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As teachers of language and literature, you have all noticed that my title is even more ambiguous than most. Those of you who are amiably disposed may even have called it general, in the old style, rather than ambiguous, in the new. The word “rhetoric” has for a long time served for both the study of the art of persuasion and for the art itself; Aristotle's Rhetoric, upper-case, is still unsurpassed, but take away the capital letter and Aristotle's rhetoric is often very bad indeed, at least as we view it. In the second sense rhetoric has never had a real quantitative revival because it has always thrived; but in the first sense we seem to be in the midst of a revival of rhetoric unmatched in the twentieth century. Unfortunately, in spite of some very good work, there are signs that it may prove a very shoddy revival indeed, with no more lasting effect than the rhetorically-oriented “communications” movement of a decade ago, unless we take thought about what we are doing. Judging from some of the recent freshman texts I have seen, I would not be surprised to find in my box tomorrow when I return a new work entitled A Speller's Rhetoric.
Historical statements about Tristram Shandy have in the past generally been hampered by critical misconceptions about the book. As long as it was taken to be a farrago, the value of which depended on a few lucky strokes on an otherwise haphazard and worthless canvas, efforts to see it in its historical context were doomed to failure. In effect, such a hodgepodge could have no important context. It was, as critics and historians repeated endlessly, a mad, inexplicable thing, unreasoned and unreasonable, having real kinship in literature only with other mad books, most of them long since wisely forgotten. As a whole it was really nothing, and consequently as a whole it could not be related to other wholes. Thus, with the exception of such matters as the peculiar sentence structure, the minute delineation of gesture, and the depiction of humor and sentiment, there were really no artistic devices to be placed in a historical context; all one could do was to place Sterne in the historical stream of those who were delightfully inartistic.
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