Democracy (American History Through Literature)
In the October 1837 inaugural issue of the United States Magazine and Democratic Review, an antebellum journal dedicated to strengthening democracy in politics and literature, the editor John O'Sullivan (1813895) expressed the democratic thrust of the era when he announced that "all history has to be
As suggested in O'Sullivan's first editorial, 1837 is a signal year in the rhetoric of American nationalism, during which a renewed interest in revitalizing American culture was displayed by a literature infused with democracy. This is also the year of Ralph Waldo Emerson's (1803882) "American Scholar" address to the Phi Beta Kappa Society at Harvard, in which he denounces European literary tradition in favor of a sense of newness and youth in American books. Emerson asks young scholars to take up the project of renewing American democracy by creating a literature that breaks with "the courtly muses of Europe" and moves away from antiquated political and social thought. For Emerson, seizing the freedom to "speak our own minds" means that "a nation of men [sic] will for the first time exist" in American letters and culture (pp. 10405).
Orations on American patriotism in the antebellum era, such as one delivered at Brown University in 1840 by Thomas Kennicutt, a popular New England lecturer, displayed this Emersonian insistence that it was the "duty of literary men of our country" to revive the "democratic principle in civil society" (Kennicutt, p. 5). Writers of the early and mid-nineteenth century were thus charged with the responsibility of promoting a political and cultural revolution through the creation of a literature that would best express the spirit of a young America destined to spread democracy throughout the world.
JACKSONIAN DEMOCRACY AND YOUNG AMERICA
Andrew Jackson (1767845), who served two terms as the seventh U.S. president from 1828 to 1836, was significant in defining the terms of democracy in the early nineteenth century. Jackson and his followers portrayed the Democratic Party and its policies as progressive and egalitarian in contrast to what they characterized as the antidemocratic aristocracy of the Whigs. In his claims to represent the American electorate and to advance democracy, Jackson embodied this democratic impulse, declaring himself a man of the people. For Jackson, the "people" were not rising capitalists, leaders of business and industry, or entrepreneurs; instead, Jackson understood "the people" to be mechanics, laborers, and farmers. Under Jackson, the concept of a popular or majority rule took hold; Democrats denounced elitism and aristocratic pretensions, heralding instead the rights of the citizenry, insisting that the will of the people be represented by their elected leaders. By most historical accounts, Jackson is seen as largely responsible for effecting this political and cultural transformation of the United States from a republic, governed by an elect few, to a democracy. Jackson persuaded Americans that sovereign power resided in themhat they would control the governing process by deciding questions of constitutionality, law, and representation through the ballot box.
Many writers, philosophers, and activists were also convinced by Jackson's rhetoric of democracy, believing that more concern for the rights of common individuals would yield a more inclusive political and cultural environment receptive to the ideals of a younger generation of Americans. Emerson, for example, calls for young scholars to transform themselves into "Man Thinking," "free even to the definition of freedom" (p. 97). For Emerson, this movement toward self-rule, wherein individuals treat each other as "sovereign state[s]," reflects the embodiment of "an analogous political movement," the impulse in Jacksonian democracy in which "new importance [is] given to the single person" (p. 103). The political and intellectual trend that Emerson recognizes was animated by a group of literary critics in New York who aligned themselves with the more liberal faction of the Democratic Party. This group of critics and writers became known as Young America, and the earliest members included the prominent New York City activists and editors Cornelius Mathews, Evert Augustus Duyckinck, William A. Jones, and the Democratic Review editor John O'Sullivan.
