Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and E.B. White: Controlling the Narrative with the Confidence of Their Readers

by Ean Tam, January 3, 2021

***FALL 2020 CONTEST WINNER***

At first glance, it may seem odd to compare Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and E.B. White. Other than spending their childhoods in Westchester County, New York, what else do they have in common? Ocasio-Cortez is a current United States congresswoman, representing New York’s 14th district. For many, she is a symbol of change: she defeated her well-established primary opponent despite being outspent 18-1; she is the youngest woman to serve in the US Congress; she sponsors bills considered to be radical, such as the Green New Deal and Medicare for all; and she even has an asteroid named after her (Hajela; Mosher). On the other hand, White can be seen as a standard bearer, an idealistic image of an Ivy League-educated white male who came to age before any of the two world wars. Even during the Great Depression, White lived comfortably as a writer for the New Yorker (Heitman). As a co-author of the prolific style guide, The Elements of Style, White has set the bar for writers for decades. His books, Stuart Little and Charlotte’s Web, have influenced countless children as they learn to develop their own styles of writing. Dr. Laura Lisbeth of Stony Brook University characterizes White’s influence as “a tradition in Anglo-American literacy,” for The Elements of Style “certainly turned the English language into a personal expression of his idiosyncratic preferences” (Lisbeth).

Comfortability would not be an accurate descriptor of Ocasio-Cortez’s life. Despite rising from poverty and winning her own voice in the United States Congress, her troubles as a young, idealistic woman of color were far from over. On July 23, 2020, Ocasio-Cortez gave an impassioned speech on the floor of the House of Representatives. She reprimanded her colleague, Representative Ted Yoho, for his offensive remarks that he delivered to her personally on the steps of the Capitol Building. Ocasio-Cortez rebuked not only Yoho’s remarks, but also Yoho’s compliance with a culture that has served to the detriment of women throughout American history. In 1941, almost 80 years earlier, White made his mark in literary history and published his essay “Once More to the Lake” in Harper’s Magazine. In the essay, he details his vacation to a lake in Maine with his son. White weaves in and out between the past and present, merging them together and revealing how some things never change.

As different as Ocasio-Cortez and White are, a common theme between these two works is the past and how it affects our present and future. Because the barrier between past and present is fluid for White, he uses the past as a way of telling the story of the present. Nostalgia would not be enough to describe White’s attachment to his childhood: he actively lives in both worlds. Ocasio-Cortez uses the past not as a point of nostalgia, but as a point of reference from which society should use to change the future. Unlike White, Ocasio-Cortez does not wish to live in the past. She would rather live up to her reputation and change the future for the next generations of women. Both White and Ocasio-Cortez share a common theme, but differ in how they examine the implications. Using rhetorical devices such repetition, parallelism, anadiplosis, and antimetabole, Ocasio-Cortez and White engage their readers with cohesive and rhythmic sentences that display the authors’ control over their narratives. By having this control, both writers can focus their readers to the details and emotions they wish to convey. In return, the readers have confidence in how each author interprets their relationships with the past.

Prominent rhetorical devices used by Ocasio-Cortez and White are parallelism and repetition. In the opening of Ocasio-Cortez’s speech, she describes exactly what Yoho had said to her. She says, “[H]e called me disgusting, he called me crazy, he called me out of my mind, and he called me dangerous” (00:14-01:43). The repetition of the opening, “he called me,” creates an intensity that is palpable to the reader. Even to those in the audience who are already aware of the incident involving Yoho, there is an anticipation built up because of Ocasio-Cortez’s wording. To those who are not aware of Yoho’s remarks, this repetition would be even more enthralling: ‘He did what? He called her what?’ This kind of excitement provides emphasis to Yoho’s comments. There is particular stress on “crazy” and “dangerous.” The parallelism allows the reader to find cohesion (Kolln and Gray 129, 152-153). The remarks Ocasio-Cortez relays to her audience are not broken up by different structures or introductions. She consistently states, “he called me.” This, in effect, keeps the reader focused and attentive to the string of offensive remarks, instilling outrage and disappointment.

A second instance of repetition and parallelism in Ocasio-Cortez’s remarks comes soon after the first. She denies that Yoho’s comments hurt her personally. She says, “Because all of us have had to deal with this in some form, some way, some shape, at some point in our lives” (01:43-03:11). As she repeats “some,” she implies that Yoho’s remarks are not an isolated event; rather, his remarks come in a long line of incidents that Ocasio-Cortez acknowledges she shares with “every woman in this country.” Thus, her use of “all of us” and “in our lives” allows her to build a relationship with the women in the audience. When considered together, the two quotes accomplish three things: instill anger in the audience towards Yoho and disgust towards his remarks, imply Yoho’s remarks are not isolated and are an unfortunate consistency throughout Ocasio-Cortez’s life, and build a shared experience with Ocasio-Cortez’s target audience, which is actually split. She is simultaneously addressing men and women to different effects: men are meant to feel guilty and responsible, while women are meant to feel sympathy.

