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

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

8
The Divergence of Purpose and Practice on the Chautauqua Keith Vawter's Self- Defense

Frederick J. Antczak and Edith Siemers

In a half-century that spans thalidomide, Love Canal, Three Mile Island, Chernobyl, and the Alaskan oil spill, we have grown accustomed to hearing stories of the potential horror of postmodern life -- of living, working, and even succeeding in a technologizing, corporatizing, professionalizing culture. We know what it means to have a good idea institutionalized and thereby turned to a spectacular and terrible end (although we still seem oddly surprised -- as with chemical waste disposal or the ravaging of the ozone layer -- whenever this story plays out again). And should we ever manage to forget, we have our share of professional "futurists" to remind us.

More rarely are we treated to an account of institutional failure in which the dramatic movement goes the other direction, a story in which something is "professionalized" and made more efficient, only to have it lapse into a blandness that in the long run subverts its purpose and dissipates its goods. At first reading, the story of the American Chautauqua's decline as an institution of oratorical culture ( Antczak 1985, 74-85) seems to follow this trajectory. It appears to be a story with a simple plot and a clearly identifiable villain driven by transparently bad motives and even a distinctive modus operandi. But because we are less familiar with this sort of narrative -- one that

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