DEMOCRATIC ELOQUENCE: The Fight over Popular Speech in Nineteenth-Century America by Kenneth Cmiel

DEMOCRATIC ELOQUENCE: The Fight over Popular Speech in Nineteenth-Century America

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KIRKUS REVIEW

Here, Cmiel (History/Univ. of Iowa) describes how two groups of 19th-century people--each struggling for intellectual, social, even moral authority--believed speech should be used. On the one hand were the scholars, variously called ""professionals,"" linguists, or philologists, whose standards were plain, populist, practical, and based on usage--and on the other were the ""gentlemen"" (an odd opposition to scholars and philologists), including critics of language and rhetoricians, whose standards were elitist, based on literary precedent, and whose ideals were eloquence, civility, and refinement. In spite of the oversimplified groupings, Cmiel persuasively argues how this debate over language was symptomatic of the politics of learning, an episode in 19th-century academic history (his real focus). He explains the separation between language and letters, between writing and literature, between ""truth and beauty"" that took place in American English departments--and the resultant power that ""professionals"" acquired over curricula (and therefore the excessive emphasis on grammar over literature), dictionaries, and Biblical translations. According to the author, it is a separation that today contributes to the abuse of language in politics, advertising, and the popular press by those to whom it is an instrument rather than an art. But in describing the evolution of a distinctly American public discourse, a democratic ""middling"" style, Cmiel offers little of it or its rich variations; nor does he discuss the impact of such nonacademic influences as immigration, urbanization; travel, regionalism, international trade and war, and the complex role of American literature, which reflected popular speech, occasionally invented it, but seldom provided a precedent for it. Cmiel's own style--academic, lucid, lively but heavily annotated and overargued--is unaccounted for, as is his orientation as scholar and/or gentleman, although he does claim that he tried ""to incorporate a hermeneutic moment into [his] text,"" and one can only trust that he did.

Pub Date: Aug. 22nd, 1990
Publisher: Morrow