Expiring rhetoric: expression theory in the Anglo-American academy and its discursive context, 1880s-1920s.
This PhD dissertation investigates the relationship between literature and rhetoric in the Anglo-American world in the period between 1900 and 1940. It challenges the critical narrative, engendered in the modernist period itself, about the anti-rhetorical stance of modernist literature and modernist writers. The prevailing account of the modernist movement is that it rebelled against the literary conventions of the past, revolutionized poetic language, and proclaimed the absolute autonomy of the literary artwork. Central to this attitude, it is argued, was the definitive rejection of rhetoric and oratory by modernist writers. Divesting language and literature of the formulas of rhetoric and of its collectively shared codes of expression, they liberated the writer (and the word itself) of the artificial constraints of stylistics, decorum, and diction. However, the present study offers a revision of that narrative by concentrating on the actual state of rhetoric in education and on the nature of oratorical practices in the early twentieth century, as well as on the multifarious engagements of modernist writers with these practices. It ultimately argues that modernist writers conceived their literary work not in opposition to, but in consonance with early twentieth-century rhetoric.
The different chapters in this dissertation scrutinize ways in which modernist writers creatively engaged with various practices of public speaking belonging to different domains of society: education, politics, racial subjectivity, and technological media. For each of these domains, a specific practice or genre is singled out: elocution in education, the mass oration in democratic politics, the sermon in African American racial discourse, and the rhetoric of recorded and broadcast speech in the realm of the new media.
The academic discipline of elocution—the reading aloud of literary texts—prompts a revision of the commonly held view that the emergence of modernist literary criticism (‘Practical’ or ‘New Criticism’) caused the demise of this specific site of synthesis between literature and public speech. An examination of the history of this discipline as well as of its ties to other disciplines such as psychology demonstrates that late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century elocution, as exemplified by Samuel Silas Curry, Solomon Henry Clark, and Elsie Fogerty, had adapted itself to modern needs and tastes. Moreover, modernist writers from the American ‘New Poetry’ movement (Vachel Lindsay, Carl Sandburg, Amy Lowell) and William Carlos Williams, to Pound, Yeats, and James Joyce all incorporated elocutionary practices into their literary aesthetics and performance practices.
The modes of speech and gesture proper to mass political oratory were obsessively satirized, but thereby also described and aestheticized, by Wyndham Lewis. This style had organically changed when established politicians themselves revised political rhetoric to suit extraparliamentary politics. Although some commentators at the time lamented the demise of deliberative rhetoric, the style had simply adapted itself to the new democratic audience. Sociologists as well as literary writers such as Lewis picked this up and explored the mechanism and the style of mass political oratory.
African American modernist writers likewise incorporated and remodeled in their writings the black sermon as it was being conceived and used as the primary site for emancipatory speech by African Americans. Fusing art with expressions of racial subjectivity, artists of the Harlem Renaissance claimed the sermon and the oral performance style of the black preacher as the distinctly African American contribution to American culture, even though the sermon was of course an old genre of the western rhetorical tradition. It was precisely in the works of modernist poets James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes that the sermon was thus recreated as African American poetry.
The new media of the turn-of-the-century period introduced a new orality that had to be molded into appropriate rhetorical styles from scratch. The phonograph, film, and radio so profoundly altered the perceived relations between voice and body and between speaker and listener—they required in fact new theories of communication—that a vast area of experimentation was opened up for artists and writers. The phonograph recording and silent film both offered the possibility of purity, because they addressed only one sense and thus isolated speech and gesture respectively. As H.D. was attracted to the degree of suggestiveness they allowed, she devised a rhetoric of symbolic, depersonalized speech and gesture, which she tested in her recording by highlighting the non-linguistic means of signification of poetic speech. Of a different nature was T. S. Eliot’s engagement with radio. He tapped into the characteristic aspects of the medium and of the speech style it required when reconsidering his ideas about poetic communication during the 1920s and 1930s.
Rhetoric had thus not “died” by the beginning of the twentieth century, as histories of the classical rhetorical tradition often suggest. Neither did modernist writers deal the final blow to rhetoric, as literary histories tend to argue. It is true that rhetoric had lost its prestige and power as a cultural and educational force in the nineteenth century, but it had not disappeared; it had simply changed. It was no longer an immutable and well-defined body of theories and practices to be handed down from one generation to the next. Practices of public speaking were highly fragmented by the beginning of the twentieth century, but they were still ubiquitous, and they needed to be reaffirmed and renewed every day. Modernist writers participated in the process of constant reassessment and recommunalization.