Wolfgang Mieder: „Making a way out of no way”

Reviewer: Ronny Müller (This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.)

Book information: Wolfgang Mieder: „Making a way out of no way” – Martin Luther King's Sermonic Proverbial Rhetoric. Frankfurt/M./New York: Peter Lang, 2010 – 551 S.


“I have a dream” – the title of Martin Luther King's best known speech serves today as a rhetoric symbol of the American civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s. Its popularity illustrates what a gifted and impressive speaker Martin Luther King was. His rhetorical talent included an unusual ability to extract proverbs and quotations from biblical texts and historical speeches, which he used for his own non-violent and courageous struggle for the civil rights of African Americans. The power of his proverbial rhetoric is examined and presented by Wolfgang Mieder's book Making a Way out of no Way. With this, the paremiologist completes a trilogy of African Americans whose respective rhetoric he has analysed within the last ten years: Frederick Douglass, Barack Obama and Martin Luther King. With Making a Way out of no Way, Mieder continues his research in proverbs and confirms his excellent reputation as an outstanding paremiologist, which he has gained over the years by publishing more than 100 books on this issue.

       Mieder's interest in Martin Luther King goes back to his youth when he was a young German student in the United States who pursued Luther King's speeches. The paremiologist's enthusiasm is reflected by his extensive research and analysis of Luther King's proverbial rhetoric. In the course of his work, Mieder analysed the whole range of the priest's different writings: his books, sermons, letters, interviews and the advice columns Luther King wrote for a magazine in the late 1950s. Compiling and examining this great number of different texts must have been an enormous task for the linguist.

       Making a Way out of no Way consists of two different parts. The content part contains his examinations and analysis. It comprises about one third of the work. The other, quite extensive part is an index of all the proverbs and proverbial phrases used by Luther King. As a result, Making a Way out of no Way not only fulfils scientific criteria but is also intended to serve as a reference book. The content part is subdivided into sixteen different chapters. First, Mieder examines the different sorts of texts so that the reader gets an impression of how the proverbs in Luther King's writings differ in style and background. Moreover, the author considers the different historical origins of the phrases and especially pays attention to proverbs of biblical origin. They make up a huge part of Luther Kings proverbial rhetoric which is attributable to his profession. Finally, Mieder groups the proverbs according to different topics like bodily phrases and economic phrases and investigates to what extent Luther King's own sentences have turned into proverbs. While doing so, Mieder discusses opinions of other scholars when necessary.

Reading the book, I was astonished how Luther King managed to incorporate proverbial phrases of so many various backgrounds into his speeches. Mieder gives the reader an idea about a very talented and reasonable speaker who not only was concerned with civil rights and the injustice of racial segregation, but also kept an eye on global problems like world hunger and the Cold War.

       In his book, Mieder arranges the proverbs according to their different fields of origin, reveals the special quality of Luther King's proverbial rhetoric, and comments on his use of proverbs. Mieder often keeps an appropriate critical distance to his subject, but the reader can deduce the respect the author feels for this gifted speaker. From time to time the scholar gives up this distance and expresses his appreciation for Luther King; on occasion, he even takes the clergyman's side to defend him against plagiarism charges.

       Mieder's work not only has a synchronic but also a diachronic character, since he examines how Martin Luther King changed his sermons and speeches over the years by adding some proverbial expressions or omitting others. This approach by the linguist is helpful because it illustrates how the priorities in Luther King's writings changed, which proverbs have played an important role over years and which became obsolete. To take the 'I have a dream'-speech as an example, Mieder shows its stages of development up to the famous final version, which Luther King presented on August 28, 1963, at the Lincoln Memorial in Washington D.C. On the one hand, this is academically correct and quite informative but on the other hand, it diminishes the joy of reading of some of the chapters when only slight changes distinguish one version from another.

       To my mind the most impressive chapter of the book is “The idea whose time had come moved on” Turning quotations into proverbs. It contains extracts from speeches Luther King held in his last days before he got assassinated. One of his sermons dates from March 31, 1968, just four days before he died. With this background knowledge, Martin Luther King's struggle for peace has an even stronger effect on the reader. In this intense part, Mieder restricts himself to the presentation of the various extracts and compares them to quotations that Luther King adopted from other famous speakers. In this passage, it is sometimes hard to distinguish between extracts from Luther King's speeches and quotations from other famous persons like Abraham Lincoln and Victor Hugo. Here, Mieder should have highlighted Luther King's quotations more clearly.

       A similar problem comes up in some of the longer chapters. There, it can be hard to follow the author's explanations. Some topics and quotations might have been connected more cunningly, in order to avoid any disturbance of the flow of reading. But apart from these minor problems, the content of the book deserves to be praised. It seems that Mieder has covered all important aspects of the topic. He goes well beyond a mere presentation of proverbs and facts. Not only does the reader get detailed information about Luther King's proverbial rhetoric and can experience the power of his speeches; he is also allowed a glimpse into the priest's personality and biography. Mieder can easily be understood, even if the reader does not have any linguistic background knowledge. Thus, Making a Way out of no Way proves to be insightful not only for linguists, but for the general reader interested in Martin Luther King's life and ideas.

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