Kitzhaber’s 1953 Rhetoric in American Colleges, 1850-1900

This work has an air of legend about it, and it’s more or less deserved, because it’s damn good, and effectively timeless – 99% of it feels like it was written yesterday, as when Kitzhaber notes dryly that something in rhetorical textbooks or pedagogy hasn’t changed between 1896 and 1953, I can observe, wryly, that it still hasn’t changed betwen 1953 and 2007.

I only wish that I had read it sooner, because much of what I wrote in the paragraph article in CE would have then articulated a better overall historical picture of the 19th century. The folks I dubbed the paragraph rebels, for example, are cast more properly here as devotees/students of Scott’s Michigan program.

Kitzhaber’s take on the paragraph seems to be identical to that of Rodgers. He apparently wasn’t aware of Lindley Murray’s take on the paragraph (though he knows of the text), but he had a copy of Helen Thomas’ 1912 A Study of the Paragraph, which I never got ahold of (considering her approach, maybe for the best!) and he has a bit more room to talk about Wendell, Hill, Genung, McElroy, and the innovations of Scott and Denney. He does drop his discussion well short of 1953, though – the last text he considers is from 1929, and only in passing – he really only covers until 1900 (which, given his declared scope, is appropriate) but he skips over Lewis’ dissertation (1894, I think?) faster than I’d like. Overall his opinion on the subject is similiar to that of Paul Rodgers, and he ends on Pearson’s emphasis on the whole composition before its parts, a point that I overlooked, though such a notion was, thankfully, taken up later.

But that is a minor chapter in a much larger work, and Kitzhaber has such a firm grip on the material that he never hesitates to summarize in a ruthless yet effective way. My favorite line is this unflappable statement at the end of Chapter Six – “The effect of the forms of discourse on rhetorical theory and practice has been bad.”

Not unfortunate. Not unpleasant. Not regrettable. Not questionable. Just BAD. The ironclad deductive structure of the chapters makes these pronouncements a lot easier to digest, of course. I particularly like how he links the decline in Latin and Greek instruction to the rise of speech courses and departments.

If the work has a weakness, it is the consideration of the Scottish power trio of Campbell, Blair, and Whately, from which much of the rhetorical nonsense of that century springs. For one, he does not address how their theology (all are clergymen) entangles their rhetoric, Campbell’s in particular. He gives a great account of how Blair led the charge of stripping rhetoric of invention, and leaving it nothing but style and scraps of arrangement, though, a pattern that last until around 1890, when the notion of correctness cuts down even on style and also on grammar.

When considering metaphor in Chapter 9, I wasn’t familiar with Gertrude Buck’s dissertation, which sounds several generations ahead of her time. Also, a text that Kitzhaber seems very familiar with, and cites often in several chapters, is George Hervey’s 1873 System of Christian Rhetoric, which sounds utterly fascinating from my interest in NT metaphor. I’ll have to find it, too. Ugh! I cannot stop adding books to read. It’s compulsive.

One result of Kitzhaber’s relentless search through textbooks of the time is that he can rightly point to what was really innovative and to what was mere rehashing of old and – as mentioned before quite succintly – bad ideas. There was (and still is) a culture of textbooks following faddish trends rather than daring to reconceptualize. Thus Fred Newton Scott and his ilk, in Kitzhaber’s narrative, are positively unique among a larger gang of stylistic copycats. There is no principal villain, althrough Barrett Wendell, who retreats defeated into literature, comes pretty close, and Bain gets a serious drubbing. There are problems with this kind of white hat/black hat telling of history, which Andrea Lunsford has pointed out; but broad disciplinary debates require broad frameworks. My sense of Kitzhaber is that he is aware of this limitation, and the value of a complete historical account trumps it.

It was particularly refreshing to read a long, solid historical argument after recently reading over an 1993 issue of RTE, where there is a discussion between Aviva Freedman, Joseph Williams & Gregory Colomb, and Jeanne Fahnestock over whether genre can be ‘explicitly taught’. While Freeman and W&C joust over how to interpet various empirical studies in the matter, Fahnestock makes a rather impassioned plea for the historical tradition of teaching genre. In her rejoinder, Freedman brushes off Fahnestock’s historical argument by equivocating it with W&C’s personal experience, and then wonders aloud, in a rather unpleasant use of paralipsis – really proslepsis – if such arguments should be dismissed out of hand in an empirical journal. This sidesteps, of course, the question that her own sources are under withering fire from W&C, and the matter has become one of competing evaluations; also, she avoids having to make a historical counterargument, which would have been difficult. if not impossible, considering the topic.

Ugh. I enjoy having access to all research. In fact, I demand it, and it is hard for me to have patience with a shunning of empirical work in favor of lore, or an rigid insistence on only using quantitative data. Why restrict the roads to truth? We have enough trouble finding any, much less agreeing on whether it exists or not. I enjoy a good, rigorous study, I enjoy a good history, I enjoy a good bit of theory, and I even enjoy accounts of classroom teaching. I am the essence of pure readerly happiness most of the time. Except when I’m reading a book a day, of course.

Wow, this entry definitely qualifies as rambling.

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