In his essay, White observes his fellow campers and writes, “This was the American family at play, escaping the city heat, wondering whether the newcomers at the camp at the head of the cove were ‘common’ or ‘nice,’ wondering whether it was true that people who drove up for Sunday dinner at the farmhouse were turned away because there wasn’t enough chicken” (3). Here, White exhibits parallelism in structure. His use of gerunds provide a sense of eloquence and activity. Given White wants to reminiscence in past experiences and merge them with the present, eloquence and activity are welcomed sentiments for the reader. White does not provide the kind of repetition that Ocasio-Cortez has. However, White’s objective of describing the experiences at the lake is made stronger without repetition. Although repetition does not imply the experiences themselves were repetitive, it may lead the reader to believe they were. Ocasio-Cortez uses repetition to make it apparent to her audience that Yoho’s remarks have been a repeated occurance in her life. Thus, repetition may not serve White so well in this manner. After all, why would someone feel nostalgic about a camping experience that feels repetitive? Repetitive would be counter to White’s portrayal of activity and eloquence. Even though White and his son engage in almost routine activities—fishing, swimming, boating—White’s recollection of his childhood negates any sense of the story being repetitive. He says, “You remember one thing, and that suddenly reminds you of another thing” (1). He adds, “I kept remembering everything…. It was like the revival of an old melodrama that I had seen with childish awe.” (4-5). By continuously remembering the first time he ever experienced these activities, White allows himself to reconnect to the “childish awe” those first experiences instilled in him. He is not so much repeating activities, but instead repeating positive emotions. As for the reader, they can see a parallelism in his wording as well as the parallels between White’s past and present but without any perception of repetitiveness.

Both Ocasio-Cortez and White portray themselves as being in control of the narrative. Both of them make their statements from personal sentiments, but from different sources. White derives his purpose from the personal bonds he has forged with his son and his own childhood: years could not separate White from his affections for his childhood memories, sentiments he hopes to pass on to his son. Ocasio-Cortez makes it evident she derives her purpose and conviction from personal wounds: “he called me.” Both Ocasio-Cortez and White build shared experiences. Ocasio-Cortez shares her experiences with the women in her audience. White shares the experiences with himself (past and present), his father, his son, and the other campers. 

The two works differ in how the reader assesses Ocasio-Cortez and White. The reader is meant to feel sympathy and reverence towards Ocasio-Cortez — sympathy for her years of being the recipient of offensive remarks, and reverence for her bravery and solidarity with her fellow women, a stance that many would argue is long-overdue. The reader feels more inclined to involve themselves with Ocasio-Cortez’s narrative, whereas the reader may feel more inclined to ‘sit back and watch’ the narrative being portrayed by White. White’s narrative is unique to himself not only because it is, of course, his personal story, but also because his story evades the circumstances of his time. As White and his son have a nostalgia-filled summer escape to the lakes of Maine, the world is in its second world war, and many sons are dying far away in unfamiliar places. White is afforded the privilege to take his reader for a ride as he navigates his way through past and present experiences that are out of the readers’ control. Ocasio-Cortez, representing herself as a casualty of another person’s privilege, wants to apply the past to the future. The future is never certain and she is addressing all generations of Americans, men and women as well. Ocasio-Cortez forces the reader to think with her about the implications of the past. She has a universal message, whereas White’s message is most definitely not shared amongst the readers of his time. 

In the use of parallelism, an author may feel inclined to also build up to a climax. The term climax used here should not be confused with the climax in a sequence of a story, but it does bear resemblance. Just as a story can develop to a critical moment for its plot, a sentence or set of sentences can end itself with a climax of ideas (Kolln and Gray 49-51). For example, observe how Ocasio-Cortez uses parallelism in this sentence: “I could not allow my nieces, I could not allow the little girls that I go home to, I could not allow victims of verbal abuse and worse to see that, to see that excuse and to see our Congress accept it as legitimate and accept it as an apology and to accept silence as a form of acceptance. I could not allow that to stand which is why I am rising today to raise this point of personal privilege” (04:35-05:49). The parallel structure and repetition introduce a series of clauses with “I could not….” The repeated use of the opening is an example of anaphora (Kolln and Gray 130). The parallelism builds up until Ocasio-Cortez reaches the climax: She could not allow that to stand, and she goes on further explaining her purpose before the House. The climax is the definitive statement. This is where all the repetition and parallelism has led to. This is the most important statement. This is “why [she is] rising today.”

