No! In Whispers

The Rhetoric of Dissent in American Writing

by Michele Bottalico (Volume editor)
©2018 Edited Collection VI, 234 Pages


No! In Whispers is based on the assumption that dissent, particularly in literary writing, is not necessarily shouted. Rather, it is conveyed by means of persuasion strategies, through subtle transversal allusions and an undercurrent of moral analysis and protest, through what can metaphorically be defined as ‘whispers’ that penetrate the readers’ conscience and are meant to promote change. The essays in this book explore the rhetoric of dissent in a range of texts that include letters, novels, poems and nonfiction, mostly focusing on selected works by such authors as Abigail Adams, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Mary Ovington, Toni Morrison, Adrienne Rich, Thomas Pynchon and Don DeLillo. The last two chapters, devoted to nonfiction, consider Edward Said’s memoir and the debate about the New Musicology. The authors come from four different countries and have largely distinct cultural backgrounds and scientific interests; thus they analyze the statements of dissent from various angles utilizing different methodological approaches. They concur in outlining the image of a country that has been historically torn by the tension between what it is and what it was meant to be.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface (Michele Bottalico)
  • Women’s Dissent in Early American Writing, from Abigail Adams to the Seduction Novel (Michele Bottalico)
  • Regime Change: Semiotic Tyranny and Dissent in The Scarlet Letter (Matthew Gumpert)
  • Dissent in Salvation: A Rhetoric of Uncertainty in Nathaniel Hawthorne (Jacques A. Gilbert)
  • “These dark people who speak our language”: Mary Ovington and the Rhetoric of Evidence (Clara Antonucci)
  • Sounds of Silence, Violence, Madness in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Jazz (Özlem Öğüt YazıcıoĞlu)
  • “So tell me about my country…later”: Strategies of Distancing in Adrienne Rich’s The School Among the Ruins (Eleonora Rao)
  • ‘The End Times Never End’: Neo-Apocalyptic Rhetoric and Dissent in Contemporary American Fiction (Antonio C. Márquez)
  • Out of Place, at the Origins of Edward Said’s Literature of Dissent (Rocco De Leo)
  • Dissenting Variations. The Rhetoric of New Musicology (Massimiliano Locanto)
  • Contributors
  • Series index

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In an often quoted letter to Hawthorne of 1851, Melville wrote of his much admired friend: “There is the grand truth about Nathaniel Hawthorne. He says No! in thunder; but the Devil himself cannot make him say yes”. Melville’s ambiguous statement, which echoes the language of biblical psalms and hymns, also reveals a reference to the essence of his own writing. It surely calls to mind Bartleby’s firm and absolute refusal to conform to established rules, to do what is asked of him, by perpetually answering “I would prefer not to”. Variously interpreted, on the simplest of levels “says No! in thunder” alludes to the ‘thunderous’ voice that does not admit reply, used by both Hawthorne and Melville to express their dissent and ethical critique of man and society in their works. It may also hint at their powerful voices rising in the midst of a thunderstorm of oppositions and divergences – particularly so in the mid-nineteenth century – which is, however, typical of a nation prone to question its alleged democracy, its mores, habits, social institutions, as well as artistic codes and theoretical principles in the arts. A country whose very foundations were historically laid by dissenters against the ruling paradigm of their time, and whose features were ideally based on a pre-conceived idea of its mission as typological New Canaan, the City upon a Hill, New Jerusalem. Thus America has always been torn by the tension between the real and the ideal, between what it is and what it was meant to be.

Both interpretations of Melville’s ambiguous comment testify to the great potential of literature – to which the present book is mainly addressed – as a pervasive political tool, to its provocative function in shaking people’s conscience and increasing their awareness, as explored in the essays of this collection. On the other hand, the reference to Nathaniel Hawthorne is motivated by his being one of the paramount figures in the American rhetoric of dissent articulated through creative writing. Thus it is not surprising that this collective book includes two chapters about his work. ← 1 | 2 →

Literary texts, though, may have a thundering power in reverberating discontent or disagreement with ethical principles, yet they are not necessarily as explicit and direct as, for instance, political texts are. Rather, they may perform their negative critical function through various rhetorical strategies, fictional events and situations, the personality of characters, myths, veiled allusions, metaphors, symbols, subtle and transversal hints, and through an undercurrent of moral analysis and protest about social injustice or any other flaws. In literary texts, dissent is usually creeping all over; it is not shouted but conveyed through what can metaphorically be called hushed ‘whispers’ that penetrate the readers’ conscience. For this reason, the present book appears under a variant of Melville’s statement – No! In Whispers – which is representative of the way multiple signifiers of dissent may emerge from written texts.

