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Conversation: A History of a Declining Art

Copyright Date: 2006
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 368
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  • Book Info
    Book Description:

    Essayist Stephen Miller pursues a lifelong interest in conversation by taking an historical and philosophical view of the subject. He chronicles the art of conversation in Western civilization from its beginnings in ancient Greece to its apex in eighteenth-century Britain to its current endangered state in America. As Harry G. Frankfurt brought wide attention to the art of bullshit in his recent bestsellingOn Bullshit, so Miller now brings the art of conversation into the light, revealing why good conversation matters and why it is in decline.Miller explores the conversation about conversation among such great writers as Cicero, Montaigne, Swift, Defoe, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu, and Virginia Woolf. He focuses on the world of British coffeehouses and clubs in "The Age of Conversation" and examines how this era ended. Turning his attention to the United States, the author traces a prolonged decline in the theory and practice of conversation from Benjamin Franklin through Hemingway to Dick Cheney. He cites our technology (iPods, cell phones, and video games) and our insistence on unguarded forthrightness as well as our fear of being judgmental as powerful forces that are likely to diminish the art of conversation.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-13018-8
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. Preface
    (pp. ix-xvi)
  4. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xvii-xx)
  5. I Conversation and Its Discontents
    (pp. 1-28)

    Michel de Montaigne, the sixteenth-century French essayist, loved conversation.“To my taste,” he says, “the most fruitful and natural exercise of our mind is conversation. I find the practice of it the most delightful activity in our lives.”

    According to Montaigne, “studying books has a languid feeble motion, whereas conversation provides teaching and exercise all at once.” Montaigne thinks of conversation as an intellectual sporting event that will improve his mind. “If I am sparring with a strong and solid opponent he will attack me on the flanks, stick his lance in me right and left; his ideas send mine soaring....

  6. II Ancient Conversation: From the Book of Job to Plato’s Symposium
    (pp. 29-52)

    When did conversation begin? To raise this question is to ask:When did the faculty of language develop? Many observers argue that humankind acquired language roughly fifty thousand years ago, and that this development led to what anthropologist Richard Klein has called the dawn of human culture. According to Klein,“Elaborate graves with unequivocal ideological or religious implications show up only after 50,000 years ago, and they are an important part of what we mean when we talk about the dawn of human culture.” Since the advent of language coincided with the construction of elaborate graves, there probably were conversations about how...

  7. III Three Factors Affecting Conversation: Religion, Commerce, Women
    (pp. 53-78)

    Cicero’sOf Duties, which Hume and Johnson admired, did not become an important text until the Renaissance. Did conversation suffer during the Middle Ages? It is impossible to answer this question, though Peter Burke points out that no equivalent existed at the time to classical or modern discussions of ordinary conversation. Dante’sCommediais a series of intense conversations, but they are conversations with a purpose; the pilgrim Dante wants to know why a certain person is where he is in the afterworld. Or the souls in the afterworld want to know who Dante is and why he is journeying...

  8. IV The Age of Conversation: Eighteenth-Century Britain
    (pp. 79-118)

    The importance of conversation to eighteenth-century Britons I speak of Britons because England and Scotland were united in the Act of Union in 1707— can be gauged by Defoe’s travel book,A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain(1724–26). Defoe rates the conversation of many of the towns and cities he visited. He says of Lime: “While we stayed here some time viewing this town and coast, we had opportunity to observe the pleasant way of conversation, as it is managed among the gentlemen of this county, and their families, which are without reflection some of the...

  9. V Samuel Johnson: A Conversational Triumph; Lady Mary Wortley Montagu: Conversation Lost
    (pp. 119-149)

    With its lively coffeehouses and flourishing clubs, Britain’s conversible world was larger than that of any other European nation. Moreover, the major British writers on conversation were known for the high quality of their conversation. According to Franklin, Hume “is a very pleasant Gentleman in Conversation.” The Scottish novelist Henry Mackenzie agreed: “Of all men I ever knew, his ordinary conversation was the least tinctured with pedantry, or liable to dissertation [argument].” Reviews were mixed, however, about Johnson’s conversation. Some people regarded Johnson as the greatest conversationalist of the age; others thought he was deficient in politeness.

    Hume, who met...

  10. VI Conversation in Decline: From Raillery to Reverie
    (pp. 150-193)

    In the first two decades of the eighteenth century, as we have seen, many foreigners praised the conversation in English coffeehouses and clubs. Yet when a German baron visited Britain in the 1790s, he noted that the clients of coffeehouses read their newspapers in silence, and a few years later an Italian visitor complained that whispering was the norm in English coffeehouses. Moreover, a Spanish visitor said that the typical English club member prefers to avoid conversation. “If the Englishman be the most clubbable of men, according to Johnson’s expression, it is not so much because he likes to speak,...

  11. VII Conversation in America: From Benjamin Franklin to Dale Carnegie
    (pp. 194-241)

    Until roughly a decade before the American Revolution, most Americans thought of themselves as Britons. Those who belonged to the polite world went to coffeehouses, joined clubs, and read theSpectator.(Ellis points out that “coffee-houses in Boston and New York had hosted auctions of commodities and real estate . . . since the seventeenth century.”) A club member in colonial Maryland says: “We meet converse, laugh, talk, smoke, drink, differ, agree, argue, philosophize, harangue, pun, sing, dance and fiddle together. . . . We are really and in fact a club.” When James Madison was eighty he recommended theSpectator,...

  12. VIII Modern Enemies of Conversation: From Countercultural Theorists to “White Negroes”
    (pp. 242-263)

    In the spring of 1968 I attended a lecture at Rutgers University by Norman O. Brown, a professor of classics at Wesleyan who wroteLife Against Death: The Psychoanalytical Meaning of History(1959). To say that Brown lectured is a stretch. With eyes closed, he chanted rather than spoke. Toward the end of his talk he suddenly became rigid—grasping the lectern and staring at the ceiling while mumbling something about “the aura in the Laura.” He was referring to Petrarch’s poems about Laura, but I had no idea what he was saying about them.

    A radical Freudian, Brown was...

  13. IX The Ways We Don’t Converse Now
    (pp. 264-290)

    In Gerald Green’s novelThe Last Angry Man(1983) the main character, an elderly Brooklyn doctor, is angry because he cares deeply about the community, and he thinks too many people, especially young doctors, care only about themselves. His anger signifies that he is a good man; he is not selfish and apathetic. For many Americans anger is a good thing. Why shouldn’t they be angry about fundamentalist Republicans or secularist Democrats, about corrupt businessmen or greedy trial lawyers? To paraphrase John Ruskin: Tell me what you are angry about, and I will tell you what your politics are.


  14. X The End of Conversation?
    (pp. 291-314)

    In the future will an increasing number of Americans spend most of their day in the virtual world listening to a talk radio show while driving, watching a television talk show while eating dinner, communicating mainly by cell phone, e-mails, and Instant Messages? A reviewer on Amazon. com (he is reviewing Oliver Wendell Holmes and the Culture of Conversation) says: “Conversation is dead now.” This is an exaggeration. Walk through the restaurant district especially on a Friday evening of any major U.S. city and you will see innumerable people standing at bars or sitting at tables. They are drinking and...

  15. Bibliographical Essay
    (pp. 315-328)
  16. Index
    (pp. 329-336)