White also creates a climax in his sentence: “We caught two bass, hauling them in briskly as though they were mackerel, pulling them over the side of the boat in a businesslike manner without any landing net, and stunning them with a blow on the back of the head” (2). White uses climax to narrate a specific instant with his son. This is another use of parallelism (continuous use of gerunds) that culminates with the climax of killing the fish. The reader is drawn into this action sequence that is resolved by a climatic finish. It is climactic both rhetorically and in terms of the sequence of events. Both Ocasio-Cortez and White create a climactic point to show their readers that they have reached a control over the ideas, and they are steering the readers toward an end goal. Ocasio-Cortez’s climactic end goal is to show purpose for speaking. White’s climactic end goal is to finish an action sequence. 

Another way Ocasio-Cortez and White take an authority of their narrative is by using short sentences. In order to dispel Yoho’s use of his daughter and wife as part of his apology for his behavior, Ocasio-Cortez issues this statement, “I am someone’s daughter too” (05:49-07:12). She then goes on to claim she will not anguish herself waiting for Yoho to properly apologize: “I will not do that to myself” (07:12-08:18). Short sentences gravitate more attention than longer sentences (Kolln and Gray 29-30). Here are clear instances of Ocasio-Cortez using that fact to her advantage. There is no surprise that both sentences begin with “I.” Ocasio-Cortez wants her reader to feel the impact of these short, yet meaningful sentences. What made her write such short sentences in the midst of her longer remarks? Obviously, it comes from personal conviction: “I am…,” “I will….” Similarly, White uses short sentences. When he describes the nature of the lake, he says, “There had been no years” (3). White wishes to be firm and declarative to his readers in his recollection of events. He asserts with confidence that nothing has changed. The emphasis in the sentence falls on “no.” This strengthens the readers’ trust in White’s narrative. Another short sentence by White is a deliberate fragment. Within his remembrance of the lake, he adds, “Peace and goodness and jollity” (4). White only wants to encapsulate the serenity of the experience. This serenity must not be shared with any other ideas because it is personally significant to White. Thus, a short sentence suffices. 

Both Ocasio-Cortez and White use short sentences to command authority from their audiences. Ocasio-Cortez obtains authority through justified defiance and strong will. White obtains authority through his confidence in detail and assessment. Of course, the authors do not blatantly say, “I am defiant,” or “I am confident in my recollection.” Good narrators will show, not tell. Through short sentences, Ocasio-Cortez and White show these sides of themselves without explicitly telling the audience. 

Throughout their respective pieces, Ocasio-Cortez and White enhance their writing with a play on words. The first device is anadiplosis. This is used when one clause ends and another begins with the same word or phrase (“Anadiplosis”). There are two instances where Ocasio-Cortez uses it in her speech. When she begins a fiery condemnation of men using derogatory terms towards women, she says, “It happens when individuals who hold the highest office in this land admit, admit to hurting women and using this language against all of us” (09:06). In the course of her speech, Ocasio-Cortez insinuates that Yoho has not only wronged her, but also wronged women across the country; he adheres to a terrible culture that has treated and continues to treat women so poorly. Insinuation is one thing, but now Ocasio-Cortez puts special emphasis on “admit” by ending the first clause and beginning the second with the same action. In Ocasio-Cortez’s mind, the act of Yoho admitting he has used derogatory terms towards women is not best served by saying it once. She needs to say it twice and add how Yoho’s admission is an affliction towards “all of us” women. In the second clause, “admit” is not the only word that has emphasis. “Us” also has stress on it, creating an even greater sense of solidarity with her female audience. 

Contrast her first use of anadiplosis with her second use of it: “Treating people with dignity and respect makes a decent man, and when a decent man messes up as we all are bound to do, he tries his best and does apologize” (08:18-09:06). “Decent man” is clearly in the limelight of Ocasio-Cortez’s sentence. This is another instance of showing, not telling. Ocasio-Cortez has branded Yoho as the opposite of a decent man because he admits to his actions but refuses to take the proper responsibility for them. Yoho is evasive and not forthcoming. Characterizing him as such without explicitly saying so can be created by Ocasio-Cortez’s use of anadiplosis. The emphasis and stress allow the reader to infer the intention behind her words. 

