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Monday, July 02, 2007

cover of Great American Speeches

A collection of speeches from American history, organized chronologically and sometimes excerpted to keep them to a reasonable, readable length. I was actually a little surprised at how much I enjoyed reading the speeches-- it felt like I was getting a taste of real history. For each speech, there was a short paragraph with a little bit of context about the speaker and the speech, which I found very helpful, and in one case was amazed to read that an antislavery speech by Angelina Grimke was given in a building surrounded by a violent, angry mob. For me, it heightened the sense of these speeches as an active part of our history. Unfortunately, as the speeches get closer to our modern day they were more disappointing; I became less and less convinced that they were either "great speeches" or given by "great Americans."

Some surprising synchronicity with these speeches and other things I have been reading at the same time. When I got to the civil war section, I was inspired to re-read Lincoln's Dreams; other books connected with the world wars, etc.

With the more contemporary speeches I found myself more skeptical-- sometimes about the speeches, sometimes about the editor. I know that political speeches these days are written by other writers, so it seems less immediate, less honest. However, I don't know when that practice started or which speeches in this book it might apply to. Other times, I wondered if the speakers really believed what they were saying; e.g., Nixon claiming he was stepping down for the good of the nation, so that it not get involved in a long, drawn out impeachment process; or when Truman announced the dropping of the atomic bomb, did he have any idea of the scale and kind of destruction it would cause?

The other problem when history intersects the current time (the last speech is from Jesse Jackson in 1992) is that it's hard to be objective, and it seemed that the more modern speeches were somewhat skewed to a more liberal perspective. In some cases there were interesting speeches that maybe should have been influential or important, but it's not clear that they made much of a difference; e.g., Newton Minow encouraging television producers not to cater to the lowest common denominator in their audiences but to continue to use the medium of television to educate; or Ralph Nader's speech about the legal profession encouraging law school graduates not to get bogged down in materialism.

It also seemed like there have been some modern events that should have given rise to some great, important speeches, but they weren't in this book. While the speeches from further back in our history were more tied to events and issues that our nation was struggling with, the more current speeches (which take up more of the book) seem to be all over the place with ideas and issues. Again, probably the perspective problem-- perhaps only later generations will know which of those were most significant in the long-term.

Read over several months, usually reading a speech or two in the evening.

Title:Great American Speeches
Author:Gregory R. Suriano (editor)
Date published:1993
Genre:Speeches, American History
Number of pages:308
Notes:gift from Mom


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