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Can There Be Bottom-Up Change Without Proverbs? (BOOK REVIEW)

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Duluth, MN (OpEdNews) December 9, 2010: Rob Kall wants to promote bottom-up social and political change in the United States. Good for Rob Kall! However, can he or anyone else promote bottom-up social and political change without using proverbs?

The German-born American scholar Wolfgang Mieder of the University of Vermont has devoted himself to studying proverbs. Among the many books he has published is a thousand-page bibliography of studies of proverbs, INTERNATIONAL BIBLIOGRAPHY OF PAREMIOLOGY AND PHRASEOLOGY, two volumes (Walter de Gruyter, 2009), and short books about proverbs and proverbial expressions used by Abraham Lincoln (2000), Frederick Douglass (2001), and Barack Obama (2009). Now Mieder has outdone himself by publishing an exhaustive 550-page study of proverbs and proverbial expressions in Martin Luther King's rhetoric. King's sermonic proverbial rhetoric helped, as Mieder styles it, helped promote bottom-up social and political change in the United States. Not surprisingly, Mieder skillfully integrates points from his three books About Lincoln, Douglass, and Obama as well as points from his many other books in this book about King.

Each of the sixteen chapters in Mieder's new book has a chapter title that begins with a suitable proverb in quotation marks followed by the theme addressed in the chapter. On pages 15 to 19, Mieder lists the top ninety-seven of King's favorite proverbial tag-lines and gives the frequency of each in parentheses after each one. Mieder reports that "King's repertoire of proverbial quotations, proverbs, proverbial expressions, and proverbial comparisons comprises 436 different texts" (page 19). On pages 207 to 541, Mieder gives passages from King's rhetoric, including 1,092 proverbial references in their context that Mieder identified in his examination of around 6,000 pages of published texts of King's rhetoric. The entries are alphabetized by a key word in the proverbial tag-line at the top of each entry, with the key word in boldface print, followed by the contextualizing passage in which the tag-line occurs, rounded off by the bibliographic reference at the end.

Mieder's book about King's sermonic proverbial rhetoric is sui generis among books about King, because of its focus on proverbs and proverbial expressions. Mieder's study and Keith D. Miller's study of King's compositional skills in VOICE OF DELIVERANCE: THE LANGUAGE OF MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. AND ITS SOURCES (1992) open the way for us now to understand how orators and writers for centuries used variations on the formulary compositional techniques used by the singers of tales that Albert B. Lord studied in THE SINGER OF TALES (1960), a work that Mieder does not mention but should have.

With respect to King's compositional techniques using formulary expressions such as proverbs and proverbial expressions and often employing set themes to compose certain passages, King stands in a long tradition of singers of tales who used formulary expressions and set themes and of orators who used different kinds of commonplaces -" cumulative commonplaces that resemble formulary expressions and analytic commonplaces that resemble set themes, to borrow Walter J. Ong's way of describing those two kinds of commonplaces. Ong discusses these two kinds of commonplaces in his book THE PRESENCE OF THE WORD: SOME PROLEGOMENA FOR CULTURAL AND RELIGIOUS HISTORY (Yale University Press, 1967; concerning commonplaces, see the index for the term "commonplaces"). Also see Sister Joan Marie Lechner's book RENAISSANCE CONCEPTS OF THE COMMONPLACES (Pageant Press, 1962), and Heinrich F. Plett's article "Rhetoric and Intertextuality" in the journal RHETORICA: A JOURNAL OF THE HISTORY OF RHETORIC, volume 17, number 3 (Summer 1999): pages 313-29.


For a sense of the life-world of people who have a living tradition of proverbs, see the novels THINGS FALL APART (Heinemann, 1958) and NO LONGER AT EASE (Heinemann, 1960) by the Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe. But don't make the mistake of thinking that Achebe and King were uneducated because of the fondness for the old oral tradition represented by their fondness for proverbial material. Both Achebe and King were educated and skillful users of oral-traditional materials.

Let us return to Rob Kall and his efforts to promote bottom-up social and political change in the United States. As the example of King shows, Rob Kall would be well advised to enhance his repertoire of proverbs and proverbial expressions.

For example, should Rob Kall want to help stir up understandable political anger about how rich Americans are not paying their fair share in taxes, then he would want to use a proverbial expression to endorse progressive taxation. As the example of King shows, he liked to use Bible proverbs and proverbial expressions. So in light of King's use of the Bible as a source, Rob Kall could say, "Those to whom more income is given are expected to pay more in taxes!"

Yes, Christian scripture does contain the following passage that endorses progressive taxation: "From everyone to whom much has been given [in income], much will be required [in taxes]; and from the one to whom much has been entrusted [such as the money manager of other people's money], even more will be demanded [in taxes]" (Luke 12:48 NRSV).

In any event, it appears that speakers who want to advance bottom-up social and political change in the United States, such as Rob Kall, should use proverbs and proverbial expressions in their presentations, as King did.


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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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