Speeches: Why we hate to read them, and why we do it anyway (Part One of Three)

Contributed by Neil Hrab, Rhetoric Editor-At-Large, Vital Speeches of the Day, and edited by David Murray, Editor, Vital Speeches of the Day

“Every anthologist, even the worst, is in the afflicting position of that antique sophist, the fore-runner of all the tribe of company-promoters, who spent so much of his life trying to sell a house on the basis of a specimen brick,” wrote the Irish journalist, barrister, poet, soldier, politician and economist Thomas Kettle, in the introduction to his 1915 anthology, Irish Orators and Oratory.

Anthologists of oratory, Kettle said, have it even more difficult than collectors of poems, “which can be broken off from the central mass without losing their character,” and the prose writer, who “writes for the individual” and thus must confine himself to trading more universal, “spiritual” truths.

But oratory is, by contrast, complex, diffuse, netted beyond release in impermanent details. Its triumph is of the moment, momentary. The sound and rumour of great multitudes, passions hot as ginger in the mouth, torches, tumultuous comings and goings, and, riding through the whirlwind of it all, a personality, with something about him of the prophet, something of the actor, a touch of the charlatan crying out not so much with his own voice as with that of his multitude, establishing with a gesture, refuting with a glance, stirring ecstasies of hatred and affection—is not that a common, and far from fantastic, conception of the orator? But when the fire is become ashes and the orator too; when the crowd no longer collaborates; when the great argument that transfigured them is a paragraph in a text book, yawned over by schoolboys, the task of the resurrectionist verges on the impossible.

And yet: Speech anthologies continue to come out, and Vital Speeches of the Day, first published two decades after Kettle’s book appeared, is still going strong, at 76 years old.

Next week, we’ll learn the two reasons people hate reading old speeches: Either the speeches are dull, or the people are. —DM

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