American literature is broadly defined as English-language literature produced in what is today known as the United States. It began with the works of English adventurers and colonists arriving in the New World and proceeded its development alongside the historical events occurring since the period of colonization. Nevertheless, the alignment with the historical development of the nation is not the only defining characteristic of American literature, as rhetoric has also shown to play a significant role. In the definition, rhetoric is not only a vocabulary and a pre-defined set of word choices. It also includes the traits that define how it is used. The combination of logos, ethos, and pathos inherent to American literature can be traced to the Founding Fathers and the Constitution, which introduced the nation’s defining principles and paved the way for scholars, writers, poets, and others to work toward establishing America and its cultural direction.
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Rhetoric can be referred to as the art of making a claim. Thus, rhetorical choices are the ones made to persuade, including audience appeals and motivations, the establishment of facts, and guidance for determining the values and ethics of a specific topic. However, it is also possible to claim that instead of only presenting a particular argument, rhetoric also allows to broadly structure experiences in so far as they can be mediated and expressed by language (Bercovitch 145). Exploring rhetoric means exploring the key characteristics and patterns of culture, as made evident and pursued through a range of discourses. Moreover, the rhetorical models of culture have been shown to penetrate literary representation, while literature has derived its materials through rhetorical matrices in ways that are self-conscious and self-reflective.
Drawing from the example of the rhetoric of Mark Twain, it is possible to have a deeper dive into the style and characteristics of American literature, including critical cultural qualities. While the author used irony profoundly to comment on important social, political, and theological issues, the humor in itself was not the laughing matter. Thus, the greatest art is that which can conceal itself, and Twain’s art was of its highest kind. Even though humor can sometimes be an end in itself in the author’s writing, Twain is rarely funny just to evoke laughter. Instead, his humor often acts as a vehicle for deeper consciousness. There are examples in Twain’s writing where he criticizes racist establishments, stating that race is only a “fiction of law and custom,” making transparent in the Adventures of Huckleberry Finn how dangerous such fiction can be to Black Americans (Trombley and Ryan). Thus, Twain’s rhetoric goes far beyond humor and irony only, as it is used to comment on sociopolitical and cultural influences.
To conclude, American literature is defined not only by the geography or nationality of writers. Instead, the rhetoric inherent to it is crucial to consider as it unites many authors. While such rhetorical tools as irony and sarcasm are used to evoke emotion in readers, their choice is often warranted by the need to comment on deeper social issues that concern American society, whether it is racism or class inequalities. Inevitably, American literature reflects the history and social occurrences inherent to the time when it was written. Rhetoric, however, is used to make commentary on them make connections between experiences and authors’ perspectives on them.
Bercovitch, Sacvan, editor. The Cambridge History of American Literature. Cambridge University Press, 2004.
Trombley, Laura Skandera, and Ann Ryan. “Mark Twain and Critical Race Theory.” Inside Higher Ed, 2021, Web.