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Chapter 11: the foe to eloquence

It is a curious fact that the greatest foe to eloquence, just now, is that same enterprising daily press which at first did so much to promote it. It is not merely that the press secures a better-informed community, although this has been sometimes thought to be less favorable to good public speaking than a more ignorant body of hearers. A Southern justice of the Supreme Court once told the present writer that there could be no really good oratory in a well-educated region; it could only be developed where the mass of people depended almost wholly on the orator for instruction. This opinion is probably not well founded; it is probable that the better education simply shifts the grade of the oratory, and does not impair it. Demosthenes and Pericles did not address an ignorant public, but one highly trained. Nevertheless, on the [82] only occasion when the present writer ever addressed a typically Southern rural audience --at the Spartansburg, South Carolina, celebration, in 1881-it was impossible not to be struck with a certain eagerness in the whole body of hearers, a sort of greediness, it might almost be said, to reach all that was to be had from the speakers, beyond anything ordinarily to be found at the North or West. It was an attitude and bearing hardly compatible with the general reading of a daily paper. So far, indeed, it illustrated what Mr. Justice --had said; and yet it is doubtful, as has been already remarked, whether his opinion was quite correct.

The way in which the daily press operates as an obstacle to good public speaking is quite different from this. When the art of verbatim reporting was first brought to perfection, the reports became so admirable as to be a great encouragement to the orator. It was a perfect delight for him to see the thoughts which had perhaps never even been written out appear in type before his eyes. It was a wonder, like the phonograph. The same thing sometimes occurs now, but only rarely, and often by special arrangement. The daily press now attempts so much, has such a vast variety of [83] news to be served up in every number, that it must choose the easiest way to meet the demand. Now the easiest method is not to report a public address, in any proper sense, at all, but simply to call upon each public speaker to write out in advance what he means to say, and print it, often much curtailed, from his manuscript. This is accordingly what is more and more done. When any public demonstration of sufficient importance occurs-a meeting, or even a dinner-each person announced as a speaker for it knows that he will receive calls from reporters, or a letter from the Associated Press, requesting “a copy of his speech.” It is a kind proposal, but it seems to assume that there is no such thing as spontaneity or freshness left in public oratory. If he is a practised speaker the chances are that he does not yet know what he is going to say; that he will depend largely on the interest of the occasion, the atmosphere of the audience, the lead given by other speakers. It is, at any rate, certain that the more he is guided by these things the fresher and more animated his speech will be. If he prepares ever so much, the chances are that the best things in his speech will have come to him on the spur of the moment. This, indeed, is what [84] public speaking means; it is not public speaking, properly so called, when one reads from a manuscript, and hardly such when a man recites what has been committed to memory. Yet it is the present tendency of press methods to banish all other oratory except this.

It may be laid down as a general rule that the things which were most effective with an audience on a given occasion are rarely reported by the press; for the press follows more and more the cut-and-dried method. This method discourages the speaker. He knows in advance that either he must write for the journals of next morning or else speak for the audience of that evening; it is becoming more and more difficult to do both. If he writes out his speech, and knows it to be in type, the freshness of the special adaptation is gone; he no longer talks with his audience as man to man. All is premeditated; he cannot avail himself of the glow of the moment, of the happy opportunity given by some passing incident. On the other hand, if he yields to these last desires, and deals at first hand with his hearers, he knows almost with certainty that his speech will either be dismissed unreported — which is not so bad-or will be given only in a few phrases caught haphazard, [85] and possibly quite reversing his line of thought. He has his choice; he can rarely have both. The only possible compromise is that which the present writer has sometimes adopted — to write out one speech for the press, and then make, if needful, a wholly different one. But this involves a double trouble, besides the incidental objection that it does not seem quite honest.

There is no doubt that the pleasantest societies for discussion are those in which reporting is strictly prohibited, because all reporting tends inevitably to the cut-and-dried, and drives out the freshness of off-hand speaking. It has been admitted for years at Harvard University that the speaking at the Commencement dinner, which is always elaborately reported, is far less animated and brilliant than that at the Phi Beta Kappa dinner, which takes place the next day, commonly with some of the very same speakers, and is never reported at all. In this last case the speakers are talking to their hearers; in the other case they have usually written out their views for the benefit of the daily paper. The Round Table Club of Boston has maintained, with almost unvarying success for many years, its monthly discussions on social and literary [86] topics-debates which have never yet been reported; while the old Radical Club in the same city, which was in its day as vivacious and animated, was practically killed at last by reporting. Not that the men and women who speak at such clubs have anything to conceal, but the essential difficulty is always the same. If you are talking for the newspapers you are sure to be misunderstood unless you write out what you mean to say, and if you do that, farewell to all freshness and spontaneity.

It is not intended in all this to throw blame upon the daily papers. They have a stupendous task, which they perform with amazing energy and method as regards quantity of information, and perhaps in time they will add accuracy also. Having on any given evening a score of public meetings to report, how can they do it, it may justly be asked, unless the speakers do their own reporting in advance? Nevertheless, it is likely that sooner or later some device or new invention will lead us out of the difficulty. Who knows but some future poly-phonograph may at some day reproduce in the daily papers of the next morning all that any public speaker said which was worth saying, or really told upon his audience, and may omit, with still greater felicity, all the rest?


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