Paula McDowell, The Invention of the Oral: Print Commerce and Fugitive Voices in Eighteenth-Century Britain

Paula McDowell, The Invention of the Oral: Print Commerce and Fugitive Voices in Eighteenth-Century Britain (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017) 368 pp. 25 halftones. $45.00 Hb. ISBN:9780226456966

The Invention of the Oral: Print Commerce and Fugitive Voices in Eighteenth-Century Britain is a wide-ranging and well-grounded investigation into the impact of print on eighteenth-century understandings of orality. McDowell articulates a strong analysis of the contemporaneous anxieties around media shift. This provides a rich contextual commentary of the complex interactions of print and orality from the seventeenth century through to the twentieth century.

In the first chapter, McDowell surveys attitudes towards an oral ‘tradition’ throughout the long eighteenth century. In doing so she draws on restoration theological, literary, and ethnographical developments. McDowell focuses on the Biblical scholarship surrounding the King James Bible and the resulting epistemological concerns over knowledge transmission and reliability. She then outlines the trajectory of the coming chapters, describing a general dissolution of these fears and acceptance of orality.

McDowell then examines Jonathan Swift’s (1667-1745) presentation of orality as corporeal. Tale of A Tub (1704) is understood as engaging with contemporaneous concerns regarding mediation. This includes the end of print licensing, expansion of the print market, and the overhanging spectre of the civil war. McDowell examines the original engravings and draft sketches accompanying Swift’s ‘oratory machine.’ She argues that the emphasis on the intersection of stage, gallows, and pulpit is simultaneously satirising the Catholic oral tradition, Jewish oral tradition, and Protestant over-reliance on texts. This is contextualised by Royal Society investigations into the production of air and speech and their attention to the corporality and ephemerality of orality. This is linked to the eighteenth-century fear of dissenting preachers whose impressive oral performances were diverting audiences from the Church of England. McDowell shows how this was understood conceptually as a threat to the nation, and as a loss of somatic control associated with the disintegration of the body-state and the English Civil War.

The third chapter builds on this by investigating Daniel Defoe’s (1660-1731) interrogation of orality. McDowell argues that as a prolific author, Defoe was driven to establish the veracity of print, and this was done through contrasting the ineffectiveness of orality. In his Journal of the Plague Year (1722) he examines the government reliance on old women searchers of bodies, presenting it as an inversion of the established semiotics. Defoe argues that this dependence on the oral testimony of illiterate women compromised the crucial bills of mortality. McDowell examines Defoe’s presentation of orality in terms of contagion, and his linkage of this to the genderisation of gossip in the “old wives’ tales” (34). Both Swift and Defoe are taken by McDowell to be representative of early eighteenth-century treatments of orality, invoking existing anxieties of the recent historical past and using this to justify modern print.

The fourth chapter then focuses on one of the eighteenth-century’s greatest oral proponents- orator John Henley (1692-1756). Henley is portrayed as a progressive that started a new university in London dedicated to bringing education and the privileged arts of rhetoric to those disadvantaged in society. McDowell shows how there were repeated attempts to shut him down following concerns raised not from the content of his lectures, but from his method of presentation. Building on the earlier concerns outlined in the chapter on Swift, McDowell analyses the criticism of Henley that focused on his uncontrolled body and immodest use of gesture. McDowell shows that whilst this style was often satirised, it was successful and just as often imitated, arguing that this demonstrates a reluctant embrace of orality

McDowell then compares Henley to one of the founders of Methodism, John Wesley (1703-1791), and the later Thomas Sheridan (1719-1788). Both Wesley and Sheridan presented oral elocution as the new media technology that demarcated the poor from the learned. Reading was shown to be detrimental to elocution, and as everyone was thought to be literate, speaking well became the key to success. McDowell shows, however, that this swing back towards orality was tempered by Hugh Blair (1718-1800) and the understanding of elocution as a dangerous weapon to be safeguarded against due to its ability to bypass the intellect and appeal to the emotions directly.

The trope of Billingsgate is next examined, acting as a competing form of orality. In perhaps the first systematic treatment of the cultural associations of Billingsgate fish markets, McDowell explores how these lower-class street vendors were both revered and ridiculed. Connected to the spread of literacy, Billingsgate fish wives and oyster wenches were often portrayed asdominating learned literate men through their impressive orality from higher classes. McDowell contextualises this with the multiple additional associations of Billingsgate, from an Augustan deep criticism, to a national figure riding the xenophobia of the Seven Years’ War with France. This progression of association is tentatively explained by the progress of the ‘plain style’ movement following the civil war, a rhetoric style that evolved in response to the anxieties articulated in the chapter on Swift.

The penultimate chapter investigates the connection between print and oral discourses found in the eighteenth-century craze for ballads. McDowell examines the distinction between ‘traditional’ and ‘broadsheet’ ballads. The former were highly valued surviving oral ballads, whereas the latter were seen as vulgar due to their printed nature. McDowell connects this to the cultural shock following the discovery that Homer was an illiterate oral poet. Through a series of different collectors of ballads, he then shows how respect for the printed ‘authoritative’ version gave way to the multivariate collections, evidencing the engagement of the oral tradition with existing print prejudices.

This systematic portrayal of the eighteenth-century acceptance of orality is concluded with final analysis of Samuel Johnson’s (1709-1784) involvement with the controversial Ossian debates. McDowell examines the underlying motivations of Johnson’s journey to the highlands, where he attempted to recover a missing link between primal oral civilizations and contemporary print societies. McDowell convincingly reads this as an act of propaganda by Johnson, fiercely resisting Catholic tradition, and advocating the spread of literacy and resulting social mobility.

Regrettably, there is no concluding chapter but just a brief coda outlying the history of the term ‘culture’ and the twentieth-century invention of the term ‘oral culture’. Since the book is well argued throughout, however, this is perhaps less of a problem than had it been otherwise. McDowell takes the reader on a fascinating exploration of the eighteenth-century relationship with orality, and any student of this period would do well to engage with this text.

Joe Holloway, University of Exeter