The art of conversation

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McGill Reporter
March 21, 2002 - Volume 34 Number 13
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The art of conversation

He coined the terms anaethesia and Boston Brahmin, and named and fuelled the then brand-new journal The Atlantic Monthly.

Doctor, philosopher, poet and humourist, Oliver Wendell Holmes is rarely thought of these days, despite having been a literary lion of the mid-1800s.

In Oliver Wendell Holmes and the Culture of Conversation, English professor Peter Gibian looks at the vital role Holmes played in a dynamic era on the brink of America's literary Renaissance.

Photo English professor Peter Gibian
PHOTO: Owen Egan

"Holmes was absolutely central to his culture. He defined the social environment for writers such as Melville, Hawthorne, Emerson," Gibian says. The mid-1800s were a boom time for talk, an age of oration and eloquence. Visiting Europeans were aghast at how much Americans mingled - hotel dining rooms, train carriages and boats all sat people together, forcing them into discourse.

Good conversation skills set one apart, and talk clubs sprang up, fostering pluralistic, public debate that helped set the tone for modern America.

The goal of a good gab in Holmes's time "is to keep the conversation going, rather than to stop conversation. If you say something, it must be a prod for other voices to come in."

Of Holmes's writing, Gibian says, "It's not rough at all, highly polished, also not at all provincial. He was a citizen of the world and not serious." His style differed from that of some of his fellow countrymen, such as Melville and Poe. "American writers [at the time] were celebrated for their roughness, not a polished European product. There was a frontier, flawed roughness about them."

Holmes could be funny. On a cross-Atlantic boat trip, he found himself really seasick, wishing he hadn't travelled. A woman came up to him and said, "Ah, Holmes, I have contributed to The Atlantic Monthly." To which Holmes replied queasily, "And I have contributed to the Atlantic daily."

Some of the period's American talk groups, such as Boston's Saturday Club of which Holmes was a member, brought together the best and brightest - bankers sat next to writers and philosophers. "The rule was to not speak in conventions, but to push the envelope, engage in witty repartee, accept disruptions and disagreement."

There were similar groups in Canada, Gibian says. The McCord Museum's recent show on Krieghoff included a painting of the Shakespeare Club, a Montreal talk club. Members were "owners of railroads and banks. The stolid bourgeois culture that adopted aspects of the bohemian life. They probably explored ideas they wouldn't let in their daily life."

American parlours (from the French "parler") "were multivoiced, they were vehicles for ideological and social change where one could try out new ideas," says Gibian. These ideas, which challenged church and convention, could then be applied to American life.

Women held their own private "consciousness-raising" talks that provided "space for women to develop their voices without men around. These meetings were founded as a reaction against other women's groups, in which women were more decorative. Here they could develop a serious, consequential voice."

Holmes's fascination with conversation extended into his medical life, where he promoted the benefits of talk in diagnosing, caring for and curing patients. Holmes looked out for slips of the tongue, jokes and speech patterns, and believed that the inner workings of the mind run on multiple tracks.

He believed talk's laughter and levity could lift one out of morbid introspection. Holmes carried out proto-psychoanalytic "talking exams" with friends Hawthorne and Melville, and wrote up psychological case studies as literature. "Within psychiatry, Holmes was really cutting edge."

Ideals of Holmesian conversation do continue, Gibian believes. "People say, Ôoh, it's too bad we've lost that,' but really we haven't." For instance, yesterday's talk clubs are today's book clubs. "Reading in the Victorian era was a group activity. People read aloud, then discussed it."

The Internet is a new public sphere for multiple voices. "There are cyberchat rooms, or cybersalons as they're called, where you're not there in body, but you can perform any identity. This speaks to a real hunger for the multivocal."

Gibian sees "conversation as becoming not a private art, but a public art." TV has become dialogue based, with Oprah, Rosie O'Donnell, and political pundits who discuss salon-style the news of the day.

"There are democratic elements even in the lowest form of media dialogue. It does allow new voices some little slice of the conversational pie."

CBC's radio phone-in shows evoke mid-century ideals of discussion as lubricating good society and mutual understanding. Although Gibian concedes, "Some of the arts of conversing with someone you disagree with have been lost."

Today, people are more likely to have heard of Holmes's son, U.S. Supreme Court justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr., who found the indecision and floweriness of his dad's talk unbearable. Holmes Jr. started a book once by writing, "The highest conversation is the statement of conclusion."

Gibian is finishing up a more accessible book called The Golden Age of American Conversation: Literary Writing in a Talk-Based Culture, about social conversational spaces and their influence on prominent authors. He's currently looking at the cosmopolitan vision of some writers and how they saw themselves "not as localist or nationalist or provincial, but as transnational mediators between diverse cultures" - ideas very much born of talk groups, and as important today as back in the days of carriages and gaslights.

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