When literacy was entertainment

For an American coming of age in the last third of the nineteenth century, one of the surest ways to gain prominence or to secure it was to become a fine public speaker. Oratory was an indispensable element in both politics and religion, on every public holiday and anniversary, at every unveiling of a statue or laying of a cornerstone, and at the banquets obligatory for any group able to hire a cook and rent a hall. Dozens of lecture circuits had sprung up by midcentury, enabling farmers as well as city dwellers to hear the best-known politicians, writers, actors, and preachers in the land.

[…]

[…N]early every adult had been able to witness a variety of oratorical performances. They thus elevated public speaking with much the same mix of canny criticism and admiration we now apply to professional athletes and movie stars. Newspapers routinely published the full or nearly full transcripts of major political speeches and sermons by celebrated ministers; editorial “impressions” accompanied the texts.

— Michael Kazin, A Godly Hero: The Life of William Jennings Bryan, pgs. 10-11.

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