The House of My Sojourn: Rhetoric, Women, and the Question of Authority.
By Jane S. Sutton. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2010. X11 + 219 pp. $59.50 cloth/$47.6o e-book.
Itn The House of My Sojourn, Jane S. Sutton heeds President Barack Obama's mandate "to ask hard questions about why women ... do not occupy the high seats [in public life] " by exploring how, throughout the last two centuries, more and more American women have become public speakers at the same time their authority has been undermined (17). She also promises to provide readers with a preliminary plan for "a new rhetoric ... able to extend authority and power and thus agency to women" (20). Sutton imagines her project spatially: She sees rhetoric as a house, "conceived as an escape from the wild beast that settles disputes through violence" (33). In the first chapter, her reliance on spatial metaphors can be dizzying: "I move across the vertical slope as the house rises to its apex by using switchbacks that go from myth to conceptualization" (29). However, Sutton also uses the Portrait Monument, a statue of Lucretia Mott, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Susan B. Anthony, as a steadying metaphor for what happens to women when they enter the house of rhetoric. From its installation in 1921 until 1997, the statue had been relegated to the basement of the Capitol Rotunda.
Sutton's historical journey begins with the ancient Greeks and their building of the house of rhetoric. In the middle chapters of the book, she uses three nineteenth-century case studies of women speaking in public to demonstrate how increased access does not equal increased authority. Audiences showered orators Frances Wright and Lucy Stone with epithets; the 1893 Chicago World's Fair included a Woman's Building, where the busts that became the Portrait Monument were initially displayed, but it was built far from the fair's central buildings; Amelia Schauer, a telephone operator (one of thousands who were hired toward the end of the nineteenth century), was arrested under suspicion of being a prostitute, simply for walking in a public place one night. Together, these interesting middle chapters demonstrate the troping (or turning) by which women are denied authority. The master trope is metonymy, or, as Sutton puts it by quoting Jay Heinrichs, the "figure of swap" (60) (for example, the White House can be "swapped" for the president). Sutton refers to three different kinds of metonymy: antonomasia, or the use of epithets, for example, Wright as "High Priestess of Infidelity" (84); hypallage, or the switching of attributes, for example, the rhetorical accomplishments the Woman's Building is meant to celebrate are marginalized; and paronomasia, or a slight but telling change of name, for example, public woman as "public woman."
Sutton's cleverness appears especially in chapter 4's identification of the placement of the Woman's Building as hypallage: It demonstrates how one can merge a classical rhetorical analysis with a feminist one.
Sutton thinks spatially, and she makes her way from place to place in her book by visual associations. She facilitates her leap from classical Greek rhetoric to nineteenth-century America by foregrounding the Greek elements in the three case studies she uses: not only by using classical tropes to characterize each case but also through analyzing details like the neoclassical architecture that characterized the White City of the Chicago World's Fair and the Arachne-like portrait of the "Telephone Woman" in Edmunds E. Bond's painting Weavers of Speech (m). This technique allows her to trace a line from ancient Greece through nineteenth- to twenty-first-century America. But the book sometimes seems to follow a dream logic: It is not just that each chapter features, at some point, a description of the author's own imaginative journey through the house of rhetoric and the Capitol Rotunda. Characters in her book morph into each other. Nanye'hi, a Cherokee woman known as "the Pocahontas of the West," and Frances Wright meet (although there is no historical record of a meeting) (19), and, in one distinctly Gothic moment, the author merges herself with the Portrait Monument: "By inserting my eyes in the stone sockets, the statue is able to look at the future in front of them, while I, being the eyes in the backs of their heads, obtain a future perspective on the past" (125).
For me, this kind of meeting and morphing introduces problems of historiography. My unease could reflect a disciplinary difference: I come from the discipline of English, which, with its emphasis on historicism, tends to see, in some ways, the past as another country. Sutton, on the other hand, comes from Communication, which may allow a freer use of the past. Not surprisingly, then, Sutton's account of nineteenth-century female oratory seems to me to be insufficiently historically textured. Although she wonderfully draws out the classical elements in her case studies, she does not discuss other influences on women's nineteenth-century public speaking. She does not consider, for example, the influence of Christian traditions of female confession and preaching (compellingly discussed by Sandra M. Gustafson in Eloquence Is Power) and, even more saliently, given Sutton's reliance on the metaphor of the house, the centrality of domesticity to gender roles in the nineteenth century. The impact of the famous question attributed to Sojourner Truth, "Ain't I a woman?," for example, cannot be felt unless one is familiar with the nineteenth-century ideology that denied it.
Sutton's book begins by promising to demonstrate how women have been denied authority in the house of rhetoric and to offer a sketch for a different kind of domicile. The author succeeds in both aims, although her sketch raises some pressing questions. Nanye'hi, Sutton writes, allows us to imagine a world where speech is "embodied" and people enter the house of rhetoric "without distinction" (141, 143). The potential clash of these two ideas leads me to ask the following: Hasn't public speech traditionally been "embodied" in America (see, for example, Lindal Buchanan's Regendering Delivery), a condition that has been particularly problematic for black women speakers? How can speech be "embodied" without letting in, on one hand, misogynist associations, or, on the other, essentialist notions of "woman" as a category? These questions, however, testify to my embrace of Sutton's attempt to envision a different house of rhetoric. I, like her, want this new house built.
Buchanan, Lindal. Regendering Delivery: The Fifth Canon and Antebellum Women Rhetors. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 2005.
Gustafson, Sandra M. Eloquence Is Power: Oratory and Performance in Early America. Chapel Hill: U of North Carolina P, 2000.
Reviewed by Faye Halpern, University of Calgary
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|Publication:||Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 1, 2012|
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