CCR 751: Oratorical Culture in Nineteenth Century America (Ch. 5, pp.139-157).


Johnson, Nan. “The Popularization of Nineteenth-Century Rhetoric: Elocution and the Private Learner.”  Oratorical Culture in Nineteenth Century America. (Ch. 5, pp.139-157).


During the nineteenth-century, the rhetorical “academic tradition” stressed the well-educated citizen, the “man” most often trained in religion, law, and politics.  Rhetoricians defined “rhetoric as the art that contribute the most toward the proper working of the political process, the disposition of justice, and the maintenance of the public welfare and social conscience” (139).  From the use of composition and well defined oratory skills, the appropriate cultural norms of democracy, correct citizenry, and progression of the nation were maintained.


By the mid-century enrollments at colleges and universities and other formal education settings had increased.  Yet, there was a larger populace of “self-learners,” which did not go unnoticed by rhetoricians and publishing companies.  They recognized that “self-learners” would not have the same educational access, background, and knowledge of students within formal institutional settings.  Therefore, the push to publish texts that simplified major rhetorical concepts and theoretical thoughts of elocution that one would receive in higher education were produced for a wider distribution to the general public.  “Popular rhetoric manuals covered a range of topics, including speech making, composition, letter writing, public readings, and elocutionary entertainment” (141).


The elocution movement and its push for more oratorical skills was the most influential rhetorical form which tended to go beyond the “traditional arena of public address.”  Oratorical skills were thought to improve the individual in intellectual thoughts and social refinements.  Unlike traditional public speaking, proper oratorical skills included not just modulations of the voice but included correct body gestures, timing, emotional appeals, and recitations of “masterpieces” or other items of social interests, to produce a passionate response from the audience.  This moved public address beyond the institutions of learning into public spheres of businesses, social gatherings, and parlors.


Elocution was deemed to aid professional and personal advancements.  “Popular elocutionists also stressed that systematic study of natural expression would eradicate speaking defects that interfered with communication and created negative impressions on others” (147).  It was in the best interest for all “good” citizens to improve communication skills to become/remain socially accepted, thereby, producing an environment of isolation for those who did not conform to “proper” social graces and speech.  “No one is qualified to hold a respectable rank in a well-bred society, who is unable to read in an interesting manner, the works of other” ([1827] 1830, 13-14).  Within the nineteenth-century cultural climate, “well-bred” carried with it associations with higher intellectual and moral virtue” (150).  Oratorical skills were so important that public speaking events and the performance of speakers and an outline of their views were often published and critiqued in local newspapers.


To address the needs of the “Private Learner,” elocution texts were published in three instructional forms:

  1. Cross-over manuals: used by both academic and private learners for more far-reaching concepts, such as philosophical issues, theories, comprehensive principles, and readings.  Still the manuals were less challenging that academic texts used in higher education.  Cross-over manuals were written to be understood and applied, yet they gave the private learners and students the same information without the use of a formal instructor.  Explanations of concepts were simplified.  These types of texts were published at the onset of public demand.
  2. Elocution Speakers: More simplified version of delivery techniques, instructions, and reading selections than cross-over manuals.  A further reduction of concepts with exercises and practice readings for better public execution.  Little or no focus on philosophy and theories.  The texts were produced for wider distribution and marketing campaigns.
  3. Elocution Reciters:  “Condensed” approach, with little or no instructions.  They were a collection of “practical” selections arranged for a given “occasion.”  If one wanted an address for Christmas, Easter, a business opening, social gatherings, picnic, etc., the reader could memorize the passage and present it at the function.  This more “practical” and “popular” usage texts marked the direct fall and decreased publication of “masterpiece selections.”  Reciters were performance based texts.  “Reciters were published in two forms, single volume anthologies (often reprinted) and in serials of monthly, quarterly, or annual issues” (155).

All three publication types imparted to the “average citizen”/learner the recommendations of “the study of elocution for its practical versatility and for insights into taste, the power of language, and the higher emotions that elocutionary and performance provides” (156).  Like the students of traditional learning sites, the private learners were expected to come away with communication skills that would set them apart and facilitate the correct social actions.



After reading this chapter, I noticed that there seems to be a direct correlation between the decline of philosophical, theoretical, and technical approaches of elocution (“more simplified”) and the publication and distribution increases of the different types of public address texts.  With each “watered-down” version of elocutionary approach texts, rhetorical instructions and masterpiece readings were sacrificed to meet the needs for widespread distribution for more “practical” and “popular” texts.  It stands to reason that wonderful examples of private and public communication skills found in Civil War letters and other nineteenth-century correspondence are silent or less evident at the turn of the twentieth-century.  Could this be a result of social needs versus marketing demands?  Is this another area/voice of social histories of “everyday” individuals that is lost?  Can language pattern changes and usage be considered social histories events?


