Oratorical Culture in Nineteenth-Century America: Transformations in the Theory and Practice of Rhetoric

By Gregory Clark; S. Michael Halloran | Go to book overview

unfocused risks being "ceremonial" in the most pejorative sense -- the celebration of nothing more than a passing occasion.

Yet in spite of O. B. Bunce's sneering dismissal of those who "fail to discover in a landscape the charm others describe in it," the rhetorical celebration of picturesque scenery defined an America with the potential of a radical equality. Indeed, his strained assertion of an ineffable experience available to that fortunate one in ten might be taken as an effort to prop up the principle of hierarchy in the face of an inexorable democratizing force. The landscape was there for all to see. If, as Myra Jehlen claims, that is the essence of America, and if, as Hawthorne imagined, one could draw inspiration directly from the stones and the foliage, then the traditional rituals of exclusion would be powerless. One could be ignorant of the classical languages, of the rhetorical figures and tropes, even of "our" literature and oratory and art, and yet know all it takes to be American.

Ceremonials that celebrate the picturesque landscape -- hiking, camping, the Sunday afternoon drive on the Mohawk Trail -- seem thus to be the ultimate transformation of the epideictic genre, in which we dispense entirely with rhetorical forms and forums to make immediate contact with values that constitute us as a people. In the face of such an experience, "rhetoric" can seem a poor and even pernicious thing. But of course there is no unmediated experience of the landscape or of "American values," and the power of the experience is testimony to the power and subtlety of the rhetorics that construct it. We have learned to hear the whispering of the trees from writers and artists such as Hawthorne, Bryant, Cole, and Durand, from the mass-produced prints and boilerplate prose of their imitators. The complex story of what happened to rhetoric in the nineteenth century should include some consideration of these many figures who de- serve, though they might not claim, the title of rhetorician.


Notes
1.
The entire maxim went like this: "Vulgarity is amusing, but only to the vulgar, and they are not worth amusing." Whatever my mother may have meant by "vulgarity," my own understanding of the term was narrower than that of Sarah Josepha Hale, as recorded in this volume by Nicole Tonkovich; it meant blunt reference to or ostentatious performance of certain bodily functions, usually for humorous effect. My brother and I revelled in our vulgarity.

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