Proceeding by meaningful samples, the studies in this collection indirectly present flaws and inconsistencies that can be seen as inherent in American civilization across the centuries. However, they are meant not so much to demonstrate the multiplicity of America’s discontents but, rather, to discuss the strategies of persuasion by which established principles and tenets have been critically exposed in written texts in order to possibly promote change. Further reference, in the last two chapters of this book, is made to disagreement about existing cultural canons and theories articulated through nonfiction texts.

No! In Whispers: The Rhetoric of Dissent in American Writing is the initial outcome of a wider international research project that, in the near future, will focus on the study of dissent rhetoric in the American political discourse. The authors of the chapters of this book belong to four countries: France, Italy, Turkey, and the United States. Over the years, the foreign members of this research team have been related to the University of Salerno – as visiting scholars, Fulbright lecturers or Erasmus teaching staff – and have participated in scholarly events promoted on behalf of the internationalization program of the School of Foreign Languages, which I coordinated. The participants in the project have largely distinct cultural backgrounds and scientific interests in the field of the humanities; thus they have analyzed the statements of dissent from various angles, and by means of different theoretical and methodological approaches/tools. ← 2 | 3 →

In the opening chapter of the book, “Early Women’s Dissent, from Abigail Adams to the Seduction Novel”, Michele Bottalico focuses on embryonic female dissent emerging from Adam’s letters to her husband, while he was drafting the Declaration of Independence together with Jefferson. An interesting transitional figure who, rather than being an emancipated woman, reflects the ideology of the Republican Motherhood, Adams expressed her opinions on the role of women and other progressive instances with a language influenced by the so called ‘liberatory civic rhetoric’ inspired by revolutionary discourse. Such masculine rhetorical forms, based on a new system of ideas and ideals, were used by women of the time to participate in the common arena of debate and thus involve men in their own issues. Traces of this civic rhetoric survived in a few seduction novels written by women that revealed a latent, subversive potential, which Bottalico exemplifies through references to H. W. Foster’s and S. Rowson’s best known works. They mingled this, though, with other persuasive strategies that echoed the conversational rhetoric recommended by Conduct Books written by women, and the multifaceted ‘sentimental’ rhetoric that includes sensationalism and visual-narrative techniques borrowed from the rising melodramatic theatre.

In “Regime Change: The Tyranny of Meaning in The Scarlet Letter”, Matthew Gumpert approaches Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter as a portrait of an interpretive community: a study in how regimes of meaning are maintained, enforced, and generate dissent. The Commonwealth of Massachusetts, as imagined by Hawthorne, is a semiotic-aesthetic tyranny, exerted through sermons and laws, proclamations and threats; the very letters of the alphabet are weapons in its arsenal. Gumpert maintains that, by exposing the mechanisms by which the interpretive community confers and controls meanings, Hawthorne shows them to be artificial and arbitrary processes. There is, however, another regime of meaning here, every bit as tyrannical as the Commonwealth of Massachusetts: The Scarlet Letter itself. For, in Gumpert’s vision, if there is no escape here from the law of the letter, that may well be because Hawthorne’s novel has conspired with it, and become the very letter of the law. Like the Commonwealth itself, The Scarlet Letter is a space without ambiguity, a realm in which everything ‘means’ something. Hester Prynne gives new meaning to the phrase ‘regime change’: for it ← 3 | 4 → is against a tyrannical regime of meaning that her rebellion is directed, a rebellion that constitutes a long campaign of rhetorical dissent.

