The Great American Scaffold: Intertextuality and Identity in American Presidential Discourse.

Author:Roper, Jon
Position:Book review

The Great American Scaffold: Intertextuality and Identity in American Presidential Discourse. By Frank Austermuhl. Amsterdam: Johns Benjamin Publishing, 2014. 338 pp.

Presidents plagiarize and paraphrase. They cannot help themselves. As the office has evolved into the modern-day rhetorical presidency, it has become part of their job. Sometimes they just purloin phrases. Abraham Lincoln is one source of rhetorical inspiration. John F. Kennedy is another. More often, though, their speeches simply conform to generic conventions, as presidents fall back on well-worn rhetorical tropes. As Frank Austermuhl observes in his forensically researched account of presidential intertextuality, their "discourse can thus be understood as a network of texts.. or, to apply a less-often used metaphor, a discursively erected cultural 'scaffold'" (p. 8).

In The Great American Scaffold, Austermuhl examines the intertextual exoskeleton that supports and preserves the essential precepts defining America's national identity. His book plants itself at a disciplinary crossroads, drawing upon "approaches from political studies, presidential studies, communication, American studies, as well as applied linguistics and discourse analysis" (p. 27). Scholars from these disparate fields will find much of interest in Austermuhl's analysis.

The author begins with an initial survey of competing theoretical approaches to intertextuality. Those for whom this methodological terrain is unfamiliar might encounter prose that is sometimes dense but never impenetrable. Successive chapters then consider the different manifestations of intertextuality in presidential speeches: discursive, thematic, hypotextual, and allusory. There are fascinating nuggets for the aficionado. For example, although the presidency has increasingly become the focus of national attention, the book's detailed quantitative analysis demonstrates (pp. 51, 65) that, in inaugural addresses and State of the Union messages, presidential use of the personal pronoun "I" has declined over time while that of the collective "we" has increased.

Austermuhl provides an illuminating discussion of the conventions surrounding the president's inauguration and of the speech itself, investigating the essential continuities that underpin this quadrennial reaffirmation of national identity. He identifies 13 common themes that recur in just over three-quarters of inaugural addresses. America's mission, expressed in terms of advancing...

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