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

September 24, 2007


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?