enriched our vocabulary.

Everything has two handles.

—Emerson, "Art and Criticism" (1859)

According to James Elliot Cabot, Emerson's literary executor, Emerson remarked late in life that he would have become a professor of rhetoric at Harvard College, his alma mater, had the position been offered to him.1 Unlike Adams Sherman Hill, the fifth Boylston Professor of Rhetoric and Oratory at Harvard and author of the influential handbook The Principles of Rhetoric and Their Application (1878), Emerson was never offered the professorship. However, Emerson celebrated throughout his work and embodied in his lecture career the value of what he names in "Art and Criticism," by way of Isocrates, "the orator's office." Although he was not a rhetoric professor, Emerson did teach two lecture courses at Harvard (in 1870 and 1871), and he would observe and evaluate Adams Sherman Hill in his rhetoric classroom in 1875 while serving as a Harvard Overseer.

Despite these professional engagements with the art of rhetoric, the longstanding assumption from Cabot forward [End Page 359] has been that Emerson somehow failed in his desire to be a rhetorician.2 To read Emerson as a writer who both performed and professed rhetorical thinking is thus to trace something of that elusive circulation of truth he represents in "Progress of Culture," his 1867 Harvard Phi Beta Kappa address. There, echoing his essay "Circles" (1841), Emerson characterizes "[t]ruth in the intellectual world" as one whose "centre is everywhere, and its circumference nowhere."3 Rhetoric may be centered everywhere in Emerson's work, yet his rhetorical legacy has been difficult to describe.

Emerson was certainly at the center of nineteenth-century American rhetorical culture, given his status as one of the century's most prominent lecturers, America's "first public intellectual," as Lawrence Buell proposes.4 Emerson used the rhetorical circumstances of some fifteen hundred lectures delivered from the 1830s through the 1870s as a foundation for his published work and a forum for the thinking and reading he began with his journals and notebooks. Moreover, he was an active thinker and observer of nineteenth-century oratory, not just one of its most prominent performers. He delivered one of his most popular lectures, "Eloquence," on numerous occasions between 1847 and 1875, publishing different versions in his last two essay collections, Society and Solitude (1870) and Letters and Social Aims (1875). Emerson's views on the public importance of eloquence and its vital cultivation in the American college, furthermore, emerge in the many academic addresses he gave throughout this period, occasions when, as in his 1861 Tufts College commencement address, known as "Celebration of Intellect," Emerson urges scholars, even in the face of war, to stand by their "art and profession as thinkers."5 For good reason, Roger Thompson argues that "Emerson's writing carries in it the DNA of American rhetorical history." And yet, curiously, with a few exceptions, the DNA evidence of this rhetorical Emerson, "Emerson read as a rhetorician," [End Page 360] as Thompson puts it, has for many critics been insufficient or ignored.6

In Writing Instruction in Nineteenth-Century American Colleges (1984), James A. Berlin confronts this neglect, locating in Emerson's "romantic rhetoric" a substantive model of "social and democratic" nineteenth-century American rhetoric that is "designed to be counteractive to the eighteenth-century rhetoric of its day." However, Berlin also demonstrates persuasively that Emerson's legacy was replaced, if not altogether rejected, by the pedagogy of "current-traditional rhetoric" that prevails in the new university.7 Reading Berlin, one begins to understand why even rhetoric scholars might struggle to make a case for reading Emerson as one...


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