ISHR Statement 2019
James J. Murphy
I don’t think that many current ISHR members realize that our now-thriving society began in 1976 out of protests against the fact there were virtually no journals or book publishers at that time willing to support serious research in the history of rhetoric. Four of us attending the biennial meeting of the Neo-Latin Association in Tours, France, went out for coffee after I presented a paper lamenting the fact that was no history of Renaissance rhetoric available, and no real avenue for promoting such histories. The people were Brian Vickers from London, Marc Fumaroli from the Sorbonne, Alain Michel from the University of Paris, and myself from California. Somebody – I don’t remember who – said “why don’t we start one?”
Within minutes we had a plan for an international society. Brian Vickers offered Zurich as a meeting place. There was of course no mailing list, no roster. In that age before e-mail we had to invite people personally, by postal mail or telephone, from a variety of countries and languages. But by the next summer we managed to hold a meeting in Zurich attended by 120 people from twelve countries. Professor Lloyd Bitzer from Wisconsin drafted a constitution which was approved overwhelmingly. Brian Vickers was elected the first president, and Amsterdam was chosen as the site of the second meeting two years later.
A major constitutional debate took place over the issue of whether the new society should be devoted to the ”study” of rhetoric or the ”history” of rhetoric, with historians prevailing as we know.
It took another four years, however, for members to decide in 1981– unanimously – that the society should publish a journal. I was named the first editor, with the provision that each editor should serve no more than five years. In its first year (1983), Rhetorica won two national awards, one for design, and the other as “Best New Journal of the Year” from the National Council of Learned Societies. After some early financial struggles it has gone on of course to become not only a major source in the field but also a useful source of income for the society. Its successive editors have maintained a very high level of quality that has earned the journal one of the highest citation indexes in the humanities.
It seems to me, as the society gathers here for the twenty-second time, that it is always valuable to look at our roots. This array of chosen papers, this organization of sessions, this set of plenary speakers – these are not merely haphazard jumbles of accidental happenings. These topoi have roots not only in tradition but in reasoned choices made over several decades.
I suspect that some of you in this audience may have been born after I retired from teaching. Others of you in the I-phone generation may be shifting in your seats uncomfortably as you hear another old-timer going on about “the good old days.”
Believe me, the good old days were never really that good. This society barely survived its first few years as it struggled with multi-national currency problems and hideously complicated methods of dues collections. The journal Rhetorica had to rely on three years of invitational issues before enough people got interested enough to start submitting their own manuscripts, and it was almost five years before it reached financial self-sufficiency to avoid a threatened shutdown by the University of California Press.
So my heartfelt observation is that you should all be grateful to be here, in the midst of an international body of scholars, learning from your friends things that you did not know. And grateful as well that after this Louisiana experience there will be a 2021 meeting in The Netherlands, and then a 2023 meeting somewhere else.
Let me conclude with an idea that goes all the way back to the founding meeting at Zurich in 1977. Brian Vickers believed that the society should have an official motto. He proposed the Latin phrase Floreat rhetorica, which translates into English as “Let rhetoric flourish.” Somehow the idea of an official motto never caught on, despite Brian’s continuing efforts to popularize it.
Looking back over the history of the society, and looking ahead to a future which will outlast many of us, I would like to leave you with this one idea – Floreat rhetorica!