6 Speeches by American Authors for Secondary ELA Classrooms

American authors such as John Steinbeck and Toni Morrison are studied in the secondary ELA classroom for their short stories and their novels. Seldom, however, are students exposed to the speeches that have been given by these same authors. 

Giving students a speech by an author to analyze can help students better understand how each writer effectively meets his or her purpose using a different medium. Giving students speeches allows students the opportunity to compare an author's writing style between their fiction and their non-fiction writing. And giving students speeches to read or listen to also helps teachers increase their students' background knowledge on these authors whose works are taught in middle and high schools.

Using a speech in the secondary classroom also meets the Common Core Literacy Standards for English Language Arts that require students to determine word meanings, appreciate the nuances of words, and steadily expand their range of words and phrases.  

The following six (6) speeches by famous American authors have been rated as to their length (minutes/# of words), readability score (grade level/reading ease) and at least one of the rhetorical devices used (author's style). All of the following speeches have links to audio or video where available.

01
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"I decline to accept the end of man." William Faulkner

William Faulkner.

The Cold War was in full swing when William Faulkner accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature. Less than a minute into the speech, he posed the paralyzing question, "When will I be blown up?" In confronting the terrifying possibility of nuclear war, Faulkner answers his own rhetorical question by stating, "I decline to accept the end of man."

Faulkner slows the rhythm of the speech for emphasis:

...by reminding him of the courage and honor and hope and pride and compassion and pity and sacrifice which have been the glory of his past.
02
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"Advice to Youth" Mark Twain

Mark Twain.

Mark Twain's legendary humor begins with his recollection of his 1st birthday contrasted with his 70th:


"I hadn't any hair, I hadn't any teeth, I hadn't any clothes. I had to go to my first banquet just like that."

Students can easily understand the satirical advice Twain is giving in each section of the essay through his use of irony, understatement, and exaggeration. 

Here, Twain satirizes lying:

"Now as to the matter of lying. You want to be very careful about lying; otherwise you are nearly sure to get caught. Once caught, you can never again be in the eyes to the good and the pure, what you were before. Many a young person has injured himself permanently through a single clumsy and ill finished lie, the result of carelessness born of incomplete training."
03
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"I have spoken too long for a writer." Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway.

Ernest Hemingway was unable to attend the Nobel Prize for Literature Ceremony because of serious injuries sustained in two airplane crashes in Africa during a safari. He did have this short speech read for him by United States Ambassador to Sweden, John C. Cabot.

The speech is filled with litote-like constructions, starting with this opening: 

"Having no facility for speech-making and no command of oratory nor any domination of rhetoric, I wish to thank the administrators of the generosity of Alfred Nobel for this Prize."
04
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"Once upon a time there was an old woman." Toni Morrison

Toni Morrison.

Toni Morrison is known for her literary efforts to recreate the power of the African-American's language through novels to preserve that cultural tradition. In her poetic lecture to the Nobel Prize Committee, Morrison offered a fable of an old woman (writer) and a bird (language) that illustrated her literary opinions: language can die; language can be become the controlling tool of others. 

  • Author of: BelovedSong of SolomonThe Bluest Eye
  • Date: December 7, 1993
  • Location: Stockholm, Sweden
  • Word Count: 2,987
  • Readability scoreFlesch-Kincaid Reading Ease 69.7
  • Grade Level: 8.7
  • Minutes: 33 minutes audio
  • Rhetorical device used: Asyndeton Figure of omission in which normally occurring conjunctions (and, or, but, for, nor, so, yet) are intentionally omitted in successive phrases, or clauses; a string of words not separated by normally occurring conjunctions.

The multiple asyndetons speed up the rhythm of her speech:

"Language can never 'pin down' slavery, genocide, war."

and 

"The vitality of language lies in its ability to limn the actual, imagined and possible lives of its speakers, readers, writers."
05
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"-and the Word is with Men." John Steinbeck

John Steinbeck.

Like other authors who were writing during the Cold War, John Steinbeck recognized the potential for destruction that man had developed with increasingly powerful weapons. In his Nobel Prize acceptance speech, he expresses his concern stating, "We have usurped many of the powers we once ascribed to God."

Steinbeck alludes to the opening line in the New Testament's Gospel of John:1- In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. (RSV)

"In the end is the Word, and the Word is Man - and the Word is with Men."
06
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"A Left-Handed Commencement Address" Ursula LeGuin

Ursula Le Guin.

The author Ursula Le Guin uses science fiction and fantasy genres to creatively explore psychology, culture, and society. Many of her short stories are in classroom anthologies. In an interview in 2014 about these genres, she noted: 

" ... the task of science fiction is not to predict the future. Rather, it contemplates possible futures."

This commencement address was given at Mills College, a liberal arts woman's college, she spoke about confronting "the male power hierarchy" by "going our own way." The speech is ranked #82 out of 100 of America's Top Speeches.

I hope you tell them to go to hell and while they’re going to give you equal pay for equal time. I hope you live without the need to dominate, and without the need to be dominated. I hope you are never victims, but I hope you have no power over other people.