ABSTRACT

Elocution played a central role in nineteenth-century American formations of normative national identity, but elocution manuals, as archival materials, have been underexamined for their impact on the determination of both an American poetic tradition and American nationalism. These manuals can be contextualized through the popular diagnosis of neurasthenia or nervous disorder, which physiologists attempted to cure by prescribing proper embodiment and systemization of speech. Elocution manuals combined these physical prescriptions with attention to the public's aesthetic taste, thereby serving as mediators between physiologists and the public. A study of seven manuals published between 1789 and 1896 reveals, however, that the cultural hierarchies of texts and bodies prescribed by earlier manuals gave way toward the end of the century to a print culture in which the reading public decided which texts best suited their elocutionary and physiological needs. It can be seen that the national obsession with elocution was connected with widespread nervousness about an increasingly pluralistic population. To soothe this anxiety, authors of elocution manuals employed two reciprocal methods: the creation of a physiological congruence among the several bodies of the public body and the standardization of an American rhetorical and poetic form.

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