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My Many Selves: The Quest for a Plausible Harmony

Wayne C. Booth
Published by Utah State University Press in 2006

The Rhetoric of Rhetoric: The Quest for Effective Communication

Wayne C. Booth.
Published by Wiley-Blackwellpf and Scott in 2004

The Essential Wayne Booth

Wayne C. Booth and Walter Jost
Published by University of Chicago Press in 2012

Wayne Booth was a critic, theorist, and funny-wonderful dreamer. One night during World War II, while serving in Europe as what he called a “clerk-rifleman,” he had a dream that raised him far above the conflict with the Nazis. His autobiography relates it this way:

The night heavens are alight, with three huge overlapping circles, one red, labeled in huge capitals, BEAUTY, one blue, labeled GOODNESS, and one yellow, labeled TRUTH.

In the center the overlapping primary colors are yielding pure radiant white; its intensity overwhelms the others. And in the background is a wonderful chorus singing Bach’s Credo in Unum Deo (301).

Here in a vision of Eternal Forms captured in Lite-Bright colors is the cosmology of a rhetorical critic. The dream may not demonstrate that primary colors are correspondent to the constitutive virtues of the cosmos, but it does suggest that Booth was reading a lot of Plato at the time. The dream, with its insistent labeling, also cues us to Booth’s capacity, even on the level of the unconscious, to parody his own disciplinary impulse to see everything—even what the heavens are telling—as finally textual. Not that Booth would ever say, with Richard Rorty, that there is no reality outside our sentences. He would, in fact, go so far as to say that there are, even in this relativistic age, moral absolutes, one of them being that we ought to get good at talking and listening to each other.

During graduate school, I first came across Professor Booth’s beguiling talk in his Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of Assent (1974), a series of lectures that began with tales from Booth’s days as a University of Chicago dean in the 1960s. He related the students’ graffiti, obscene, contemptuous, insulting, far from the realm of primary-colored visions of cosmic harmony. Booth argued that these spray-paintings were the rhetorical consequences of impersonal, rationalized, agonistic, modernist discourse. And it made him mad—mad enough, in fact, to construct posthumous dialogues with one major proponent of modernist rhetoric, Bertrand Russell. He was not so much picking a bone with Russell as he was mounting an alternative platform for civic culture, what Booth would come to call a rhetoric of assent. In any case, Modern Dogma shows his style to be at once earnest and ironic, intent and distractible. I could not get enough of it. Reading some books can be a way to evade writing them oneself: the reader takes refuge in the finished craftsmanship of someone else’s publication. But Booth’s books make reading and writing feel convertible. This glorious human thing—symbolic exchange—is not divisible into two separate experiences, reading and writing, speaking and listening; rather, it is a single habitation in which we all may find a home.

Booth’s writing welcomes people into the house of language with remarkable hospitality. Maybe it is the length of his pieces. He wrote full-length treatises, of course—The Rhetoric of Fiction (1961), say, and The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction (1988)—but I suppose a good many people know him for his occasional pieces—something from, say, Now Don’t Try to Reason with Me: Essays and Ironies fora Credulous Age (1970). However readers meet Booth, though, he reveals his presumption of equality with his auditors quickly; he counts them friends. He asks a lot of them, but asks no less of himself—the sheer intensity of his intellection is good drama. Admittedly, his organization resists deductive schemas, but one gets the sense that he is groping his way towards a structure that at once is inevitable and unforced, communicated in a style that bespeaks truth’s gradualness and unpredictability. Professor Booth’s writing is always attempting to change what readers are hoping for, yearning for, speaking for. He hopes for no less himself.

This means that the most powerful effect on my own ethos, at least during my reading, is the concentration of my desires and fears and expectations, leading with as much concentration as possible toward some further, some future fulfillment: I am made to want something that I do not yet have enough of (Company, 201).

Booth’s influence, his extensions of friendship, did not stop, even when, in the autumn of 2005, at the age of 84, Booth ceased keeping company with anyone on earth.

What do his books make readers desire? That is the guiding query of this essay’s review of Booth’s last two books, The Rhetoric of Rhetoric: The Quest for Effective Communication (2004) and My Many Selves: The Quest for a Plausible Harmony (2005), as well as an edited collection, The Essential Wayne Booth (Walter Jost, ed. 2006). This essay aspires for more than a summary and a plug. I aim to search out what species of desiring Booth’s friendship fosters.

