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Mere Rhetoric

Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the ideas, people and movements who have shaped rhetorical history.

Dec 11, 2017

Welcome to Mere Rhetoric, the podcast for beginners and insiders about the people, terms and movements who have shaped rhetorical history. I’m Mary Hedengren and I’ve been reading A Christmas Carol this holiday season because I’m playing Mrs. Crachit in a community theatre production. And wow. There is a story behind that. But becaue I was interested in The christmas carol, so I started reading The Man Who Invented Christmas, Les Standiford’s history of Dickens’s masterpeice. I was surprised to hear how A Christmas Carol had solidified Christmas as we know it, a home-and-family holiday rather than a racacus drunken orgy of disrule. Yeah, Christmas used to be like that. In fact, there was a debate about Christmas raging over several centuries when Scrooge came on the scene. After Dickens, though, industrialists started giving their employees Christmas Day off, and everyone started sending their workers the ubiquitous Christmas turkey. Robert Louis Stevenson, upon reading Dickens’s Christmas Carol first cried his eyes out and then committed to donate money to the poor. Even Dickens’s best frienemy and critic, William Makepeace Thackery, was deeply moved by it. Dickens’s book had, in the words of Lord Jeffrey “fostered more kindly feelings and prompted more positive acts of beneficence” than all the sermons in all the churches pervious. So if literature is so powerful to change the way people live, why isn’t it considered rhetoric?

That question is probably best addressed in Steven Mailloux (My-U)’s Rhetorical Power. In the book that would in some ways define his career, Mailloux advances a rhetorical perspective of literature that would present a middle ground between idealist and realist literary theory. He calls the exercise of this perspective “rhetorical hermeneutics” which he suggests as an “anti-Theory theory” that will  “determine how texts are established as meaningful through rhetorical exchanges” (15). It isn’t just the content or, to use the old fashioned phrase, “theme” of a book that impacts people, but the way the story is drawn through, and the techniques that the author gets us to buy into.

Such a reading differs wildly from the notions of New Criticisms that would restrict interpretation to the page and from even Stanley Fish’s narrow academic interpretative community. Instead, the work is rooted in a specific history, rhetorical tradition, and cultural conversation (145-6). We can be impacted by 19th century books, but not the in same way that Lord Jeffrey and Stevenson were. There are conversations going on and arguments made in the book catalogs of any culture.

Mailloux claims that this perspective is not only engaged in the world outside the text, but also describes the temporal experience of reading. In this way, literature exits circles of elite academic interpretative communities and instead belongs to the community of readers at large. The text has an individual influence as well. Mailloux describes how a text can educate a reader (41) and train the reader to see and think a certain way as the text progresses (99). This education depends on the form of the work, how the work develops from premise to premise. Moby Dick is Mailloux’s main example of this kind of trained reading. The disappearing narrator through chapters isn’t just an error; it’s an education. In this way, rhetorical hermeneutics seem to draw on both Kenneth Burke’s discussion of form in Counter-statement and Wayne Booth’s concerns about immoral narration in The Rhetoric of Fiction. While Mailloux uses Moby Dick as his primary example of the education of the reader within the pages of a book, he spends more time discussing the way that a text’s educating qualities relate to a community’s debate, and what better example could he use than The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?

    In Mark Twain’s book, Mailloux has a prime example of the way a work “includes rhetorical histories of interpretative disputes” (135).  Because of the way Twain’s work was part of the national debates of the “Negro Question” and the “Bad Boy Boom,” it can clearly demonstrate a reading that prioritizes not the “isolated readers and isolated texts” but the entire “rhetorical exchanges among interpreters embedded in discursive and other social practices at specific historical moments” (133).  We often think of Huckleberry Finn in terms of race only, because that’s the predominant issue from the book for our culture, but the issue of “bad boys” was even more pressing on Twain’s contemporaries, which may seems a shocking undersight to modern readers. Huckleberry Finn was originally banned from some schools and library for showing a bad boy getting away with rebellion.  Mailloux demonstrates that there were many pieces of literature of all sorts discussing what to do with juvenile delinquent boys, and Twain’s contribution in the unintentionally humane and thoughtful Huckleberry was a response to, and instigator of, some of the alarm.

Moving from Mark Twain, Mailloux applies his theory to contemporary political disputes, demonstrating that this kind of reading practice isn’t exclusive to formal literature. So we come full circle. Literature participates in a wider societal conversation, and our political conversations can benefit of a reading as intense as the one we give to literature. As Mailloux says “textual interpretation and rhetorical politics can never be separated” (180).

    So if you do a little light reading this holiday break, you might take a moment and wonder, what, exactly, are the political implications of what you’re reading. If you found a deeper level of rhetorical discourse in your holiday reading, why not drop us a line at This is Mary Hedengren, ruining your vacation from Mere Rhetoric.