At the intersection of political sentiments and the production of literature in antebellum America, the Democratic Review had two primary aims: to give liberal intellectuals a voice to effect political and social change and to promote a democratic American literature that would better represent the interests of the proletariat. Young Americans, encouraged by O'Sullivan to muse overtly on the connections between art and liberty, were attempting to realize the promises of social equality, interpreting democracy as a harmonization of the actual condition of individuals in society with their acknowledged rights as citizens. In an 1842 article in the Democratic Review, "Democracy and Literature," O'Sullivan makes clear his intention to publish work in favor of literary democratic freedom: "Literature is not only the natural ally of freedom, political or religious; but also affords the firmest bulwark . . . to protect the interests of freedom" (p. 196). Through the Democratic Review, O'Sullivan was attempting to create a community of revolutionary intellectuals, like Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804864) and Walt Whitman (1819892), as literary agents for social change.
THE LITERATURE OF YOUNG AMERICA
During his tenure at the Democratic Review from its inception in 1837 until Evert Duyckinck (1816878) took over the magazine in 1846, O'Sullivan published the bulk of Hawthorne's stories, housed Whitman's earliest major publications, included many of James Fenimore Cooper's (1789851) writings, provided an outlet for abolitionist writers Catharine Maria Sedgwick (1789867) and John Greenleaf Whittier (1807892), and even published work by Edgar Allan Poe (1809849), although the latter frequently voiced his critique of the Democratic Party. Having just published his Twice-Told Tales, 1837 is a watershed year for Hawthorne as well, as he begins to publish most of his work in the Democratic Review, including the short story "Rappaccini's Daughter" and nearly all the stories later collected in Mosses from an Old Manse (1846). Hawthorne was particularly influential in inspiring other writers to join the cause of Young America's democratic revolution, most notably a young Herman Melville (1819891), who praised Hawthorne's Mosses as the greatest work of fiction by an American in his 1850 tribute "Hawthorne and His Mosses," which appeared in the Literary World.
The influence of Young America and the milieu of the Democratic Review can be seen in some of Hawthorne's better-known novels, such as The Scarlet Letter (1850) and The House of the Seven Gables (1851). In his introduction to The Scarlet Letter, "The Custom-House," Hawthorne's description of himself as a "Locofoco Surveyor" suggests his sympathies with the Jacksonian faction of the Democratic Party in his use of the term "locofoco," derived from the name of the matches used to relight the 1835 meeting of New York Democrats after dissenters turned off the lamps. Salem Whigs later accused Hawthorne of locofoco activity and released him from his governmental post, resulting in Hawthorne's sense of alienation as suggested in his declaration, at the end of the "The Custom-House," of himself as a "citizen of somewhere else" (p. 157). Similarly, in The House of the Seven Gables, Hawthorne expresses a distrust of the influences of the past that closely echoes Emerson's ideas about the need to move beyond the authority of an older period. Through Holgrave, a character who symbolizes the reformist tendency of the era, Hawthorne articulates the Emersonian imperative for society to reject "Dead Men's forms and creeds" in order for a younger generation to have a "proper influence on our own world" (pp. 509, 510). In Holgrave, Hawthorne presents an archetype of the ideals and vision of a Young America struggling to redefine the promises of democracy.
The Democratic Review also provided an early forum for Whitman's writing in the 1840s and 1850s; Whitman seemed to inherently understand O'Sullivan's push for a literary democracy as seen in his insistence that a nation's literature must emanate from its political beliefs and practices. Whitman reiterated the platform of Young America almost to the letter, calling for the younger generation to usurp the old in order to revive American democracy. In addition to his pieces in the Democratic Review, Whitman's musings on democracy were printed in the Brooklyn Daily Eagle, a journal already enjoying a strong standing among newspapers in New York and throughout the country when Whitman took over as editor in 1846. In an editorial this same year, "Perpetuity of the Democratic Spirit," (Gathering of the Forces 1:6) Whitman speaks as the voice of the people seeking to regenerate the democracy envisioned by Thomas Jefferson (1743826) and his contemporaries: "We stand here the inheritors of their principles and opposed to the same foehe foe of equal rights. Democracy must conquer again as it did thennd more certainly than it did then" (p. 9). As seen in these editorials, and throughout his poetry, Whitman's understanding of democracy takes on religious significance as a sense of faith that transcends and endures despite political movements and systems; for Whitman, the "true Democratic spirit is endued [sic] with immortal life and strength" (p. 7).
