From Hull House to Yonder: An Essay on the Rhetorical Link Between Jim W. Corder and Jane Addams
A few years back I was introduced to the work of Jim W. Corder, the late TCU professor of English and Rhetoric, who was raised dirt poor during the Great Depression in West Texas. His ideas – especially in his classic book, Yonder: Life on the Far Side of Change – focus on how to make sense of the past, both personal and in general, and seek ways to better understand the momentous changes we have studied and even witnessed in the tumult of the 20th century and into the present.
What Corder was seeking was a new rhetoric, a way of thinking, an art form that opens us up to find better ways to use language to communicate. Rhetoric to him was far more than argument, but rather a whole system by which a world is made and known, a culture made known through language. (“On the Way, Perhaps, to a New Rhetoric, but Not There Yet,” College English, Volume 47, Number 2, Feb 1985, p167). He built on the Aristotelian model, putting much onto Ethos, the credibility or trustworthiness of character and how it is established. He wanted to get beyond appeals to Pathos, or emotion, to see argument from all sides, to seek clarity and understanding en route to persuasion. He saw the need for openness, the inclination to explore other perspectives and not to be closed to other possibilities. As he puts it in Yonder, “Sometimes we turn away from other narratives. Sometimes we teach ourselves not to know that there are other narratives. Sometimes – probably all too seldom – we encounter another narrative and learn to change our own.”–p170
In so much of his work, Corder interrogates memory, a major element of ancient Greek and Roman rhetoric, according to Keith Miller in a remembrance of Corder entitled “Light Through the Clouds” (TCU Magazine, Spring 2005). In thinking of Corder’s reflections on Ethos and Invention (the choice of what an author would say rather than how he might say it, another part of rhetoric that asks us to open ourselves to the richness of creation), Miller explores the idea of memory and how inaccurate and illusory as well as indispensable it always is.
Corder provides one way of looking back at history and how events of the past, often long before our births, have shaped our lives. I especially enjoyed his “defense” of the arts and how they play such a critical role in making us human. As he says in a 1981 essay in The Nebraskan Humanist, “the humanities are forms of study, meditation, creation, and instruction that value the human voice, in whatever medium they keep trying to pronounce a human into existence. That is to say, the humanities value the texts of human composition; the humanities hold at their center human discourses and compositions.” (p33) Within this context of human discourse, I see a link between the humanism of Corder and Jane Addams, the late 19th and early 20th century social activist, especially in that both tried to see the times they lived in as the consequence of earlier events in history. As such, they understood the importance of trying to understand the past as best as they could and to further appreciate our common cultural memory in order to help them deal with challenges of the present. As Corder says: “The humanists, if they do their work, will preserve and study the texts for us. That will let us know history and diversity. That, in turn, will enable us to know that others exist and that others have views. If we know intensely that others exist and that others know, then we can never treat them as objects for manipulations, parts of our instrumentation.” (Ibid, p35)
With such Corder thoughts ringing in my head, I turn to Jane Addams. Last fall, I heard Bob Edwards interview Louise W. Knight, who had just written Jane Addams, Spirit in Action, a biography of the great lady who began her work as an early social advocate and untiring champion of the poor – especially immigrants. Her work started in the late 19th century in the founding of Hull House in Chicago, the country’s first organized “settlement house” that introduced innovative social, educational, and artistic programs for the working class poor.
Her active life spanned the gilded age to some of the early days of the Depression when Corder was a boy. Addams’ era has so many parallels to today’s times with our growing great disparity in wealth, an increasing disinterest in the common good in favor of personal selfishness and vested interests, diminishing concern for the poor and immigrants, denigration of those in genuine need, dismissal of the importance of health care, and a disintegrating educational system. When you have robber barons exploiting the public with no government protective systems and an active effort (with government complicity) to crush a legitimate social movement seeking positive changes in working conditions, child labor laws, health care and education, you have a pretty horrid situation. Stir in the lack of women’s suffrage and all the inequality that added and you have to wonder how this country survived such a cesspool.
In reading Corder and Addams, we see that both put great faith in fostering a climate where a better world starts by all of us learning from history to listen to rather than talk or scream at one another. Real change can only happen when we are ready to walk in the shoes of or eat a bag of salt with those we bump up against in various forms of conflict and disagreement. Both fully knew the power of the language we use in our everyday life. And both knew that although it might not be the best tool to allow us full expression of our feeling, we do comprehend that its power can either bring us to conflict or peaceful resolution. To use Corder’s words, how we speak ultimately makes us learn to “speak a commodious language” and “hear a commodious language.”
Intrigued by both of these relatively unknown people who lived different lives in different times and dealt with disparate challenges, I see certain parallels in how they understood the overwhelming importance of history and how language is used. In reviewing the Knight book in the Chicago Tribune, Wendy Smith says: “What may strike contemporary readers most about this cogent and thoughtful profile is Addams’ unfailing generosity of spirit, her conviction that even the most bitter disputes could be resolved if people would only listen to each other.” (Chicagoland Book Club, 9/02/2010) In Addams’ own words, “Much of the insensibility and hardness of the world is due to lack of imagination which prevents understanding the experiences of other people.” (Democracy and Social Ethics, 1902)
I think Addams would not feel out of place in 2011 and would see many of the problems of her age reflected in ours. She was stalwart in her determination for social progress on a number of fronts, especially in standing up to the despicable Pullman who refused to even consider discussing the legitimate concerns of workers and had no hesitation to use force to crush them. She was a tireless proponent for peace and suffered greatly for her opposition to our participation in WWI. She lived to see suffrage and was particularly prescient in predicting that the harsh conditions of the armistice agreement would give rise to a future war in Europe. And in the end, she was vindicated for her intrepid work by winning the Noble Peace Prize in 1931, a few years before her death in 1935.
In reading about these two amazing people, I have learned a little more about the great importance of listening to rather than shouting at those whose ideas are different from my own. They both offer many lessons in coping with the problems of our times.