Emeritus, University of Wisconsin
The Prospect of Rhetoric was published twenty-five years ago. About a year and half earlier, the event that shaped the book -- the Wingspread Conference -- occurred. It seemed to me, as an observer at the Wingspread Conference, that Richard McKeon was its dominant presence. It took McKeon about five minutes to get the measure of his colleagues at the conference, and about a day and a half to run out of patience with them. During that day and a half, the conferees were wallowing in a confused, desultory, and increasingly demoralizing conversation. Wayne Booth's essay in The Prospect of Rhetoric discreetly alludes to this initial muddle as "games of one-up-man-ship." Supernumeraries, such as I, who were observing these early proceedings from the periphery, saw a disaster in the making. Finally, McKeon, in a monological tour de force, single-handedly pulled the conference together and projected it in a direction that at least flirted with coherence.
I no longer have an exact memory of what McKeon said, but I recall being struck, at the time, by its strong resemblance to another soliloquy that I had heard around fifteen years before. When I was a graduate student undergoing an oral examination, two members of my committee -- a philosopher and a social psychologist -- fell into an ill-tempered wrangle with one another that to my intensifying horror, became acrimonious and prolonged. Finally my mentor, Herbert Wichelns, after listening to his colleagues in forbearing silence, got his fill of the bickering, and he ended it. He ended it by exuding a platitude so glittering and gaseous that it left the two disputants mute with awe. McKeon engulfed the Wingspread conference with a similarly vaporous benediction. Someday a clever rhetorical theorist will write an essay about this rare and powerful maneuver, perhaps titled "The Uses of Flatulence." The maneuver, whose employment seems confined to elderly savants, resolves irreconcilable differences by pronouncing all the differing parties to be right -- ethereally right.
I find it difficult, even now, to disentangle the formidable Richard McKeon whom I observed at the conference from the formidable essay that represents him in The Prospect of Rhetoric. The Quarterly Journal of Speechcarried two reviews of the book. Both were fairly unapproving, but each singled out McKeon's essay for special praise. One reviewer called it the "most thoughtfully produced paper." The other reviewer called it "doubtless the most profound oil'