Quick notes on another nineteenth century history (Johnson)

Johnson, Nan. Nineteenth-Century Rhetoric in North America. Carbondale: SIUP, 1991. Print.

One of the most important characteristics of rhetoric is what Johnson calls “responsive transformation”–rhetoric is cultural and thus highly responsive to the influence of not only the dominant ethics, epistemologies, and ontologies of the day, but also the practical imperatives of social change. The nineteenth century, that black-hole (especially for this early history of Johnson’s) of composition is not–as the standard argument went–a confusing amalgam or composite, but rather a convincing synthesis of 18th century rhetorical theories, classical treatments of canons, epistemological treatments of the mind, and belletristic treatments of style and taste.

Two interesting notes from her introduction on the partisan tendencies of comp-rhet history scholarship:

  • the classicist stance: “pejorative critiques of the nineteenth-century tradition draw their force from the assumption that rhetorical traditions that deviate from classical philosophies of rhetoric (Aristotelian or Ciceronian) are unstable or inherently compromised” (13)
  • the praxis bias: or a tendency to identify 19th-century rhetoric with a particular individual rhetorical art. “the praxis bias does not account for the degree to which rhetorical practice evolves in response to changing needs of societies and cultures, accommodating not only an ever-changing theoretical disposition but also an ever-rearranging coalition of ‘traditional’ and innovative arts” (13).

Her book densely elaborates the integrative oral-written rhetorical theory of the nineteenth-century college:

Rhetoricians in the period perceived themselves as responsible for accounting for the nature of discourse, the techniques of rhetoric, and the development of the intellectual and moral virtues that enabled the speaker or writer to communicate in an effective and beneficent fashion. Extremely idealistic in their view of the consequences of rhetorical study, nineteenth-century rhetoricians promoted the notion within the academy and in the public mind that the acquisition of rhetorical expertise is commensurate with the cultivation of a liberal mind and admirable, enlightening emotions. (16-17)


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