This article discusses the American constitutional elegy. It argues that American national difference in literature can be tracked in the terms of its engagement with specifically American constitutional principles, concentrating on the national period, beginning in the late eighteenth century with the Revolutionary War and sketching the story up to the present day. It then returns to the great theme of elegy as a flexible form and its practices under persistent self-scrutiny. All choral poetry carries with it an association with the choruses of ancient, especially Athenian, tragedy and thus with the common understanding that the chorus speaks as or on behalf of a democratic citizenry. Marilyn Hacker has written a ‘constitutional elegy’ in the great American tradition, a tradition that continues to challenge our principled commitment to the legal and symbolic bonds of ‘adjacent difference’ in a rights-based national polity.
Examining oratory as a dynamic, changing medium for communication during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries in America and, to a lesser extent, Great Britain, this essay scrutinizes several of its most important sites of performance: religion, politics, social reform, performance, and education. In each of those arenas, oratory helped to fuel some of most exciting social and political changes of the era by reconceptualizing ideas about the relationship between leaders and the public, the notion of rhetorical persuasion, and the importance of public opinion. An exceptionally interdisciplinary set of scholarship on the subject has done much to invigorate the study of oratory in recent years, and yet this field lacks an intellectual center from which scholars might move beyond individual studies to conceptualize the larger significance of oratory across all sites of performance.