Ever since Aristotle, the art of rhetoric has entailed negotiating oppositions. When Booth did his early work in the 1960s, there was no shortage of such oppositions to work through: fact and value, philosophy and rhetoric, religion and science, emotion and reason, self and society, mind and body. For the next four decades, Booth’s treatment of these dualisms never changed: he always argued the existence of an indispensable third angle, rhetoric. He called it by a good many names: the rhetoric of fiction, the rhetoric of assent, the rhetoric of irony, and, in his penultimate book, the rhetoric of rhetoric itself. But always and again, he shows rhetoric’s power to discover new truths and ease binary oppositions. Perhaps he came to this conviction even as a boy, growing up in the Church of Latter-Day Saints. Brought up knowing no one but people of his own faith (except a dangerously Lutheran chemistry teacher in high school), finally he left his hometown as a young adult missionary to convince the world that Joseph Smith was onto something. What he discovered in a hurry, besides the guilty pleasure of a cup of coffee (forbidden to the LDS faithful), was the dizzying plurality of American religiosity. Unwilling to leave his parents’ faith behind (except during his brief atheist phase), unwilling to deny the value of other faiths, Booth began to practice as a young man what as an old man he finally came to call “rhetorology,” or the study of how talking together creates unlooked-for common ground. Rhetorology was no mere habit of mind or speech; for him, it was a habit of soul.

Perhaps today, when talk about diversity is in the water supply, Booth’s quest for common ground sounds prosaic, the sort of thing we see on every self-help shelf and in every institutional handbook. But The Rhetoric of Rhetoric displays his knack for showing that what looks like a single thread—the assumption that the solution to every problem is communication—is actually a complex weave of many, many skeins. Locating the forbidding complexity of what Lloyd Bitzer once called the rhetorical situation is the first step towards identifying rhetoric’s efficacy. Booth begins, with that mild terminological obsessiveness that has for so many decades been his wont, by defining rhetoric over against the popular misunderstandings of the term. Check your own media glossary, but for my part, I think I can detect more and more news anchors using the term rhetoric seriously: not just as a synonym for flashy speech set over against hard reality, but as a way to name deliberately crafted discourse. If I am right about the general improvement of rhetoric’s terminological reputation, it must in part be due to Booth, as well as to the many theorists whose definitions of rhetoric he delineates in the first chapter of The Rhetoric of Rhetoric—everyone from Richard Weaver on the right to Jacques Derrida on the left.

This definitional chapter is followed by “A Condensed History of Rhetorical Studies” that begins with this epigrammatic proviso, attributed to an anonymous author:

Writing the history of rhetoric is impossible. To do it properly, the historian would have to discuss everything. To do it fairly, the author would have to give credit to 10,597 authors who contributed to the history. To make it interesting, the author would have to make it even shorter than this chapter… (23).

I will let you judge the propriety or fairness of this chapter, but I can speak for its interestingness: Booth’s account of the “rise and fall and rise again of inquiry,” is good reading, requiring readers not just to witness, but to argue through half a dozen causes of the widespread distrust of rhetoric.

This book’s most novel offering is its exposition of three registers of argumentation: Win Rhetoric (WR), Bargain Rhetoric (BR), and Listening Rhetoric (LR). Readers of Kenneth Burke’s The Rhetoric of Motives might recognize in these three registers the counterparts to Burke’s positivist, dialectical, and ultimate terms. Like Burke, Booth is interested in getting past the triumphalist clash of opinions, WR, as well as the compromised negotiation of opposites characteristic of political life, BR, to the discovery that becomes possible when opposed parties begin to practice pluralistic discourse, LR, or as Booth defines it, “The whole range of communicative arts for reducing misunderstanding by paying full attention to opposing views”(10).

I may describe LR in every class I teach, but I do not see the thing itself very often. Once, though, two of my students, Josh and Will, read a Walker Percy essay I had assigned and then ran across each other in the library. They agreed that the essay was a hard one to read, but they could not agree on what it said. So Josh and Will put the essay before them on the table and started talking about it—and with it. By the end of the conversation, they had worked towards a third understanding of the essay that neither of them could have gotten on their own. That is LR.

For the remaining chapters of the book, Booth searches out what LR might have to say for educators, politicians, and media consumers. He names people who have helped rehabilitate rhetoric, “rhetoricians” ranging from the philosopher of science Michael Polanyi to the analytic philosopher cum literary studies man Richard Rorty. Booth also fights the good fight against media “rhetrickery,” another of his many neologisms. And he looks for warrants common to scientists and religionists alike in a quest that recapitulates Booth’s biography, his life-long attempt to negotiate a truce between traditional religion and the scientific method—an effort that again recalls that quietly influential Lutheran chemistry teacher. Booth manages to be at once hopeful and wry. “Can anyone really question my repeated claim,” he asks earnestly in his conclusion, “that the quality of our lives, moment by moment, depends on the quality of our rhetoric?” Not many sentences later, he admits with a grin, “Even if everyone of us promised to practice LR, or even rhetorology, in all disputes, human conflicts would remain with us, sometimes in violent form” (172). Somewhere between that hope and that irony is Booth’s yearning to know more of the sheer complexity of human experience.