Whitman's 1855 preface to his collection of poems Leaves of Grass highlights his Jacksonian understanding of the importance of "the common people" and their "deathless attachment to freedom" in defining the true "genius of the United States" (p. 450). As seen in the poem's tributes to ordinary people and objects, Leaves of Grass displays Whitman's vision of a democratic art form that fused the desire for political democracy with an egalitarian concern for the experiences of everyday people. In Leaves, Whitman also declared independence from traditional poetic forms and subjects, pioneering a free verse style that rejected conventional patterns of rhyme and meter. Although his mixture of the sacred and the profane in Leaves distanced and offended many nineteenth-century readers, poets and critics have since noted the importance of Whitman's unconventional style in exhibiting Emerson's call for literary independence. For Whitman, the poet was the voice of this patriotism, incarnating the people and their quest for liberty, thus embodying the Young American movement for the "transcendant [sic] and new" (Leaves, p. 452). Whitman's poet is one of the masses, a "bard . . . commensurate with a people" (p. 450), serving their interests by being the "voice and exposition" of their quest for political liberty (p. 459). Just as Emerson's "American Scholar" address influenced a new generation of Americans to be forward-looking in developing a literature to express the democratic spirit of the nation, Whitman's 1855 preface to Leaves served as a manifesto for a new American poetry that would supplant outdated traditions.
Whitman's optimistic view of democratic transcendence resonates with the democratic vision of John Greenleaf Whittier, who wrote for the Democratic Review a decade earlier. The journal published a significant amount of Whittier's work, including the poem "Democracy," first published in the Review in 1841 and later collected in Lays of My Home, and Other Poems in 1843). Whittier's abolitionist, anticapitalist, and pro-labor beliefs can be seen in his vision of a democracy that sees with an "impartial eye" through which "fade the lines of caste and birth!" Whittier's democratic vision unites the "groaning multitudes of earth" who under its benevolent eye become "equal in their suffering." Democracy for Whittier has a transformative effect, erasing class and racial boundaries so that there are no divisions between "prince or peas-antlave or lord Pale priest, or swarthy artisan." Democracy's eye sees beyond what Whittier refers to as "all disguise, form, place or name" and instead "lookest on the man within" (p. 63). As demonstrated in this poem and throughout his active political and literary life, Whittier's understanding of the necessity for a democracy that represents people of all social strata provides another response to Emerson's plea that American writers embrace the everyday experiences of commonplace people. Whittier's optimistic rejuvenation of democracy, however, recognizes the existence of vast social inequalities that were plaguing the United States and threatening its cohesion.
DEMOCRACY FOR ALL?
The 1840s and 1850s witnessed significant political and cultural changes concurrent with the Young American call for equality, as seen in the strengthening of reform movements that focused on denouncing materialism and organizing efforts to correct social and economic abuses. This reformist impulse in American culture and literature, however, raised debates about the meaning of liberty and freedom in a democratic society. Many reformers believed that Jacksonian policies and practices excluded women, African Americans, and Native Americans from the democratic vision of Young America.
The late Jacksonian era is characterized by the expansion of the United States both domesticallyearly a doubling of its spatial domainnd abroad, as America pursued territorial and economic advantages in places like Hawaii, Cuba, and China. This expansionism fulfilled the dream of Jacksonian Democrats, embodied in the concept of Manifest Destiny. John O'Sullivan first coined the infamous phrase in his article "Annexation" in the Democratic Review in July/August 1845. For O'Sullivan and other Jacksonian democrats, the acquisition of land was crucial for the success of a new and distinctly American political and economic system. Writers of this era espoused a belief in Manifest Destiny as part of the democratic mission of Americanism; Whitman, for example, argues for the importance of the West as a site for democracy in his 1847 article "Where the Great Stretch of Power Must be Wielded." Whitman expresses the sentiment of the era when he claims that the Westthe boundless democratic free West!"epresents the future of American progress and liberty (Gathering, p. 25). Jacksonian Democrats believed that territorial expansion would foster harmonious relations by uniting people across geographical boundaries; expansionism, in this sense, would bring about the spread of democracy.