5 Responses to CCR 751: Oratorical Culture in Nineteenth Century America (Ch. 5, pp.139-157).

  1. tanyakrod says:

    Great summary, R. I appreciate its comprehensive nature.

    This article prompted a lot of questions for me. It is unclear how the influence of New Rhetoric directly connected to those involved in the elocution movement. Did people in the academy form together and create this movement? How was this definition of rhetoric as a general and essential skill circulated in the public? There is one mention of a popular elocution author writing both popular and theoretical books, but were these theoretical books used in the academy, and were these people privy to the formation of New Rhetoric in the academy? Who is Shoemaker, MacKaye, Monre and Alger, and how and where were they trained? Or were they trained? Was this movement really inextricably connected to the academy?

    Johnson writes:
    Popular rhetorical education in the late 19th century garnered credibility and authority by promoting the importance of rhetorical skills for the general citizen (which by the way, means what? who is the general citizen???) and “private learner”…Although rhetoric manuals were marketed to the general public throughout the late eighteenth century and early nineteenth century, an upsure in the public’s demand for literacy training and interest in rhetorical performance as a social and community event encouraged a burgeoning of popular education in rhetoric between 1850-1910” (140-141).
    What caused this “upsurge” and who (in terms of class, race, gender, etc) was involved in demanding literacy training? Who was the audience for these popular elocution texts? And who had access to them, the newspapers that critiqued and reviewed them, and access to attending elocutionary events, and more importantly, who was “welcome” in attending these events in the mid-19th century?

  2. legries says:

    Thanks for the great summary, Reva. Your questions are worth thinking more about. Rather than addressing them, however, I hope you don’t mind if I raise a question about the limitations of Johnson’s description of the elocutionary movement in the 19th century. Last year in Eileen’s course, we learned about Hallie Quinn Brown, who was an African American elocutionist professor who taught elocution at the end of the 19th century and early part of the 20th century at Wilberforce University. I was very surprised not to see Brown’s important work mentioned in Johnson’s essay. According to Susan Kates, Brown taught elocution for the “moral transformation” she thought it could bring to both the African American individual and community–a rhetorical practice and philosophy that contradicts the teachings of other, I’m assuming, white professors, who taught elocution for the attainment of taste and sharper mind (61-62). Johnson claims that elocution was taught as a means to improve social, business, and public life; thus, I suppose that Johnson might respond to Kates that Brown’s objective for teaching elocution to strengthen community and social action for the benefit of the African American community is not all that different than the elocutionary manuals’ objectives. However, Johnson claims that elocutionary manuels were designed for the “general citizen,” “average individual,” and “private learner.” I can’t help but wonder if those manuals were really created for the “average” individual or just the average white individual??

    I think Brown’s work is so important because she was accutely aware of the linguistic heritage and culture of the African American community and taught elocution in a way that honored that heritage. As Reva notes, Johnson claims these manuals were created for those that did not have the same educational access, background, and knowledge as students within institutional settings. Did these elocutionary manuals that Johnson is writing really honor the linguistic heritage and culture of African Americans let alone other minority communities in the U.S.? If not, it would seem that one could argue that those manuals actually contributed to the futher oppression of many individuals and communities who were not represented in those manuals nor had access to them. I am curious why Johnson did not discuss such implications in her article. Although I have not seen these manuals, I find it hard to believe that these manuals were as inclusive as Johnson implies. I hope I am wrong, but in the meantime, while I appreciate the work Johnson has done here, I can’t help but feel that this article is just another case where minority Americans are left out of history….

  3. zstuckey says:

    I would like to add to L’s queery in light of Reva’s questions: without consideration of the intersection of gender with race, class, and disability, Johnson’s argument draws an incomplete picture.

    Johnson is part of the first wave of contemporary rhetorical historiography, an Octalog teamUSA member. If her lack of intersectionality is a reflection of the fact that she wrote 15 years ago, what do we do with that? How does the conversation change when we consider that Hallie Quinn Brown was “recovered” after Johnson’s essay? Recall, that in Octalog she overtly invokes Foucault’s notion of archaeology. Johnson camps out more in Foucauldian territory, yet that does not exclude her from issue around the politics of representation. Recall also that there is no representation in Octalog of anyone other than white, privileged women and men. Octalog’s only mention of exclusionary issues is with regard to Ancient Greek white, privileged women. This exclusion seems to be typical of early 90’s rhetorical historiography. In the introduction to C & H’s volume, we can begin to see how exclusionary issues get a bit more attention. In 1999, Logan publishes We Are Coming: The Persuasive Discourse of 19th Century Black Women.

