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

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

and practice of public discourse was founded upon his conviction that a few men like himself had the authority to speak for the many in America, a conviction that he articulated and defended in terms of his doctrine of taste. That doctrine, developed in the eighteenth century, influential in the nineteenth, and perhaps still with us residually at the end of the twentieth, worked explicitly against a democratic transformation of public discourse that would enact a politics of equality and diversity. This analysis of Dwight's version of that doctrine can mark a starting point for further study that traces its transformations through the nineteenth century and into the twentieth. Such a study might also contribute to the reconstruction of the discourse of the many American public cultures upon assumptions that reject any residue of an elitist doctrine of taste.


Notes
1.
Soon after his death, Dwight four-year course in divinity was published as Theology; Explained and Defended ( 1818, 5 vols.). His lectures in rhetoric have not survived but can be partially reconstructed from student notebooks and other writings. See my "Timothy Dwight's Moral Rhetoric at Yale College, 1795-1817" ( 1987, 149-61).
2.
Dwight stopped writing poetry when became president of Yale at the age of 43. Until then, he had directed a significant amount of his energy toward developing an explicitly American and implicitly Calvinist poetry. At Yale, however, he devoted most of his writing time to his Theology as well as to a new project, his Travels; in New-England and New-York ( 1821, 4 vols.). He contributed essays and a few short poems to the periodical press, but did not focus his efforts seriously on poetry again.
3.
In his specific appeal to sentiment and its connection to his larger purpose of directing individual virtue toward communal action, Dwight presents a similar response in a similar situation to that which John Dwyer observes in eighteenth-century Scotland in Virtuous Discourse ( 1987). Here Dwyer argues that the Scottish "literati" responded to the rise of individualism in a commercialized society and the consequent shift of the moral realm from the rational and collective to the felt and individual by developing an ethics that connected the individual to the community through sentiment. Sentiment, rooted in sympathy, or sociability, was an individual felt sense for the common good that gave morality "its basis in human fellow-feeling rather than abstract reason or utility" (169). Dwight was familiar with the writings of these moral philosophers, and both the situation of his own cultural community and his consequent response were similar. I am indebted to Thomas

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