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David B. Chesebrough, Frederick Douglass: Oratory from Slavery.

David B. Chesebrough, Frederick Douglass: Oratory from Slavery (Greenwood P, 1998), xviii + 178 pp., $59.95.

David Chesebrough's Frederick Douglass: Oratory from Slavery is the newest addition to Bernard Duffy and Halford Ryan's "Great American Orators" series, which includes studies of orators as varied as Abraham Lincoln, Jonathan Edwards, and Sojourner Truth. Chesebrough's study of Frederick Douglass has the organizational pattern of all the books from that series that makes them so useful and informative: two sections, one with extensive biographical information that focuses on the oratorical significance of the speaker's life, and the other an analysis of the orator's speaking style with collected speeches included.

The writing in the first part of Chesebrough's book, "The Development of an Orator," is straightforward, chronologically detailed, and amply supplemented with Douglass' own account of his life from both his autobiography and his collected papers. So thorough and comprehensive a resource on Douglass, with such an accessible style of writing and organization, has been lacking for students of rhetoric.

The strength of Chesebrough's book is also its greatest weakness: it is a clear, well-organized report of historical facts. Speeches are described in reference to their chronological moment, not as acts of artistry that influenced public affairs. In other words, Chesebrough, an historian at Illinois State University, uses history to explain speeches, but he is not rhetorically inclined in his analysis.

Chesebrough's chapter on rhetorical techniques ought to be especially revelatory about Douglass' rhetoric, which is renowned for its astute eloquence. Instead, Chesebrough thoroughly disappoints with a school-book application of Aristotle's proofs (only two of them--he overlooks logos) that fails to reveal the historically situated uniqueness of Douglass' oratorical flair. To provide an understanding of Douglass as orator, and to appeal to an audience with a more advanced understanding of rhetoric than a minimal undergraduate grasp of rhetorical competence, the analysis needs to acknowledge how Douglass' rhetoric mastered the potential of the moment. What is most interesting about Douglass is his unmatched ability to rouse language to address the exigence of the rhetorical situation. The momentous impact of speeches such as "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July" was not just Douglass' "descriptive powers" (93), "use of emotionally laden words" (94), or his "rhythmic cadence" (96), to name a few of Chesebrough's very clearly outlined characteristics of Douglass' oratory. Douglass' impact, especially in that speech, lay in his ability to assess and address, with cutting condemnation, the situation upon him, and to rally listeners with an astoundingly incisive and stylistically apt call to action.

There are two ways in which Chesebrough's analysis of Douglass' rhetorical techniques could be more broadly covered in order to address Douglass' oratorical competence and thereby make the book a more useful reference for students of rhetoric and oratory. First of all, Chesebrough's discussion of Douglass' technique fills under three headings that limit the reader's understanding of Douglass' speech: ethos, pathos, and parallelism. Some of the details under these headings don't fit, and oversimplify Douglass' rhetorical stance, such as descriptions of metaphors as examples of pathos (Douglass' metaphoric link of health and justice, for instance, like Plato's, is integral more to his abolitionist beliefs than to his stylistic choices as an orator). And while the discussion is very accessible and sensibly laid out for quick surface understanding, it neglects logos, which subsequently and implicitly downplays Douglass' intellect.

And the chapter on rhetorical techniques bypasses the perspective from which Douglass-as-orator is most interesting: that of historical and biographical situation. As John Blassingame (whom Chesebrough mentions in his introduction) points out in his introduction to his edited collection of Douglass' speeches and writings, Douglass' rhetorical theory arose out of a consideration of the "total experience" of speaking, which included details of the speaking environment, the particular brand of discrimination to which he had most recently been subjected, the elements of oratorical presentation that he had most recently deemed effective in others' speeches and editorials, and his preference to address each situation directly (xxiv, xxvi).

The second way that Chesebrough's analysis could be broader is by acknowledging the rich and expansive influence of African-American culture on Douglass' rhetoric. That influence includes preaching styles and the complexities of the jeremiad, which Chesebrough recounts, only thinly describing it as "a warning of dire consequences from God if the people fail to follow the precepts of the Almighty" (100). As scholars such as David Howard-Pitney have noted, the jeremiad, especially as Douglass used it, features "staple black social-religious motifs" that represent a deep and pervasive influence of African-American culture on African-American rhetoric (19). To miss that cultural link is to miss the meaning of Douglass' impact on the abolitionist cause. (1)

Chesebrough states appropriately in his introduction that "the mere reading of these speeches will enable the reader to understand how majestically Douglass used language to capture the attention of those who heard him" (xvii). Chesebrough is right. However, rhetoric scholars who are interested in Douglass as a rhetor need to contextualize the study of his rhetoric within a body of literature about nineteenth-century public address. Other sources on nineteenth-century oratory that would enlighten readers about how Douglass' style fit (or did not) into the conventions of his time, and how his "oratorical skills were instrumental in breaking down many of the stereotypes and prejudices people had about blacks in the nineteenth-century [sic]" (xvi) include, for example: S. Michael Halloran and Gregory Clark, Oratorical Culture in Nineteenth-Century America: Transformations in the Theory and Practice of Rhetoric (Southern Illinois UP, 1993); Nan Johnson, Nineteenth Century Rhetoric in North America (Southern Illinois UP, 1991); and John Louis Lucaites, "The Irony of 'Equality' in Black Abolitionist Discourse: The Case of Frederick Douglass's 'What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?'" in Rhetoric and Political Culture in Nineteenth-Century America, ed. Thomas W. Benson (Michigan State UP, 1997), pp. 47-69. There are other nineteenth-century social movements as well, such as women's suffrage, whose rhetoric sheds historical and cultural light on African-American rhetorical styles and themes, especially Douglass'. (2)

For a quick read of Douglass' life, especially about how his travels and activities necessitated speech-giving, and for a compact, affordable collection of Douglass's speeches, Chesebrough's book offers an excellent, manageable beginner's reference book. For rigorous, in-depth, biographically-oriented study of his oratory, Chesebrough's book may need to be augmented.

Susan Ross

Hamilton College

Works Cited

Blassingame, John W.. "Introduction to Series One." The Frederick Douglass Papers, Series One: Speeches, Debates, and Interviews. Volume 1: 1841-46. Yale UP, 1979.

Howard-Pitney, David. The Afro-American Jeremiad: Appeals for Justice in America. Temple UP, 1990.


(1) Two good introductory writings on African-American rhetoric are M. Cummings & J.L. Daniel, "The Study of African-American Rhetoric," The Rhetoric of Western Thought, ed. J.L. Golden (Dubuque: Kendall/Hunt, 1997), pp. 360-85; and T. Garner, "Oral Rhetorical Practice in African-American Culture," Our Voices: Essays in Culture, Ethnicity, and Communication, ed. A. Gonzalez, M. Houston, & V. Chen (Los Angeles: Roxbury, 1994), pp. 81-91.

(2) See Karlyn Kohrs Campbell's Man Cannot Speak for Her: A Critical Study of Early Feminist Rhetoric, vol. 1 (New York, Westport CT, and London: Praeger, 1989).
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Author:Ross, Susan
Publication:Nineteenth-Century Prose
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2000
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