Wayne C. Booth, Critic Who Analyzed Rhetoric, Dies at 84
Published: October 11, 2005
Wayne C. Booth, one of the pre-eminent literary critics of the second half
of the 20th century, whose lifelong study of the art of rhetoric
illuminated the means by which authors seduce, cajole and more than
occasionally lie to their readers in the service of narrative, died
yesterday morning at his home in Chicago. He was 84.
The cause was complications of dementia, his daughter Katherine Booth
A longtime faculty member of the University of Chicago, he was at his death
the George M. Pullman Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus of English
there. His books, which are part of the core curriculum at universities
around the world, include "The Rhetoric of Fiction" (University of Chicago,
1961); "A Rhetoric of Irony" (University of Chicago, 1974); and "The
Company We Keep: An Ethics of Fiction" (University of California, 1988).
His latest book, a memoir titled "My Many Selves," is scheduled to be
published next year by Utah State University Press.
To many earlier critics, notably the New Critics of the mid-20th century,
literature was meant to exist in a kind of social vacuum, to be described
critically in terms of the text, and only the text. But to Professor Booth,
literature was not so much words on paper as it was a complex ethical act.
He saw the novel as a kind of compact between author and reader: intimate
and rewarding, but rarely easy. At the crux of this compact lay rhetoric,
the art of verbal persuasion.
The author's task, he argued, was to draw readers into the web of narrative
and hold them there. The critic's task was to tease out the specific
rhetorical devices - linguistic, stylistic, symbolic - by which this was
accomplished. To describe the intricate, shifting dance between author and
reader, he coined a number of critical terms that are now common parlance,
among them "implied author" and "unreliable narrator."
Where his early work explored the use of rhetoric in narrative, his later
work considered diverse forms of communication, from political discourse to
television commercials. In a sense, his books are users' manuals,
explaining why these forms work as evocatively as they do.
"He made rhetoric into a way to deal with so many of the problems of the
modern world," James Phelan, Humanities Distinguished Professor of English
at Ohio State University, said in a telephone interview yesterday. "He took
that work, which was really about the ways in which authors communicate to
readers, and began to think more broadly about the ways in which people on
different sides of ideological divides can communicate with each other."
Wayne Clayson Booth was born on Feb. 22, 1921, in American Fork, Utah. His
family was descended from Mormon pioneers, and as a young man he embraced
his faith, becoming a missionary in Chicago. But little by little, he began
to wrestle with church teachings. It was a struggle, he later said, that
informed both his decision to root himself in the secular world and his
particular interest in rhetoric.
He earned a bachelor's degree from Brigham Young University in 1944, a
master's from the University of Chicago in 1947 and a Ph.D. from Chicago in
1950. During World War II, he was a clerk-typist for the Army infantry,
stationed in Paris. After teaching at Haverford and Earlham Colleges, he
joined the Chicago faculty in 1962. He retired in 1992.
Besides his daughter, of Northleach, England, he is survived by his wife,
the former Phyllis Barnes, whom he married in 1946; another daughter,
Alison, a professor of English at the University of Virginia; and three
grandchildren. A son, John Richard, died in 1969.
Professor Booth's other books include "Modern Dogma and the Rhetoric of
Assent" (University of Notre Dame, 1974); "Critical Understanding: The
Powers and Limits of Pluralism" (University of Chicago, 1979); "The
Vocation of a Teacher" (University of Chicago, 1988); and "The Rhetoric of
Rhetoric" (Blackwell, 2004). He was also a founder of the journal Critical
In "The Company We Keep," widely regarded as one of his most significant
books, he argued that criticism itself, far from being a detached
abstraction, should be an act of ethical judgment.
"Overt ethical appraisal is one legitimate form of literary criticism," he
wrote. "Anyone who attempts to invite ethical criticism back into the front
parlor, to join more fashionable, less threatening varieties, must know
from the beginning that no simple, definitive conclusions lie ahead. I
shall not, in my final chapter, arrive at a comfortable double column
headed 'Ethically Good' and 'Ethically Bad.' But if the powerful stories we
tell each other really matter to us - and even the most skeptical theorists
imply by their practice that stories do matter - then a criticism that
takes their 'mattering' seriously cannot be ignored."
Writing in The New York Times Book Review in 1989, Anatole Broyard called
the book "almost indecently satisfying."
Not everyone was persuaded by Professor Booth's rhetorical style, which
some critics found stiff, even pretentious. But most reviewers were
enchanted with his 1999 memoir, "For the Love of It" (University of
Chicago), a very personal account of learning to play the cello as an adult.
As the story of Professor Booth's passion for chamber music unfolds, the
book becomes an exploration of the idea of amateurism as a form of ethical
responsibility. Even its title, which invokes the original, positive,
meaning of "amateur," was a carefully considered rhetorical choice. To him,
"amateur," like "rhetoric" before it, was a word that simply begged to be
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