More on the 19th Century (Crowley, D’Angelo)

Note to my, er, readers: Feel free to quibble with my summarizing and connecting as I continue my selected romp through the Norton Book of Composition Studies and prepare notes for my reading list (not all of which I’m dumping into this space…)


In which I use the word “morph.”

Crowley, Sharon. “The Evolution of Invention in Current-Traditional Rhetoric: 1850-1970.” The Norton Book of Composition Studies. 1st ed. New York: Norton, 2009. 333-346. Print.

  • classical invention: “the canon that provides a rhetorician with more or less systematic procedures for finding arguments appropriate to the rhetorical occasion that faces her” (333).
  • current-traditional invention: “a means of systematically delimiting an area of thought in order that the writer may handle its exposition in discourse with maximum clarity” (333).

Crowley’s study takes a close look at significant middle- and late-nineteenth-century composition-rhetoric texts in order to discern their theory of invention as it transformed from its classical tradition. Invention morphs from a method of finding arguments for a situation into a set of prescriptions for managing and controlling discourse so that students will be able to produce it: “a means of systematically delimiting an area of thought in order that the writer may handle its exposition in discourse with maximum clarity” (333). She makes important distinctions between mid-century authors (such as Day and Bain) and late-century authors (such as Hill and Scott), but notes that the homogeneity of the textbook-treatise tradition in American composition rhetoric plays an important role in the “evolution–or better, devolution” of invention into the twentieth century. A set of careful logical steps and precepts for inventing content eventually transforms into a system that can safely be generalized as “Think hard before you write!” (Crowley 339) A set of guidelines for the parts of a logical proposition somehow becomes a vague set of prescriptions for before writing that involves the student listing what she knows, sorting ideas into groups, and ordering those groups in a particular way. As Crowley argues: “To call this an inventional procedure is to stretch the meaning of the term ‘invention’; it is a formula for getting through the composition of a piece of discourse in much the same fashion in which Sherman must have burned his way through Georgia” (343).

For Crowley, the central sin committed by this group comes out of their “set of assumptions about the relation of reality, thought, and language” (343). Early writer Henry Noble Day is complicit here, when he imports the logician’s notion that thought is a purely mental activity into a material, textual, rhetorical demesne. Thus language becomes exterior and secondary to the mind and invention is an entirely mental activity. The great split between thought and language, content and style, mind and matter is made a hallmark in composition pedagogy through Day’s influence and those later writers who “bastardized” his scheme (Andrews 7). Inventional procedures become structural features, and so current-traditional composition becomes “a bizarre parody of serious discourse and the process by which it is produced” (Crowley 344). Current-traditional rhetoric–partly because of the changing university and the more ‘basic’ students it taught, and partly because of the intellectual features of a time in love with prescription–was a formulaic textbook theory, one incredibly distant from the realities of discourse and writing processes.

(connect to Paine, and Berlin)

(This was a major source for my Masters’ thesis, on Henry Noble Day’s invention. But I definitely understand a lot more of the article now than I did then. As appropriate. Makes me want to revise the MA thesis… almost.)


In which I use the word “prescient.”

D’Angelo, Frank J. “Nineteenth-Century Forms/Modes of Discourse: A Critical Inquiry.” The Norton Book of Composition Studies. 1st ed. New York: Norton, 2009. 347-357. Print.

D’Angelo is now pretty dated, as our understanding of psychology, neurobiology, and learning have moved along in the last few decades, but large portions of the textbook industry (and thus, likely the teaching profession) still work out some of the basic assumptions and schemes he describes in this essay. So it’s still argumentatively important, and not just historically–teachers are often conservative folk, so the lessons and dangers D’Angelo outlines are (if not prescient) quite relevant. His basic thesis is that the forms or modes of discourse (description, narration, exposition, argumentation) and the assorted classificatory schemes derived from them are ridiculously problematic and “ought to be discarded as the basis of serious composition teaching.” He offers three reasons for this: that they confuse form (or genre) with mode (or strategy), that they miscategorize and present aims that are “not equal in status,” and that they are based on outworn theories of psychology. D’Angelo hints that part of the nineteenth-century authors’ strong urge to classify was (as Crowley argues in full) managerial in intent. He just barely alludes to this, but I’d say that this can be cast more largely as a conservative reaction to the massive changes and explosion of types of discourse that people would be expected to deal with on a daily basis. This is not quite the prophylactic/immunity model that Paine gets into, but the impetus to try and categorize and classify seems to be especially stultifying in a time of rapid change; we minimize change by classifying it into our own scheme, pounding square pegs into round holes.  As D’Angelo writes: “The words forms, kinds, varieties, and classes occur with such frequency [in 19th-century theorists’ writing] that many of these categories seem to derive more from an impulse to classify kinds of writing, to get experience in order, than from any functional uses these categories may have” (349). Classification as an objective response to change.


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