Critical Evaluation

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In Democracy, Madeleine Lee represents Henry Adams’s own efforts to influence American politics, and her ultimate rejection of Ratcliffe represents Adams’s frustrations with the U.S. political system. As the great-grandson of U.S. president John Adams and the grandson of U.S. president John Quincy Adams, the younger Adams had a strong sense of the ideals inherited from the time of the nation’s beginnings.

In his autobiography, The Education of Henry Adams (1907), Adams describes his childhood, which was spent in the atmosphere of the late eighteenth century, a mood still surrounding family homes in Boston and nearby Quincy. He also describes his early relationship with his grandfather, the former president. This sense of the past kept him from ever completely accepting the raucous and rapidly industrializing society of his own day. Like Lee, Adams was a member of the elite, and despite his ties to the founding leaders of the nation, he remained an outsider and a spectator rather than an actor, as he describes himself in the autobiography.

From the time of his graduation from Harvard in 1858 until 1860, Adams traveled and studied in Europe. Soon after his return, the new U.S. president, Abraham Lincoln, appointed his father, Charles Francis Adams, minister to the United Kingdom. Henry accompanied his father as private secretary. During this time as a close spectator of political events, Henry developed the idea that he could best influence American democracy through journalism. Character Lee’s disenchantment with the philosophical study of Herbert Spencer and other fashionable thinkers reflects Adams’s own decision to turn from intellectual activities to active involvement in politics through journalism.

Also like Lee, Adams was disappointed and frustrated with his efforts at political reform. He took up journalism in Washington, D.C., in 1868, at the beginning of the administration of President Ulysses S. Grant, an honest man unfamiliar with the devious politics of the late nineteenth century who presided over a period of notorious corruption.

It is unclear exactly when Adams wrote Democracy. It was published anonymously in early April, 1880, and only in 1918 did the publisher reveal Adams as the author. However, the political schemes of Ratcliffe and his associates could easily be drawn from activities Adams witnessed in Washington.

One of the great strengths of Democracy as a political novel is that it is the view of an outsider with an insider’s understanding of the workings of American politics. Among later writers, Gore Vidal—also the scion of a political family—comes closest to Adams as an observer of government through fiction. Adams also is a master of prose style, and his writing is incisive and witty. However, his greatest works are probably his histories and his autobiography. The scenes in Democracy, although vivid portrayals of Washington life, tend to give the impression of staged sets. The characters in the novel are interesting, but they are not completely three-dimensional and lifelike.

Despite its limitations, Democracy is an important work of American literature not only because it is an early example of the political novel but also because it illustrates so many of the trends of the second half of the nineteenth century. The novel is a study of the growing collusion of business and government, the conflicting cultural attitudes of Americans toward Europe, the increasing sympathy with the defeated South, and the rise of new classes of individuals to power, among other topics.

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