Many scholars have noted that Jacksonian expansionism displays antiabolitionist tendencies and racial fears that fueled the acquisition and conquest of lands. As early as Jackson's first term in the 1820s, the issues of slavery and of Indian removal animated questions about American democracy. Outspoken critiques of America's mobile quest for democracy can be seen throughout the literature of the mid-century. For example, John Rollin Ridge's 1854 novel The Life and Adventures of Joaquin Murieta, the Celebrated California Bandit demonstrates Ridge's firsthand understanding of Jacksonian Indian removal. Ridge's Cherokee family fought with arms and in the courts against such policies before ultimately signing treaties that led to their eventual removal on the Trail of Tears, which claimed the lives of more than four thousand Cherokees on their trek westward. Ridge's novel represents an important response to the colonization impulse frequently overlooked in studies of the literary democracy of Young America. Women writers such as Fanny Fern (Sara Payson Willis Parton, 1811872), Lydia Maria Child (1802880), Catharine Maria Sedgwick, and Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811896), among many others, also fictionalized their experiences of exclusion from the promises of democratic equality. They were influenced in part by the first woman's rights convention in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1848. Organized by the abolitionists Elizabeth Cady Stanton (1815902), Lucretia Mott (1793880), and other Quaker women, the Seneca Falls Convention called for social and civic equality between women and men. Stanton's Declaration of Sentiments remains a significant document of the rights of women; modeled after the Declaration of Independence, this pivotal piece of literature from the convention lists the injustices done to women by men, much as the earlier Declaration listed the grievances of the colonists against British rule. The resolutions adopted at the convention included a call for suffrage, which would enable women to secure for themselves the promises of democracy.
One of the fewer than fifty men present at Seneca Falls was the ex-slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass (1818895). Douglass wrote and spoke widely on the topic of equality for African Americans in the 1850s and 1860s, depicting the vast inequalities between blacks and whites in the United States as bringing about the degeneration of America's proclaimed national values and ideals. In one such speech, delivered in Corinthian Hall in Rochester, New York, on 5 July 1852, Douglass characterizes America as a young nation at the "beginning of [a] national career." He invokes the rhetoric of Young America to argue for a resurgence in the democratic ideals upon which the nation was foundedemocratic ideals that might ultimately "be shrouded in gloom" if the enslavement of blacks continued ("Oration," pp. 4). Douglass also invokes the language of the Declaration of Independence as a reminder of the democratic principles of the nation's founding, encouraging white Americans to "stand by those principles," which he describes as the "ringbolt to the chain of your nation's destiny" (p. 9). The fundamental question Douglass asks of his white audience is: "What have I, or those I represent, to do with your national independence? Are the great principles of freedom and of natural justice embodied in that Declaration of Independence extended to us?" (p. 14). In so asking, Douglass makes clear the disparity between whites and blacks, brought about largely because of American slavery. In this speech, he ultimately rejects the Fourth of July as "yours not mine," declaring the memorial a hypocrisy on the democratic principles of liberty and equality (p. 15). Throughout his life and career, Douglass insisted that the emancipation from slavery was fundamental to the full realization of American democracy; anything less, for Douglass, was a mockery of America's discourse on equal rights. He was ambivalent, though, on the speediest means to achieving this democracy, initially imploring African American men to enlist during the Civil War, for example, yet later withdrawing his support of enlistment because he believed black men were not being recognized as soldiers equal to whites. This sense of ambivalence about the promises of democracy can be seen in the literature of a second-generation Young American, Herman Melville, whose novel MobyDick (1851) displays both assenting and antagonistic responses to Young America's democratic nationalism.
