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200 × 120 mm
192 pages
13 Jul 2015

The Great American Speech Words and Monuments Stephen Fender

Everyone knows the ‘American dream’: that America is the land of free enterprise, offering men and women without inherited advantages the chance to get ahead through hard work and self-reliance. Yet in The Great American Speech Stephen Fender offers an alternative vision, one enshrined in the country’s most memorable speeches, which have become monuments in its national memory and literally in the nation’s capital, carved in memorial stone. This other American dream is not about competition or getting ahead, but instead echoes the country’s founding documents, arguing for equality and cooperation.

Beginning with two contrasting visions set out by early settlers in the New World, Fender goes on to explore how this other dream has been kept alive in public speeches to live audiences, from inaugural addresses by early presidents such as John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, through Abraham Lincoln’s arguments both logical and passionate for the Union, and on to mass appeals for wider understanding by John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., and suggests that these two opposing visions of the country’s moral purpose are fundamentally two free-standing visions of national identity.

He considers the ‘Great American Speech’ in popular culture, illustrating how it pops up not just in cinema’s courtrooms, where it might be expected, but in adventure films, thrillers and political melodramas, where in the midst of conflict someone often speaks up for the relative normality of a more egalitarian, sharing society. The Great American Speech is a contemplative, fascinating look at a hidden strand of American national identity.

‘Fender’s analysis of particular addresses is consistently readable and intelligent.’ – Barton Swaim, TLS

‘Explains the cultural binding that great speeches can accomplish . . . sets out to show that American speeches are cultural glue that unites the ideals of “the American dream” (individualistic in nature) with the wider communitarian impulses . . . According to Fender, we’re all better served when mouths and ears desire for more than just an individualized form of the American dream.’ – Washington Times

‘Stephen Fender’s anatomy of the monumental in American public speech, fascinating in itself, creates a new area of literary critical attention. This is a book to read and, with the mind’s ear, listen to.’ – John Sutherland, author of A Little History of Literature

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Stephen Fender was born in San Francisco and is Honorary Professor of English at University College London. His previous books include 50 Facts that should Change the USA and 50 Facts You Need to Know: USA: A Tour through the Real America (both 2008).