RECONSTRUCTING THE SOCIAL SETTINGS
The story is told of a cub reporter who was sent out by a metropolitan newspaper to cover an assignment in an eastern area where flood waters were doing considerable damage. Hours went by; competing newspapers were printing lengthy and dramatic reports of the flood, but still no word came from the young newspaperman. Finally, in a state of frenzy, the city editor wired the reporter, asking why the stories were not being sent. Immediately came the reply: "Can't send reports now; too much excitement."
This anecdote serves to remind us that not all events happening at a moment of crisis or momentous public occasion are likely to be recorded; and that those which do receive tangible expression are selective, that they are dependent upon the judgment of the witnesses or historians who make the decisions as to what shall be included and what omitted from the reports.
Since every judgment of a public speech contains a historical constituent, the critic is peculiarly concerned with determining the nature of the setting in which the speaker operated. Although almost a truism, it cannot be overemphasized that speeches are events occurring in highly complex situations; that responsibility of critical appraisal depends heavily upon the critic's ability to effect faithful reconstructions of social settings long since dissolved. No task is more challenging, none more essential to the successful prosecution of the task. In a restricted sense, it may be possible to evaluate a speaker's written style through a simple examination of the text, without regard to the events which gave rise to the delivery of the speech. But even if possible, such an appraisal would be superficial; the evidence derived from the literature of speech education and criticism attests to the sterility of rhetoric when divorced from the urgency of matter and the imperatives of the particular historical moment.