Finding an Audience: The Political Platform, the Lecture Platform, and the Rhetoric of Self-Help

By Boiko, Karen | Nineteenth-Century Prose, Spring 2002 | Go to article overview

Finding an Audience: The Political Platform, the Lecture Platform, and the Rhetoric of Self-Help


Boiko, Karen, Nineteenth-Century Prose


This article examines the influence of the experience of public speech on the literary career of Samuel Smiles, archetypal Victorian proponent of the gospel of self-help. Notwithstanding Smiles' extensive written output of nearly 30 books, innumerable periodical articles, and employment as a newspaper editor, different forms of platform experience and performance were crucial to the development and articulation of his ideas, both during his early adulthood in the Borders, and then in maturity in Leeds and elsewhere. Close reading of Smiles' voices on platform, from the editor's chair, in correspondence, and in composition, demonstrates the ways in which rhetorical experience and practice blurred apparently firm generic boundaries. Like many of his contemporaries Smiles was both suspicious of the platform and unable to extricate himself from its many influences.

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Samuel Smiles, author of Self-Help and nearly 30 other books and hundreds of magazine articles, was in many ways a representative Victorian, not least in his prolific output. Smiles' success is certainly linked to the upsurge in publishing in mid-nineteenth century Britain, but in his long and variegated career he also participated extensively in the lively Victorian culture of public speaking. It is well known that Self-Help grew out of a series of talks Smiles gave to workingmen's clubs while he lived in Leeds. But public speaking in a variety of forms played a larger role in Smiles' life--and, I argue, in the rhetorical choices Smiles makes in his hugely successful self-help series--than is generally recognized.

However much the "technologies of the self," as Foucault calls them, depended on literacy and literature, they were still, at least through the midVictorian period, vitally connected with oratory. This has been obscured for literary and cultural historians, I think, because we have tended in recent years to focus on narratives of all kinds, from the novel to working class diaries. Thus it is not surprising that Adrian Jarvis says, in critiquing a point about Smiles and the tradition of "success literature," that As a Briggs should have gone back to "a pamphlet The Education of the Working Classes, published in Leeds in 1845" even though that pamphlet was first a stirring speech. (1) Of course, we have no way of truly recovering the experience of Victorian oratory. Yet, as Patrick Joyce has observed, it is worthwhile to try to recognize the 'semi-religious effect' of the aural and immediate. (2)

Nor have histories of rhetoric been helpful in providing a sense of Victorian public speech, for they serve chiefly to remind us that by the early nineteenth century formal rhetoric had declined. One concise history of rhetoric states that "theories of rhetorical invention of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries seldom treated oral composition before live audiences or even involved an imaginative projection of oneself into a public situation," and that by the time of the Romantic movement, "rhetoric had fallen into discredit." (3) Winifred Homer, in the opening paragraph of her valuable study, quotes from several such histories before going on to reclaim the importance of rhetoric in this period. (4) However, Homer, in company with revisionist cultural historians such as Clifford Siskin, restores significance to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Scottish rhetoric by demonstrating that its emphasis on stylistics and the interpretation of literature established the basis for the new academic discipline of English Literature. Rhetoric as it is concerned with public speaking is considered to have declined to mere elocution and pronunciation while, as Thomas Sloane puts it, the "momentum of the revolution begun by Johannes Guttenberg's invention of the printing press ... caused traditional rhetoric, as an educational principle and as a theory, to go under." (5)

But if rhetorical theory did not advance significantly after the eighteenth-century treatises of Blair and Campbell, rhetorical practice, as I hope to show with reference to Samuel Smiles' career, was neither moribund nor effete in the early and mid-Victorian years. …

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