Selected Criticism

Rhetorical Theory and Practice
Higgins, Andrew C.
Print source:
J.R. LeMaster and Donald D. Kummings, eds., Walt Whitman: An Encyclopedia (New York: Garland Publishing, 1998), reproduced by permission.

Rhetoric, according to Aristotle, is "the faculty of observing in any given case the available means of persuasion" (24). As such, rhetoric's goals are practical. It is not concerned with uncovering absolute, permanent truths, but rather with the ways in which people arrive at practical truths, such as for whom to vote or which school to attend.

Classical rhetoricians, such as Plato, Aristotle, and Cicero, were concerned with articulating systems and defining the different modes of persuasion. Aristotle divides rhetoric into three main areas: forensic rhetoric, which is concerned with establishing the justice of a particular event or course of action; epideictic rhetoric, which is concerned with establishing the honor of a person; and deliberative rhetoric, which is concerned with determining the expedience of a course of action. Cicero divides rhetoric into five areas: invention, arrangement, style, memory, and delivery.

For centuries rhetoric was considered the queen of knowledge. But during the Renaissance people began to turn away from rhetoric, with its emphasis on contingent truths, in favor of science and logic, with their claims on absolute truth. Rhetoric became more and more circumscribed until it came to mean only style. This is the origin of the popular idea of rhetoric as a pejorative term, as in "that's just rhetoric."

However, in the last half of the twentieth century, with the postmodern emphasis on the multiple nature of truth, rhetoric has undergone a resurgence. Unlike classical rhetoric, with its emphasis on creating systems, contemporary rhetoric is concerned with describing the ways in which persuasion and argumentation create knowledge. Rhetoricians such as Kenneth Burke, Chaim Perelman and Lucie Olbrechts-Tyteca, and Michel Foucault have looked at how different political, social, and ideological assumptions underlie supposedly objective areas of discourse, including the natural sciences.

One of the key terms of contemporary rhetorical theory is "identification." This term, developed by Kenneth Burke in his book A Rhetoric of Motives, stems from the idea that in order for a group of people to act towards the same goal, they must first have a common sense of identity. Identity is not a monolithic concept; in fact, individuals have many intertwined identities. So a person may simultaneously identify herself as an American, a rugby player, an economist, a woman, and a pickup truck owner. The rhetorician is interested in the ways that writers play on these different identities, highlighting some and discounting others in an attempt to move the reader to identify with the writer or a particular group based on certain shared identities.

As an approach to literature, rhetoric differs from other forms of criticism in that it treats language as an act rather than an artifact. Because of its concern with action, rhetoric asks certain questions about the dynamic qualities of the text: Who did it? What scene or context was it done in? Why was it done? What, exactly, is it that was done? And how was it done? These five questions reflect the five terms of Kenneth Burke's pentad: act, scene, agent, agency, and purpose. The pentad provides the critic with a systematic means for examining all the various aspects and contexts of an act.This approach helps the rhetorician to come to terms with the flexible nature of meaning and to avoid what I.A. Richards calls the "proper meaning superstition," the belief that a word or text has a single, static meaning. Instead, rhetorical criticism locates meaning in negotiations between author, text, and reader. Most contemporary rhetoricians see these negotiations as occurring in group contexts. Thus different discourse communities, groups which share certain assumptions, may derive different meanings from a single text.

There are many rich areas of inquiry for the rhetorical critic who is interested in Whitman. To date, most rhetorical studies of Whitman, such as that of C. Carroll Hollis, have been concerned with style, how the arrangement of the words on the page works to create literary and rhetorical effects. But other important areas of rhetorical analysis are beginning to be explored, including questions of audience, invention, and epistemology.

Foremost in recent rhetorical studies of Whitman is a concern with the poet's relationship to his audience. Unlike poststructuralist criticism, which views Whitman's addresses to his audience as ultimately a futile attempt to bridge the physical gap between himself and his audience, rhetorical criticism stresses the way these addresses work to create a bond of identification between the reader and the poet. This identification is not illusory, but very real because it can lead to a change in the reader's actions or attitudes. Unlike historicist approaches, which are primarily concerned with readers who were contemporaries with Whitman, the rhetorical critic is interested in the different audiences that have read Whitman since 1855, especially present-day readers, and how the different expectations and reading conventions those audiences bring to the text affect the meaning produced.

Other areas of interest to the rhetorical critic include Whitman's concept of what language does and how it functions; the epistemologies of Leaves of Grass, how Whitman creates knowledge in the poetry; and the stylistic strategies Whitman employs to make his arguments in the poems.


Aristotle. The Rhetoric and the Poetics of Aristotle. Trans. W. Rhys Roberts. New York: Modern Library, 1984.

Booth, Wayne. The Rhetoric of Fiction. 2nd ed. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1983.

Burke, Kenneth. A Rhetoric of Motives. 2nd ed. Berkeley: U of California P, 1969.

Foucault, Michel. The Archaeology of Knowledge and the Discourse on Language. Trans. A.M. Sheridan Smith. New York: Pantheon, 1972.

Hollis, C. Carroll. Language and Style in "Leaves of Grass." Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1983.

LeFevre, Karen Burke. Invention as a Social Act. Carbondale: Southern Illinois UP, 1987.

Richards, I.A. The Philosophy of Rhetoric. 1936. New York: Oxford UP, 1965.


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