I don’t know how or why it took me so long to find this book, but once I did, I read it straight through (even though it’s nearly 450 pages long). It’s Peter Elbow’s latest work, and surely some of the best work he has done in his long and brilliant career. Check it out!
As you no doubt know, Elbow published Writing without Teachers way back in 1973, making a case for allowing students to write freely as a way to find their voice. He is an ardent and eloquent proponent of freewriting (a term coined by the late Ken Macrorie), and this latest book (published, like Writing without Teachers, by Oxford UP) carries on this tradition, but now with a decided twist. The subtitle of the book is “What Speech Can Bring to Writing,” and his answer is summed up in two words: “a LOT.” From the introductory part, in which he distinguishes between speech and writing before demonstrating the very large areas of overlap, to his closing meditation on the future, when he believes (and I agree wholeheartedly) that vernacular eloquence will be fully recognized and that writing in vernaculars will be accepted and valued in schools and out, he held my attention. This text is pure Peter Elbow: while reading it, I felt as though I were in a spoken conversation with him. He writes clearly and lucidly, examining his subject from one angle, then another, patiently surveying all perspectives and acknowledging counterarguments while still sticking to his guns.
I am perhaps most impressed with the breadth of the scholarship that underpins this book. Now I’ve been studying the history of writing and literacy for decades, and for about 15 years I taught a course on this subject. I always began the course (which I titled “The Language Wars”) with the struggle for the vernacular in Europe, tracing how ever so slowly the “high” languages eventually made way for the low vernacular, as in Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales or in Dante’s masterful Divine Comedy. Along the way we looked at other struggles—over the English Only movement in the U.S., over African American vernacular, for example (the great Ebonics brouhaha in Oakland included), and eventually over what constitutes “good” writing in the academy today. We read Lee Tonouchi writing in pidgin Hawaiian, Geneva Smitherman switching from formal academic discourse to African American vernacular to create powerful connections with audiences, Warren Liew explaining the struggle over “Singlish” in Singapore—and a whole lot more.
While reading Vernacular Eloquence, I found that Elbow had apparently read everything I ever read on the subject of literacy and vernaculars, that he had gone back to Janet Emig’s early work differentiating speech and writing and carefully analyzed and responded to it and other work it inspired, that he had read deeply in anthropological literature (starting with Goody and Watt’s influential text and apparently everything Shirley Heath has written), that he was thoroughly versed in the debate over orality and literacy carried out in the works and careers of Walter Ong, Eric Havelock, and others, that he was in conversation with Suresh Canagarajah, Vershawn Young, and others who write about “code meshing” and “code switching,” and that he was ready to talk about all this work in the most straightforward, clear way possible.
Note that I said “talk,” rather than “write.” For Elbow’s book talks the talk and walks the walk: it is itself a demonstration of his subtitle—what speech can bring to writing. As I wrote to Peter after reading his book, I agree with him about the deep relationship between speaking and writing, especially in this digital age, and about the power that speaking strategies can bring to writing (one immediately recognizable strategy is the use of repetition for special emphasis, but there are lots of others).
Some years ago, two of my former students and I did a directed reading course on the question “How is writing performative?” We spent ten weeks reading, talking, and arguing, and in the end we came up with a list of ways in which writing can be a performance, from the obvious performing for the teacher to syntax and word choice. In fact, one student used the list of features we came up with to create a software program he called the “performativity rater.” It looked for things like repetition, images and figurative language, action verbs, rhythmic patterns, and four or five other elements, all of which create a sense of movement, of action, and of performance. I think Peter would love the performativity rater!
So Bravo to Peter Elbow for this learned, provocative, and forward-looking book. Just say “yes” to vernacular eloquence!