Transformations of Public Discourse in Nineteenth-Century America
Gregory Clark and S. Michael Halloran
In his history of the discipline of English studies, Gerald Graff speaks of an "oratorical culture" that grounded the study of language and literature in American colleges through the first half of the nineteenth century ( 1987, 36-51). In his view, this oratorical culture "pervaded the college and linked the classical courses with the courses in English rhetoric and elocution, with the literary and debating societies, and with the literary culture outside" (35). It consisted of the oral exercises -- disputation, declamation, forensic oration, and the like -- that were a part of the traditional arts curriculum, as well as the literary and debate societies and the literary magazines that were increasingly prominent in the extra-curriculum of American colleges from the mid-eighteenth century on. According to Graff, this collegiate oratorical culture lent some vitality to the study of literature in English, though it supported a view of literature as "a public or civic discourse fit for socializing future citizens" (42), a view he takes as falling short of the true "literary" understanding that began to emerge with the dawn of "the professional era" in English studies in the last quarter of the century (53). "What finally should be the verdict on the literary education provided by the old-fashioned college?" he asks, replying that "in many ways it was worse than a waste of time, a form of unredeemed drudgery carried on in the name of archaic social ideals" (50).
As Graff's reference to "archaic social ideals" hints, "oratorical culture" in fact pervaded more than college life in the early nineteenth century. American politics and society during this period were in-