DEMOCRATIC TENSIONS AND THE WHITE WHALE
Literary democracy underwent another shift in the 1840s when Evert Duyckinck became the literary editor of the Democratic Review. Duyckinck had a conspicuous part in this second wave of Youn Americanism, heralding a series published through Wiley and Putnam, a prominent New York publishing house where he was also an editor, called the Library of American Books. In this series, Duyckinck attempted to realize his democratic literary vision, publishing a wide range of affordable paperback editions of works by popular and lesser known writers including Hawthorne, Whittier, the early feminist writer Margaret Fuller (1810850), and Caroline Matilda Kirkland (1801864), who wrote about the American West. This series was important for the advancement of Duyckinck's populist ideology and the democratization of literature because it encouraged the publication of first-rate books at affordable prices in order to reach the widest possible audience.
In Duyckinck, Melville found a Young American role model and encouragement for the unrefined writing of his early novels, Typee (1846), Omoo (1847), and Mardi (1849). Although Duyckinck hailed the latter, in particular, as purely original, he found Melville's vision in Moby-Dick too far beyond the pale of his own democratic idealism to accept, instead issuing an aggressive and devastating review of the novel in the Literary World in 1852. Moby-Dick suggests the influence of Duyckinck's Young American teachings on Melville's nationalism. This is particularly evident at the end of chapter 26 ("Knights and Squires"), which has been read as Melville's defense of Jacksonian democracy. Echoing the work of Emerson and Whitman, Melville lauds the laboring class as infused with a "democratic dignity" and appeals to a "democratic God"he "centre and circumference of all democracy"s the bearer of the "Spirit of Equality" (pp. 12627). However, Moby-Dick also reflects Melville's pessimism and cynicism about American politics and culture, as suggested in the chapter "The Whiteness of the Whale." This chapter ends with Melville's musing on the "centre and circumference" of democracy, symbolized here in the white whale, as duplicitous, perhaps merely one of the "subtile deceits" lacking in real substance (p. 212).
In prophesying the unfulfilled promises of democracy, Moby-Dick suggests Melville's awareness of the racial and imperialist rhetoric underscoring the era's democratic proclamations. Melville was writing the final drafts of Moby-Dick in 1850 when the Fugitive Slave Law extended the rights of white slave owners by requiring citizens to assist in the return of fugitive slaves. Read in this context, the novel suggests that Melville's democracy requires a dismantling of racist institutions and laws point of view not held by more moderate Young Americans. Melville's critique of Young America's softening ideology can be seen more overtly in the "Young America in Literature" chapter of his next novel, Pierre (1852), which barely disguises Melville's dislike of the fickle editorial world represented by Duyckinck. Although it disturbed Melville's contemporaries, Moby-Dick nonetheless confirmed Young America's belief that literature needed to have democracy at its core.
Reconstruction policies after the Civil War suggest a failure to achieve democratic equality; the 1860s and 1870s, for example, saw the veto of bills that would have granted greater freedom and equality to African Americans, and despite laws against segregation and the passage of the Fifteenth Amendment, which guaranteed enfranchisement of African Americans, racial discrimination was still widespread, economic advancement for blacks still limited, and the struggle for female suffrage unresolved. In Democratic Vistas (1871), his indictment of American materialism, Whitman diagnoses the problems plaguing America as stemming from a hypocrisy at the core of its nationalism and once again calls for "a new founded literature" to breathe a "recuperative" breath into "these lamentable conditions" (Leaves, p. 477). The older Whitman held onto his vision of political and literary democracy, pleading for a nationalism that would "prove itself beyond cavil" and grow out of a "great original literature . . . to become the justification and reliance . . . of American democracy" (pp. 47071). As suggested in Whitman's musings on America's new vistas, although Young American politics receded, the cultural impact of democracy continued to be a pervasive influence on the creation of a national literature literature of hope and independence.
See also Democracy in America; Individualism and Community; Reform; Utopian Communities; Young America
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