The chapter by Jacques A. Gilbert, “Dissent in Salvation: A Rhetoric of Uncertainty in Nathaniel Hawthorne”, is also based on The Scarlet Letter, with references to Hawthorne’s “Young Goodman Brown” and “The Minister’s Black Veil”, and to E.T.A. Hoffmann’s The Devil’s Elixirs. Gilbert argues that some traces of dissident rhetoric can be found in The Scarlet Letter, which are reminiscent of Walpole and Radcliffe’s novels. However, literary texts inspired by the Reformation can be considered in different ways. The ideology implied in the European gothic narratives at large – which are usually set in Catholic countries, and in which the apparition of the devil is described in many ways – is mostly anti-papist. Here, religious dissent means that the chosen are certain they are going to be saved. Hawthorne’s work is much more ambiguous, as in The Scarlet Letter he transforms the whole paradigm: no longer is the devil in a foreign country or in a catholic monastery; he now stands in the midst of the community of the chosen people. His presence is not supernatural because Evil, as Hawthorne writes, is “the nature of mankind”. The trouble persists, though, because the dissent of salvation has changed and has become a rhetoric of uncertainty. In his chapter, Gilbert illustrates and explains this transformation that reverses, at the same time, the order of the world and of its meaning.

Clara Antonucci, in “‘These dark people who speak our language’: Mary Ovington and the Rhetoric of Evidence”, outlines a portrait of Mary White Ovington, a social worker, civil rights and women’s rights activist, co-founder of the NAACP and later member of the US Socialist Party. She makes a comparative analysis of the main semantic domains that inform the linguistic content of such works as “Reminiscences, or Going Back 40 Years”, Ovington’s recollections that first appeared as a serial in The Baltimore Afro-American and were republished as Black and White Sat Down Together in 1969; the sociological study Half a Man: The Status of the Negro in New York; and the novel The Shadow. Five semantic areas emerge as crucial to Ovington’s rhetoric of dissent: work ethic, knowledge, heroism, faith, and nature. Antonucci documents their recurrence and explores the ways in which they mingle and are shaped, within the three texts, to sustain their rhetorical structure and to convey Ovington’s underlying system of values. ← 4 | 5 →

In “Assent to Dissent: Sounds of Silence, Violence, Madness in Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Jazz”, Özlem Öğüt Yazıcıoğlu examines the emergence of a rhetoric of dissent in Morrison’s The Bluest Eye and Jazz, that displays affinities with Wayne Booth’s ‘rhetoric of assent’ based on his pluralistic view of literature and criticism as well as on his conception of friendship in narrative encounters. She evidences that, in Morrison’s novels, friendship functions as a healthy means of sharing secrets and traumas between characters who otherwise are driven to silence, and/or violence, and/or madness. Dialogue with friends cures the violence and compels the characters to revise their attitudes towards themselves and others, culminating in their assent to dissent from the totalizing and marginalizing discourses on race, class, and gender. Moreover, Morrison’s rhetoric of friendship invites her implied readers to question and challenge such discourses, as well as their own part in them. The ethical and political aspect of Morrison’s novels thus resonates with Booth’s ethical-rhetorical criticism that is inextricably linked with his conception of narrative friendship. Booth’s pluralistic and self-evaluating attitude finds a counterpart in Morrison’s self-revisionist attitude both as a novelist and a critic of her own work. Self-questioning and self-criticism on the part of Morrison’s narrators, their attempts to draw the readers into the world of the narrative, and their inclusion of a multiplicity of narrative voices and perspectives, are among the rhetorical strategies the author employs to achieve pluralism as an ethical end and highlight the necessity, for individuals and communities, to resist monolithic discourses that otherize, paralyze and victimize them.


VI, 234
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2018 (November)
Rhetoric Strategies of persuasion American culture American literature Dissent
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2018. VI, 234 pp.

Biographical notes

Michele Bottalico (Volume editor)

Michele Bottalico, former Full Professor of American Literature at the University of Salerno, Italy, has published widely on early American literature, the 1920s novel, Chicano literature, odeporic literature and autobiographical writing. His latest work is a collection of essays on Italian American culture, which he edited in 2018.


Title: No! In Whispers
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242 pages