Edwardsstudies.com is talking today with Michal Choinski, the author of the new book The Rhetoric of the Revival: The Language of the Great Awakening Preachers published by V&R Academic. Michal teaches American literature at the Institute of English Studies of the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland.
Michal, before we launch into The Rhetoric of Revival, why don’t you take a moment to introduce yourself to our readers: where did you grow up, and how did you get interested in JE?
Well, I was born in Tarnów, in southern Poland – to attend the Jagiellonian University I moved to Kraków, where I did my MA in English literature in Shakespeare’s political drama. Then I decided to switch to American literature for my doctoral studies and for some time I was hesitating about which area of study to chose. A good friend of mine, Marta Gillner-Shaw, who now also teaches at the Jagiellonian, mentioned on some occasion Edwards’s Sinners at that time. Of course, I remembered the text vaguely from my introductory courses to American Literature. I reread the sermon, and was amazed by its rhetorical artistry. I guess when I had read it as a sophomore I just could not appreciate it fully. Then, the more of Edwards I read, the more interesting his language turned out to be. I also got interested in the phenomenon of the awakening itself, especially of its language-related aspects – from the perspective of Polish culture and religion, it seemed particularly fascinating, if not even exotic. So, this is what got me started with my research.
Tell us a little bit about what you are doing in the Jagiellonian University? What do you cover in your courses in American literature? Do you find Polish students interested in uniquely American writings?
The classes I teach include mainly general literature survey courses. Apart from these, I run MA and BA seminars as well as “specialized courses” that are not compulsory but that students may select if they are interested. One such class concerns Southern writers, like Flannery O’Connor, Eudora Welty, or Harper Lee. My other courses include American Presidential Rhetoric and Shakespeare’s drama. What I think particularly strikes a chord with my students is contemporary American poetry and drama. We do not have time to read much of Edwards, though – Sinners, of course, fragments of Personal Narrative and I always try to make time to take a look at Edwards’s letters – for instance the one he sent to his daughter from Stockbridge in March 1753. My students are always puzzled about why he offers Esther to send her a rattlesnake, or about the recipe for jam he includes in the postscriptum. This helps in presenting Edwards as real person rather than just another blurry name of the American past.
Apart from teaching, I research Edwards’s writings using computer methods together with my colleague, Jan Rybicki. For instance, with the help of stylometric software used to determine the authorship of texts, we have been able to determine to what extent Thomas Foxcroft, Edwards’s literary agent and editor, amended and modified his writings.
You mentioned to me in an email that it took you over ten years to write The Rhetoric, tell us a bit about how it all developed.
Well, yes, almost ten years, if you include all the research time. I did my reading on rhetoric and American colonial culture during my doctoral studies for four years, and then after my defense in 2011, it took me almost five more years to transform the dissertation into a book. I was very lucky to receive two research fellowships at the JFK Institute at Freie Universität Berlin where I could access rich collections on American studies. Meanwhile, I was also preoccupied with translating the Yale Edwards Reader into Polish, which also consumed insane amount of time and diverted my attention elsewhere. But, of course, if it was not for my tendency to procrastinate, I would have done it earlier.
Give us the “big E on the eye chart” for this book – what’s it all about?
In the book, I tried to characterize the sermons of the Great Awakening preachers, and to understand why their language bore such an impact on the colonial audiences. The oratory the New Lights used, the “rhetoric of the revival” was very innovative, and met with massive reactions from the colonial audiences. The first chapters outline the basis of rhetorical theory, discuss the transition from rhetoric to preaching, and the rhetorical tradition of the earlier generation of colonists. “Rhetoric” is the big word for this book – I wanted to point out its importance as a great method of enquiry, as well as a means of continuity within American revival tradition. Then, in the analytical part, I introduce different Great Awakening preachers and study their sermons, paying close attention to the minutiae of figures and arguments they use.
You chose Edwards as well as some others (Whitefield, Tennent). How did you choose your subjects?
I study the sermons of six preachers: Jonathan Edwards, George Whitefield, Gilbert Tennent, Jonathan Dickinson, Jonathan Parsons and Andrew Croswell. All of them were engaged in the Great Awakening and all of belonged to the “New Lights” group, the proponents of the revival. Through my choice, I have tried to include both the prominent ministers everyone knows about, as well as those pulpit orators whose discourses have not been in the main academic spotlight. My goal in the selection of sermons was to present the diversity and richness of the Great Awakening rhetoric and to illustrate different aspects of the colonial “rhetoric of the revival”, be it persuasiveness, theatricality, or its experiential and confrontational character.
You look at three particular sermons of Jonathan Edwards. Why did you choose these three?
Yes, with Edwards I look into three sermons: Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, The Future Punishment of the Wicked Unavoidable and Intolerable and The Distinguishing Marks of a Work of the Spirit of God – I wanted each of them to demonstrate a different aspect of Edwards’s “rhetoric of the revival”. The choice for the first one was rather obvious. You can hardly attempt at discussing Edwards’s pulpit oratory without studying Sinners – although with this sermon, because it is such a famous (or infamous) text, you also have to take into account the bulk of critical literature. In my study of Sinners I stressed how the changes in perspective and the use of a “deictic shift” allowed Edwards to transport his hearers mentally into the figurative imagery. Then I look into how in Future Punishment the preacher employs a wide variety of rhetorical ploys to create rich sensory images designed to elicit an emotional reaction from the audience. Finally, The Distinguishing Marks helps me to demonstrate Edwards’s skill of argumentation in a theological debate.
Your book is Volume 1 in the exciting series “New Directions in Jonathan Edwards Studies” in cooperation with The Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University. That’s got to be pretty thrilling.
Yes. I was very happy and honored when Professor Kenneth Minkema from Jonathan Edwards Center at Yale University proposed the publication of my dissertation in the series. He was also very patient with addressing all my doubts and problems concerning the whole process.
Any book, conference, or website recommendations?
I mentioned digital humanities and Edwards studies earlier. Robert Boss’s book “God-Haunted World: The Elemental Theology of Jonathan Edwards” as well as the webpage with his beautiful visualizations is something any person interested in Edwards should definitely take a look at.
Thanks for joining us Michal!
Thank you so much for having me!