September 25, 2000
Volume 53, No.5
Booth, Brother Booth
Steve Kraftchick is associate dean of the theology school and co-chair for Emory's Year of Reconciliation.
Anyone familiar with Wayne Booth knows that the task of writing a short essay on the significance of his work is a difficult and intimidating task. First, there is the sheer breadth of interest: Professor Booth has written on literary theory, metaphor, and the notions of public discourse and rules of dissent. Second, there is the intimidation factor: Professor Booth is good-very good. The academy has always prized depth of thought and beauty of expression. Most scholar/teachers major in one or the other trait, very few in both.
Occasionally, a professor produces a work that combines the two in an honest and meaningful way, and that delights its readers as it informs them. Booth has done this not once, but three times, first with The Rhetoric of Fiction (University of Chicago Press, 1961), which won honors from Phi Beta Kappa and the National Council of Teachers; then with A Rhetoric of Irony (University of Chicago Press, 1974); then with The Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction (University of California Press, 1988). These books are read (still) by all sorts of people; in some form or fashion, if you have taken a course in the humanities, Booth was part of the conversation, whether he was quoted or not. As accomplished as this record is, it does not include his equally interesting work on public rhetoric, his time as Dean of the College at the University of Chicago, and his very thoughtful work on the vocation of teaching. What is perhaps most impressive in all of this is that Booth engages questions of intellect with the "real world"; he engages his own experiences not in a solipsistic way, but in a way that enlightens issues from ancient rhetoric to student protests.
At the heart of Booth's work is a question that is profound in the breadth of its application to both our working and everyday lives: What does a reasonable conversation between people of good will look like? Perhaps one of the more important aspects of Booth's work on this question is best typified by two sentences from The Company We Keep.
In a chapter that asks who is responsible for making good sense of a work, Booth states, "even the most naïve listener attending with total concentration to the simplest tale can be seen, on analysis, to be re-creating and responding to at least three different voices: that of the immediate teller, or narrator, who takes the whole tale straight and who expects the listener to do the same that of the implied author, who knows that the telling is in one sense an artificial construct but who takes responsibility for it, for whatever values or norms that it implies, and for the suggestion that 'in responding to me you respond to a real person'; and the inferable voice of the flesh-and-blood person for whom this telling is only one concentrated moment selected from the infinite complexities of 'real' life" (125). Booth follows with an observation that every reader maintains three roles that are the counterparts of these "authors": the immediate believer, the critical observer of the believer, and the flesh-and-blood person whose extra-narrative life, though perhaps forgotten for the duration of the listening, impinges on it in myriad untraceable ways" (125). Numerous scholars have made distinctions among the "authors" one encounters, the "readers" one becomes, and what happens to "the text" between them. Very few have asked how the voices interact with one another and how they shape us when we read, listen, or interact with someone else. It is typical of Booth to uncover the messy details of such theories and then set about the task of making them clear to ordinary folk.
I do not know the "flesh-and-blood" Booth. I am familiar with "Wayne Booth," George M. Pullman Distinguished Service Professor, Emeritus, of the University of Chicago: the implied author of his works. I like that person and have a deep respect for his mind and style. He writes things that stay with me, and his concepts of speech and rhetoric help me make sense of the texts I interpret. Perhaps an example from my own experiences as a scholar and teacher would be helpful here. Many have illuminated Biblical exegesis by exploring social and historical contexts; Booth's work makes it possible to consider the language itself, and further, to look at figures like metaphors as social constructions. In my classes, we have asked questions like: Why use a metaphor here, as opposed to something else? What are the implications of using this kind of language? Moreover, he helps us ask what difference a figure of language makes in our understanding of a topic-or of ourselves.
In the end, I imagine that "Booth" would resist a piece on the significance of his work. He seems to have done so in Rhetoric and Pluralism (Ohio State University Press, 1995), a book in which numerous scholars plot the intersections of Booth's work with the fields of ethics, politics, fiction, and rhetoric. In a reply to these scholars at the end of the book, "Booth" wonders,
"Who, then, is the WB who, like everyone else in the world, exhibits unlimited multiplicity?" (306). In typical fashion he rejects one simple answer, deferring instead to the task he thinks we need to be about in the field of education. For "Booth" the significance of Booth's work is this: "The true point of all this is to give the best possible boost to humane studies, conceived as studies of how to improve our inquiry into how we inquire together. To deflect us back to the effort to pull various Wayne Booths together is exactly the wrong way to go about the task. When things seem, as always, to be falling apart, surely we should not encourage the world to see each self as in any way a fiction" (307).
I do not know the flesh-and-blood Wayne Booth, but "Booth" seems just the sort of person I would like to meet, would like to hear talk about the struggles of a university as it tries to live out its mandate to encourage and expand thought and knowledge. He is one of the rare few whose work I read not only to learn things but because I enjoy his self-deprecating wit and his honest, graceful prose. When I finish a book by "Booth," I experience the deep satisfaction of being taught-a sort of "why have I never seen that before?" moment of recognition. I expect that when the flesh-and-blood Booth joins us later this month, I will experience more of that same satisfaction and recognition.
Wayne Booth will speak on "The Rhetoric of Reconciliation" at 8 p.m., Sept. 28 in Glenn Auditorium