White uses anadiplosis in a manner similar to Ocasio-Cortez’s second use of it. Towards the end of his essay, as White begins to make his final assessments of the camping experience, he states, “This was the big scene, still the big scene” (5). It is a conclusive statement, in which White reaffirms that the present lake and camping experience resembles the experiences from his childhood. There is emphasis on “still” and, of course, “big scene.” The reader can feel the confidence White instills in his statement. There is no uncertainty. An alternative way White could have written this sentence is, “This was the big scene, [and it] still [is] the big scene.” We can see here how White uses ellipsis to leave out phrases that are understood (Kolln and Gray 132-133). This omission allows the sentence to be more precise and controlled by White. 

Ocasio-Cortez’s use of anadiplosis is to uphold Yoho to his actions, turn her audience against him, and place herself on the moral high ground. White does not use anadiplosis to reflect badly on anyone else. Rather, he uses anadiplosis to reflect on his own ability to recall detail and connect to the past. Nonetheless, their uses of anadiplosis aid in their ability to command the narrative and direct the readers towards sentiments the two authors want them to feel. This is an indispensable tool, not only for politicians like Ocasio-Cortez, but also for storytellers like White. 

An additional rhetorical device involving repeating phrases is antimetabole. This time, however, the repeated phrases are in reverse. For example, Ocasio-Cortez explains the wife and daughter excuse is a fallacy: “And so what I believe is that having a daughter does not make a man decent. Having a wife does not make a decent man” (08:18-09:06). Ocasio-Cortez reverses “decent man” and creates two different meanings. Her proposition can be more definitively stated as, “Having a daughter does not transform a man into decency. Having a wife does not show the decency of a man.” The use of antimetabole is a witty way for Ocasio-Cortez to explain herself. The purpose of her speech is to condemn the idea that having a daughter or wife excuses inappropriate language towards women. The antimetabole accomplishes this and has the added benefit of being catchy and quote-worthy. Politicians are always searching for the one-liner or debate hook to jab at their opponents. It is evident to the audience that Ocasio-Cortez has found hers.

White also uses antimetabole but more subtly. White says, “I began to sustain the illusion that [my son] was I, and therefore, by simple transposition, that I was my father” (2). White has reversed “was I” from one clause to the other. The purpose of White’s essay is to illustrate how the imagery and sentiments of the lake remain constant, but the roles are transferable: he becomes his father, and his son becomes him. White’s use of antimetabole is an eloquent way of stating this occurrence. Recall how White’s repetition and parallel use of gerunds added an eloquence to his wording. The antimetabole reaffirms that eloquence and engages the reader with the abstract idea of transposition. 

Ocasio-Cortez’s use of antimetabole puts her in a position to judge. Her moral high-ground gives her that responsibility. Her self-identification as a fellow victim gives her the right to confront the culprit. As stated earlier, White exhibits eloquence in his imagery and eloquence in how he describes such imagery. This duality adds to the fairy tale-aspect of his story. Fairy tales, or children stories, usually involve a lot of flowery language to charm the reader with the ‘magic’ of the scene. White authored many children’s books, but he may have excused this essay from that flowery diction. His use of antimetabole helps get similar ideas across to his audience. Without antimetabole, Ocasio-Cortez’s idea would be more lengthy and less characteristic of a political speech, and White’s ideas would lose the essence of eloquence and charm he had been establishing throughout the essay. 

The last major rhetorical tool that Ocasio-Cortez and White share is the use, or lack of use, of conjunctions when creating a series. Polysyndeton is the excess use of coordinating conjunctions, while Asyndeton is the absence of coordinating conjunctions (Kolln and Gray 128-129). Ocasio-Cortez uses asyndeton as she depicts Yoho’s actions as having greater repercussions than he may have assumed. She says, “In using that language in front of the press, he gave permission to use that language against his wife, his daughters, women in his community, and I am here to stand up to say that is not acceptable” (07:12-0:8:18). The list is composed of wife, daughter, and women in the community. Ocasio-Cortez does not put “and” before “women in his community.” Ocasio-Cortez implicates Yoho’s actions as an offense to a never-ending list of women in America. The asyndeton does not give any emphasis to each listed object (wife, daughter, women in community), but it implies the list of victims can go on and on. ‘Victims’ is a strong word, but given the circumstances, it would not be a far cry to assume Ocasio-Cortez wishes to portray women as victims of never-ending misogyny from men. This misogyny coincides with the use of the asyndeton: never-ending misogyny equates to a never-ending list of victims. 