Some days, admittedly, such complexity is discomfiting. The loss of cultural coherence, the multiplicity of religious orientations, the sheer diversity of possible identities, the combination of candor and terseness characteristic of social networking sites—these cultural indicators can raise questions about what rough beast is slouching our way. But turning to the second book under review in this essay, Booth’s autobiography My Many Selves suggests that for him the breakup of old frameworks is a welcome chance to redescribe and reconstitute human experience. He speaks from his well-lived life in the midst of this cultural fragmentation by use of a postmodern literary device, polyphony, and by use of an ancient rhetorical concept, krisis.

First, the book’s polyphony. My Many Selves unfolds, as Mikhail Bakthin would have it, as a chorale of voices, a symphony of selves: MoralB[ooth] and LoverB andAmbitiousB and LusterB and VainB and ThinkerB and SluggerB—and so on. As LiferB tries to do the serious work of autobiography, these voices jump in with insistent, qualifying remarks, sometimes quarreling in half-page dialogues about the faithfulness of such and such an account of Booth’s experience. Does this device of self-interruption sound self-amused? As with so many things he wrote, Booth is quite obviously having a good time. But then, so are his readers, as here gales them with what Burke might call “representative anecdotes”: a franklyin glorious account of youthful masturbatory habits, a retelling of what it was like to meet Phyllis his wife, a frightening report of striking an uncle with an axe, an earnest but quickly broken vow never to slap the children, the sustained inquiry that went into A Rhetoric of Fiction, a perjury alleging a friend’s extramarital affair to make a needed divorce possible. His stories of moral victories are wryly self-congratulatory, usually with a word from “VainB.” His accounts of moral lapses have the quality of Augustine’s confession of stealing peaches: remarkable for candor, but not particularly scandalous.

The boring fact is that I’ve never been physically abused, or awarded an Oscar, or had a spouse who cheated and was almost impeached. I’ve never been charged with rape or murder, or even with theft or cheating—fairly or unfairly. I lost no relatives in the Holocaust…. Is there any way to turn fifty-nine years of a happy marriage into a page-turner? Not on your life (x).

The real drama in My Many Selves is not the confessions of malfeasances or the celebration of his marriage or the description of his youthful son’s tragic passing. This Life of Booth takes shape in the interplay of his many selves, speaking sometimes cacophonously, sometimes harmoniously. And in that interplay lies the book’s crisis. Not the crisis of a reviewer trying to discern criteria for critiquing so multi vocala book. Nor the theological emergency I felt as I witnessed Booth’s apparently genuine love, joy, and peace obtained without confessing Christianity. No, the deepest crisis this book creates is its call to the reader to judge rightly among his or her own selves. In the rhetorical tradition, krisis has to do with judgment, with the deployment of phronesis, or practical reason. Booth enacts this by showing hisselves practicing WR on each other, as when his impulse to cheat and his Mormon uprightness contest with each other, or when his inclination to teach well conflicts with his desire to be widely published. Sometimes these selves achieve little more than BR, as one chapter title suggests, “The Puritan Preaches at the Luster While the Hypocrite Covers the Show.” Or, again, there are times when Booth’s selves achieve LR, when, for example, his conscientiousness and ethical adventurousness submit mutually and discover a new disposition altogether, one of virtuous pre-tense that he nicknames “hypocrisy-upward.” But finally it is the reader who is called to practice this same kind of practical reason, this same kind of rhetorology, in what David Ford calls the community of the heart. In some ways, it is the reader’s crisis that is central to the book:

My hope for this LIFE is that, by revealing how my quite ordinary Selves have confronted—sometimes even battled with—one another, I can show how all lives, even the least colorful, not to mention yours, can be seen as dramatic in a sense quite different from the usual plot expectations (My Many Selves xi).

Will this rhetorical crisis yield an examined life? Indubitably. But it is clear to me at any rate that practical reason does not offer an adequate alternative to Christian notions of atonement. Booth purchases a kind of moral improvement by giving his own faults multifarious voices and practicing polyphonous casuistry, but I could not help thinking that his humorous auto-phronesis brings him close to complacent self-regard now and then. I am as ready as Booth to speak of inner conflict—St. Paul’s “old man” at war with the “new man”—but am less impressed with the redemptive possibilities in making my vices a whole country of old men. Put differently, Booth failed to convince me that there will always be another voice to be heard in the quest for self-knowledge. Someday we will know even as we are known.

