History as Rhetoric: Style, Narrative, and Persuasion

History as Rhetoric: Style, Narrative, and PersuasionRonald Carpenter

University of South Carolina Press, 1995
ISBN: 978-1-5700-3032-1

In the realm of the written word, Ronald Carpenter reserves a priviledged place for historical writing. He contends that because of its assumed credibility, historical writing holds sway over the present attitudes and future actions of the general public and world leaders. Through extensive primary-source research into public and private writings of such well-known and widely read American historians as Frederick Jackson Turner, Alfred Thayer Mahan, and Allan Nevins, Carpenter examines what happens to this inherently credible medium when rhetorical prowess helps shape the writing of history. He also evaluates the power that such discourse exercises on the public at large and on individuals empowered with making public policy.

Carpenter explicates the roles of style and narrative in enabling the writers of history to persuade through “opinion leadership,” a process whereby historical writing authoritatively corroborates what people have learned from other sources. Carpenter portrays several American historians as successful opinion leaders who, at pivotal points in time, persuaded readers with their discourse.

Carpenter demonstates that Turner's Frontier Thesis embodies rhetorical elements permitting him to mold Americans’ view of themself and their place in the world; he shows that Mahan's naval texts influenced the American public as well as the Japanese officers who planned and led the Pearl Harbor raid; he illumines the impress of Barbara Tuchman’s The Guns of August on John F. Kennedy’s handling of the Cuban Missile Crisis; and he reveals Carl Becker’s ability to persuade Americans in a variety of formats – as an influential essayist, propagandist during World War I, and author of a widely used history textbook. Using diaries, manuscript drafts, correspondence written to and from those renowned historians, and other assorted memoribilia, Carpenter exposes the rhetorical sensitivity of American historians and defines the precise parameters of their impact on society.

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