Commentary Magazine


Democracy and the Novel, by Henry Nash Smith

The Literary Marketplace

Democracy and the Novel: Popular Resistance to Classic American Writers.
by Henry Nash Smith.
Oxford. 204 pp. $13.95.

With his 1950 study, Virgin Land, Henry Nash Smith won a permanent welcome on the shelves of readers who want and somehow still hope to find unusual, lively, and significant criticism of American literature. In that book, Smith discussed two opposing ideas of the trans-Mississippi frontier that alternately enticed and repelled expansion into the sub-humid prairies of the West: the idea of the “Garden of the World,” and the idea of the “Great American Desert.” He blended serious literary work and the evidence of popular culture—circulars and ads—into a fascinating and responsible critical narrative. After Virgin Land, two fine studies of Mark Twain appeared, keeping readers eager for Smith’s next general work. The publication of his new book, challengingly entitled Democracy and the Novel, has been greeted with enthusiasm by the reviewers, but it does not fulfill the promise of its title.

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The classics of American fiction that emerged in the mid-19th century did not come out of nowhere. Since the late 18th century, Americans had been writing and selling novels in the modes of Richardson, Edgeworth, Godwin, Austen, and other English authors. Scott and Dickens had made America a nation of novel readers, had even created our publishing industry and opened up our inland waterways for the distribution of the immensely popular pirated English wares. But the work of Hawthorne and Melville, which burst upon the Anglo-American literary scene in the 1850′s, was strikingly original, and there is surely a case to be made that a prime factor in that originality was the impact of democracy on the American novel.

By 1825, when Melville was six, Hawthorne twenty-one, and Dickens thirteen, manhood suffrage was substantially the rule in our Northern states, forty years before anything of the sort was achieved in England. American intellectuals became a race of politicos, talking, grasping, breathing the quotidian atmosphere of democracy—literal democracy, rule by the people. The historians Samuel Eliot Morison and Henry Steele Commager have evoked the all-pervasive democratic ambience which in the early 19th century enveloped American lives from cradle to grave, from parlor to statehouse, from tavern to capitol, and made American intellectuals different from their British contemporaries:

In contrast to its British prototype . . . the American party became tri-dimensional, functioning not only in federal but in state and municipal elections. . . . The newer state constitutions . . . transferred many offices from the appointive to the elective class . . . sheriffs and justices of the peace, heads of executive departments such as the state-treasurer and attorney-general, even judges of the higher courts, were now elected by the people. . . . Furthermore, these constitutional changes were effected [by] a popularly elected constitutional convention, with a popular referendum on the result. The most noted statesmen were elected to the state conventions, the people took a keen interest in them, and voted intelligently on their work.

Hawthorne’s entire career was affected by his friendship at Bowdoin with a college classmate, Franklin Pierce, who would be a Democratic President of the United States. Others of his classmates would be Senators, Representatives, judges, cabinet members, governors. Among them were two black men who became governors of African colonies. And Bowdoin College, it should hardly need pointing out, was no Oxford, and no Harvard,

Put a man like Hawthorne, temperamentally a recluse and aristocrat, into the hurly-burly of American democracy and something of a literary breakthrough will result. This, I believe, can be shown from the text of The Scarlet Letter itself. As for the long obstreperous essay Hawthorne set at the head of the novel, “The Custom-House,” this fixed his stance as a new species of writer—one who, in the world’s only democracy, was “made happy, at monthly intervals, with a little pile of glittering coin out of his Uncle’s pocket,” who sought shelter “under the wing of the federal eagle,” and who coped “with the customary infirmity of temper that characterizes this unhappy fowl.”

Indeed, long before 1850, Washington Irving had used Rip Van Winkle to show what it was like to be a democrat in post-colonial America. Rip comes down from the mountain, having slept through the Revolution, to find George Washington rather than King George painted up on the tavern sign, and a crowd of village politicians:

The very character of the people semed changed. There was a busy, bustling, disputatious tone about it, instead of the accustomed phlegm and drowsy tranquility. . . . A lean, bilious-looking fellow, with his pockets full of handbills, was haranguing vehemently about rights of citizens—elections—members of congress—liberty—. . . . The orator bustled up to him and . . . inquired “on which side he voted?”. . . . Another short but busy little fellow pulled him by the arm, and rising on tiptoe, inquired in his ear, “whether he was Federal or Democrat?” Rip was equally at a loss to comprehend the question. . . .

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Unfortunately, none of this political matter interests Henry Nash Smith. The excitement promised by his title, Democracy and the Novel, is drained by his dreary subtitle, “Popular Resistance to Classic American Writers,” which returns us to the stalest of clichés about American literature: that the absence of an aristocratic elite and the presence of a philistine mass public made life difficult and art unprofitable for the American writer. This is hardly what the word democracy implies.

There was nothing new—in America or anywhere in the 19th century—in the striation of the reading public into those who wanted the best, the mediocre, and the trashy; there was nothing distinctively American in the popular craving for sensation, sentiment, piety, uplift, humor, and melodrama, which affected every mid-19th-century writer from Flaubert to Dickens (and in the case of the latter, fired up much of his genius). Yet Smith sets out to prove that the runaway sales of a few unworthy American novels crushed the originality, diminished the quality, and blighted the careers of the best American writers. If the thesis could be proved it might hold some interest; but it seems to bore even its author. In desperation he resorts to the latest fashion in academic circles: the pursuit of a single villain on whom everything that was wrong with American society and debilitating in American thought can be blamed. The villain in this case is Woman, and particularly the phenomenon which has recently come to be labeled the “feminization of American culture.”

In the 1840′s and 1850′s, Woman wrote Jane Eyre (to which The Scarlet Letter was compared when it appeared three years later). Woman also wrote Mary Barton, and Consuelo, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and sold The Wide, Wide World and The Lamplighter in hundreds of thousands of copies—thus provoking Hawthorne’s outburst about a “damned mob of scribbling women.” American women also took over a leading public role in the abolitionist movement, and began to fight seriously for the vote. Now, it would be onerous but not impossible to demonstrate that both Hawthorne and Melville, like their male contemporaries in England, recognized the formidable mid-century rivalry of writing and thinking women, and that their work was affected thereby both for good and for ill. It would be very difficult, but worth a try, to show that the sharp and niggardly practices of some Yankee publishers pushed our best writers away from the hard work of letters and toward the easy temptations of the spoils system of American democracy. Instead of doing either of these things, Henry Nash Smith offers critical essays on a variety of novels, ill-assorted as to quality and period: The Scarlet Letter, Moby-Dick, H.W. Beecher’s Norwood, Howells’s A Modern Instance, Huckleberry Finn; and two strong chapters on Henry James’s lifelong effort to manipulate the literary marketplace. He has not written about democracy and the novel.

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