White uses polysyndeton in his essay. In the beginning, he describes why he prefers to go to the lake than the ocean. He claims, “I have since become a salt-water man, but sometimes in summer there are days when the restlessness of the tides and the fearful cold of the sea water and the incessant wind which blows across the afternoon and into the evening make me wish for the placidity of the woods” (1). Here, White uses an excess of “and.” The polysyndeton allows White to list three aspects of the ocean (restless tides, cold water, and wind) without sacrificing emphasis on any one of the three. The excess “and” adds rhythm to the sentence, as the reader bounces from one idea to another. The sentence is lengthy, but White can focus the readers’ attention to the details he feels important to him. White begins his essay by describing a trip to the lake in Maine when he was a young boy, but now he has “since become a salt-water man.” White is his own man now with his own preferences and judgements. He can go where he pleases. So what would compel him back to the lake? What would override his preferences that he has accumulated in the years since boyhood? Evidently, it is the restless tides, cold water, and incessant wind of the ocean. All three can be so brutally harsh that they convince White to turn his back on his own present-day preferences and return to the sanctity provided to him when he was a young boy: a sanctity from his past. 

Ocasio-Cortez and White—separated by decades, circumstance, and purpose—show that rhetorical devices are not limited by genre or style. Kurt Vonnegut said, “Find a subject you care about and which you in your heart feel others should care about. It is this genuine caring, and not your games with language, which will be the most compelling and seductive element in your style” (qtd. in “Quotable Quotes”). Ocasio-Cortez and White, when writing their respective pieces, did not think to themselves, ‘I will use parallelism and anadiplosis to convey my ideas.’ It was the passion that led them through their drafts: Ocasio-Cortez’s passion for change and White’s passion to enjoy the memories of his childhood.

In a chapter of Writing Spaces: Readings on Writing, Craig Hulst writes, “The rhetorical situation of a piece of writing is everything surrounding it—who the audience is, the purpose for writing it, the genre of the writing, etc.” (88-89). The difference in rhetorical situation between Ocasio-Cortez and White is obvious, but the rhetorical devices they used empowered both authors to control the events around them and command the narrative. The reader trusts White’s recollection of his camping experience, and the reader understands how White jumps between past and present and realizes the end of his childhood and the beginning of his son’s. The reader can feel the frustrations in Ocasio-Cortez’s speech. The reader grows disappointed with Yoho’s poor excuse and the culture he perpetuates. The reader can focus on the implications of the issue Ocasio-Cortez addresses, and she engages them to think about how to prevent the future from being a repeat of the past. Some readers may believe White’s essay is an example of his privilege or that Ocasio-Cortez’s judgement is incorrect, but there is no dispute that the correct rhetorical tools gifted the two authors with the means to make their case in the first place.


Works Cited

“Anadiplosis.” Literary Devices, go.shr.lc/2Zia6Ul. Accessed 6 Aug. 2020. 

“Antimetabole.” Literary Devices, go.shr.lc/30RgT6D. Accessed 6 Aug. 2020. 

Hajela, Deepti. “Political Novice Ocasio-Cortez Scores for Progressives in NY.” AP News, The Associated Press, 27 June 2018, apnews.com/45eb9af59317402699b23c4826a8192c. Accessed 7 Aug. 2020. 

Heitman, Danny. “The White Pages.” Humanities, 24 Jan. 2014, www.neh.gov/humanities/2014/januaryfebruary/feature/the-white-pages. Accessed 8 Aug. 2020. 

Hulst, Craig. “Grammar, Rhetoric, and Style.” Writing Spaces: Readings on Writing, edited by Driscoll, Dana, Mary Stewart, and Matthew Vetter, vol. 3, Parlor Press, 2020, pp. 86-99. 

Kolln, Martha, and Loretta Gray. Rhetorical Grammar. 8th ed., Pearson, 2017. 

Lisbeth, Laura. Interviewed by Carolyn Cosentino, Sophia Hoss, Kathy La, and Patricia Paulynn Mallari. The Elements of Style, 26 July 2020, you.stonybrook.edu/elements/laura-lisabeth-interview/

Mosher, Dave. “Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the 28-Year-Old Who Defeated a Powerful House Democrat, Has an Asteroid Named After Her — Here’s Why.” Business Insider, 28 June 2018, www.businessinsider.com/alexandria-ocasio-cortez-asteroid-2018-6?utm_source=copy-link&utm_medium=referral&utm_content=topbar. Accessed 8 Aug. 2020. 

Ocasio-Cortez, Alexandria. United States House of Representatives floor, 23 July 2020, United States Capitol, South Wing, Capitol Hill, Washington D.C. Point of personal privilege. 

“Quotable Quotes.” Goodreads, www.goodreads.com/quotes/3247685-find-a-subject-you-care-about-and-which-you-in. Accessed 6 Aug. 2020.

White, E.B. “Once More to the Lake.” Harper’s Magazine, 1941.


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