Sean Wilentz: The Rise of Illiterate Democracy

Roundup: Historians' Take

The nonfiction best-seller lists these days are often full of partisan screeds labeling Democrats as elitist traitors and Republicans as conniving plutocrats. But look over on the fiction side, and politics appears almost nowhere. Some critics read Philip Roth's "Plot Against America" as an allegory of the current White House, and there have even been a few blunt and appalling political fantasies, like Nicholson Baker's "Checkpoint," a brief dialogue between a man who wants to assassinate George W. Bush and a friend who wants to talk him out of it. But unlike the ubiquitous nonfiction tub-thumpers, today's novels rarely take the grubby business of ordinary politics, past or present, as a subject, let alone an activity in which their authors might participate. Contemporary party politics, which once inspired writers as different as James Fenimore Cooper, Mark Twain and Robert Penn Warren, is terra incognita. The separation of church and state is hotly contested; the separation of literature and state seems to have become absolute.

It was very different during the formative era of American democratic politics before the Civil War. Some observers of that time, it is true, claimed that American democracy would never encourage profound writing. "The inhabitants of the United States have, then, at present, properly speaking, no literature," Alexis de Tocqueville wrote in the second volume of "Democracy in America," published in 1840. Tocqueville thought democracy would some day produce "vehement and bold" novelists, and poets who explored "some of the obscurer recesses of the human heart." But when that distant day arrived, he supposed it would have little to do with the frenzied moneymaking and party politics that dominated the New World.

Tocqueville was wrong. By the late 1830's, a formidable, self-consciously American literature blossomed, sponsored in part, oddly enough, by the country's political parties, especially the Democrats. In 1837, a new monthly, The United States Magazine and Democratic Review, appeared, financially backed by Democratic Party leaders. (Former President Andrew Jackson took out the first subscription himself.) Alongside articles on partisan machinations, the first issue presented poems by John Greenleaf Whittier and William Cullen Bryant, and a fictional sketch by Nathaniel Hawthorne....

Until recently, this partisan world of letters had been forgotten. It came as a revelation to reviewers of Brenda Wineapple's 2003 biography of Hawthorne that her subject truly was as implicated in Democratic Party politics as he himself had said he was in the preface to "The Scarlet Letter," where he described his chagrin at losing a patronage job at the Salem custom house after the Whigs captured the White House in 1848. A few excellent books over the last several years, including David Reynolds's "cultural biography" of Whitman, Edward L. Widmer's "Young America" (a study of the Democratic Review circle), and Andrew Delbanco's just-published study of Melville, have also cast fresh light on their subjects' evolving political ties.

But general awareness of the old connections between literature and party politics is still lacking. Not since Arthur Schlesinger Jr.'s "Age of Jackson," now 60 years old, have major political histories of the era considered literature at all relevant to an understanding of the Democrats and Whigs....

[T]he collapse of the old alliance between politics and literature indicates how much American democracy has changed since the Jacksonian era, and not entirely for the better. Democracy has been broadened far beyond what Jackson himself could have imagined, but our politicians' prose is reduced to, at best, hollow sentimentalism and, at worst, a manipulative semi-literacy of a kind that would have made the supposed barbarian Andrew Jackson wince. The memory of a time when American party politics was worthy of a writer's respect, let alone professional involvement, has almost disappeared. American literature has distanced itself from an essential part of national life, and American politics has debased what was once an uplifting language of democracy.

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