Still, Walter Jost is surely right to say that Booth was always connecting the criticism of texts and the formation of character, a thesis Jost makes central to the edited volume, The Essential Wayne Booth (3). In the course of 17 essays, this tight volume traces, among other things, Booth’s studies in Jane Austen, his explorations in irony and pluralism, his contributions to an ethics of criticism, his win-some account of amateur pursuits, “For the Love of It: Spending, Wasting, and Redeeming Time” (3). The volume offers the reader the “essential” Booth in at least two senses.

First, the compilation makes a good tacit case that Booth is essential – meaning indispensable – both to literary and to rhetorical theory. His contributions to literary theory include most notably his development of the concept of the “implied author,” a device that on the one hand avoids the value-free treatment of novels by modernists and the value-relative criticism of postmodernists. Whereas modernists deny the didactic import of the novelist’s work, and postmodernists deny the centered intentionality of the authorial self, both ignore that an author, or rather an implied author, is always speaking to an audience. Booth’s emphasis that fiction is always addressed shows his dependence on and contribution to the rhetorical tradition. Like Walter Fisher, the most outspoken and articulate defender of narrative among contemporary rhetoricians, Booth understands that the postmodern crisis of values requires a renewed appreciation of narrative.1 Like Alisdair MacIntyre, who discusses Jane Austen in After Virtue, like Martha Nussbaum, who reads Proust in Upheavals in Thought, Booth treats criticism as away to argue through fictional rhetorics from Austen to Dostoevsky to Eliot to The Wings of the Dove. Always and again, narrative uniquely helps us find our meta-physical bearings by practicing “the art of listening to conflicts in such a way as to keep honest perplexity alive, and thus to lead to new inventions/discoveries” (133).

Here, I think, we see the second way this volume gives us the essential Booth: it gives us the yearning at the heart of his life, at the essence of his character. This yearning emerges with all due theoretical rigor in his essay on Richard McKeon’s pluralism, where he deals with what has to be the central ethical problem of postmodernity, that our moral vocabularies are fragmented. Following the determined, if sometimes dodgy, example of Professor McKeon, Booth argues that our experience of metaphysical plurality in contemporary life is not an indication that there are no universal truths—only that sometimes those universal truths conflic teach other. As he argues in My Many Selves, the categorical imperatives to seek truth, to pursue goodness, and to live for beauty create an impossible conflict within us—though, he is delighted to report, this very conflict enables remarkable discoveries that would be impossible in a monistic world. My Christian habit wants to commend contemplation of the Trinity as a way of restoring faith that truth, goodness, beauty are at once distinct and unified. Even so, I share the delight of this essential delight in Booth, his happiness in discovering that what looks like a unity is actually a hyperlink for perpetual variegation. His is a friendship that, for all its efforts to help us harmonize difference, finally fosters a yearning to know more of the weave of the world.

Booth confessed in the last chapter of his autobiography that “once or twice amonth” he felt like life’s manyness can be encapsulated by some glorious oneness (301). He believed more in a “god term” than a God, but though he deprived the divine of personableness, he deprived himself of the same by envisioning his own life after death as an absorption into the cosmos. His apprehension that the oneness at the heart of things is not finally hospitable to our continuing efforts at conversation emerges in a dream he had one night in the autumn of 1952. He was at a performance of Bach’s B Minor Mass, hearing a singer take up the words, “Credo, in unum….” Out of nowhere, a voice as powerful as a Mormon grandfather burst out, “How many would you expect?” (302). It is a funny story, and I think a telling one. The voice that interrupts the Mass, sounds so much like Jehovah on a bad day (to borrow a phrase from Modern Dogma) that I think its vision of divine impatience with human eloquence explains a part of Booth’s reticence for anything but metaphorical religiosity. But there is, after all, a kind of piety in the patient friendship he offers his readers. St. James speaks of true religion as care for widows and orphans, an apt description of the social fragmentation and alienation of our day; and to his credit, Booth’s essays and books do take up with lonely souls. His words put a kind hand to our elbows, taking us beyond the sometimes specious consolations of closure, pointing out the path where honest perplexity flourishes.

Cite this article
Craig E. Mattson, “Keeping Company With Wayne Booth”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 38:2 , 293-300


  1. 1Ronald Arnett’s keynote address at the Tenth Annual Communication Ethics Conference atDuquesne University, June, 2008, suggested this point to me about the indispensability ofnarrative in an era when so many moral vocabularies are proving incommensurable.

Craig E. Mattson

Trinity Christian College
Craig E. Mattson is the director of the Communication Arts and Honors Program at Trinity Christian College.