    In another book by Johnson–Gender and Rhetorical Space in American Life, 1866-1910 (published 2 years before C & H)–she argues that during the Victorian period women (we know what women she speaks of) were typically denied access to public and masculine-gendered rhetorical spaces. The women who did in fact become successful orators within the public sphere did so by embracing, rather than transgressing, cultural norms. According to Johnson, women like Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton achieved success because they performed acceptable roles of woman-as-mother or woman-as-maiden (Fuller’s pedagogy and ideas resist this). Eloquence and effective speaking could however be accessed through non-masculine, transgressive means, but only within parlors and other domestic rhetorical spaces.

    Case in point as to how Johnson draws an exclusionary history—once I name the freak show as a rhetorical practice, the freak show performer can be seen as entering public rhetorical space. Johnson’s theory holds up–the performer does this within the woman-as-mother or woman-as-maiden trope. She gains access to constrained public rhetorics through adhesion to the cult of true womanhood. However, freak show performers achieve what a multitude of late nineteenth century women could not: they exhibit themselves in public rhetorical space, albeit highly constrained by cultural scripts. Why is this presence ignored? Rhetorical history can’t just be limited to public platforms (now I’m on my soapbox again). What I’m trying to say is that rhetorical history needs to account for marginalized folks without having to insert them in afterwards as anomalies to the original history.

    I also want to bring up the issue how standards of oratorical culture preclude physiological difference. Johnson writes in C & H, “Popular elocutionists also stressed that systematic study of natural expression would eradicate speaking defects that interfered with communication and created negative impressions on others” (147). One narrative suggests that Isocrates never spoke in public because he stuttered. Demosthenes had to overcome his speech impairment in order to be a rhetorician. What are the social and political implications in terms of contemporary disability theory of how culture (we) still impose those standards of normality in oratory and rhetorical practice?

  4. Eileen E. Schell says:

    A great thread, overall, everyone, and I echo Laurie’s praise of Reva’s overview of this article. It is interesting, as Laurie and Zosha, note, to read this essay and this collection, for that matter, from our contemporary standpoint where we have the benefit of a variety of critical rhetorical perspectives that interrogate understandings of the body, self, and social action. Johnson’s essay viewed through these lenses is going to come up looking and sounding exclusionary when at the time it was published it would not have been seen as such. This is a question of perspective and where we train our attention. Zosha raises an important question about where we look for rhetorical histories, and it is clear in this edited collection that we are supposed to look in textbooks or manuals or on platforms and in specific archival collections. The emphasis, too, is on “oratorical,” which carries the “platform” with it. While we are on the question of what is lacking, and I do want to emphasize that there is more to this book than just the lack, is that it is less about social movements and more about individuals, hence mirroring the move that Halloran and Clark discuss from oratorical to professional cultures. Yet the 19th c. saw the birth of some of the greatest social and activist movements in our nation’s history such as suffrage, abolition, labor, and others. So how do these movements mirror that of the oratorical to professional culture movements or is there a third term here of collective action in response to the rise of professionalism or???

  5. bjbailie says:

    Reva’s questions (I admit to only picking two):
    It stands to reason that wonderful examples of private and public communication skills found in Civil War letters and other nineteenth-century correspondence are silent or less evident at the turn of the twentieth-century. Is this another area/voice of social histories of “everyday” individuals that is lost?

    My response:
    I would see the change in public discourse (speaking and writing) not as a disintegration of language use in the public sphere, but as a change in aesthetics. As Hirst points out in “The Sermon as Public Discourse” there was a change in the American epistemology—a move away from elitist values and ways of knowing/speaking. While it is possible to frame this change as a regression, it can also be seen as the common ground several needed to fight the stifling and pervasively conservative attitudes of 19th century America. Keep in mind this was an age where members of the established Christian clergy (you know, the people who are supposed to be magnanimous) believed in the “‘evolutionary’ development of the human race,” (106) towards a society free of slavery and the repression of women, and yet they believed this evolution could only happen with a select class of classical educated (which implies wealth—no financial aid back in the day) sacred orators as the progenitors/gatekeepers; a class of men (read white males who were well off) who were the unquestioned leaders of their community that “assumed a homogenous population [and] aspired to create one” (80). I emphasize “classical educated” and “men” to point out this wasn’t a very egalitarian undertaking, and anything these individuals produced/valued was rife with their views concerning the importance of social order and maintaining that order. The ability to control language, to use it in new and different ways, was the first step towards seeing the world in a new way, one where this traditional order of things was called into question and overtly challenged via women’s suffrage, the labor movement, and abolition. I don’t think that everyday voices were lost; I think the voices of the ruling class receded into the background.

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