- Die tugendhafte Republik: Politische Ideologie und Literatur in der amerikanischen Gründerzeit. [The Virtuous Republic: Political Ideology and Literature During the Founding of the American Nation]
In Disney's animated film The Emperor's New Groove (2000), the villain's naïve right hand, Kronk, listens to the angel and devil on his shoulders advise his troubled conscience. The angel wants to lead him "down the path of righteousness," while the devil promises to take him "on the path that rocks." Dietmar Schloss's provocative book not only touts Republican virtue as the ruling ideology motivating the literature of post-revolutionary America but his work also attempts to lead early Americanists toward a more ethical pursuit of literary criticism. Indeed, Schloss claims that recent scholars have subjected the authors and works of the early Republic to postmodern theoretical predilections, such as the craving for hidden agendas and the search for acts of political, cultural, and social subversion. Scholarship that blatantly disregards the professed goals of Republican authors in order to fit their writings into twentieth-century critical frameworks thus "violates the ethics of human communication and turns the interpretation of historic texts into a farce" (15). Schloss admits that recent critics—including Davidson, Stern, and Barnes—have wrested the literature of the early Republic from the long shadow of the American Renaissance and turned the early novel—by politicizing it—into a scholarly favorite. Yet, Schloss contends, such popular and critical acclaim has been purchased at the expense of scholarly forthrightness and historical [End Page 193] precision. In spite of the scholarly depth and interpretive strength of Schloss's own work, I doubt that most readers will allow the author to lead them down the supposed path of critical righteousness. Wouldn't we much rather read and teach The Coquette, for instance, as an indictment of the double-standards ruling the patriarchal society of the early Republic than a championing of a "separate-spheres model" in which circles of female sociability provided a degree of moral and intellectual—if not political and social—emancipation?
Notwithstanding its corrective agenda, Die tugendhafte Republik is not a jeremiad on the state of our profession. Schloss argues that much of the misunderstanding of the literature of the early Republic stems from our failure to recognize the progressive or reformist dimensions of Republican ideology. Most recent critics have dismissed or neglected the conformist character of this literature, because they cannot fathom that authors of the early Republic defined themselves not in opposition to the state but as guarantors of virtue in the public sphere. Republican virtue thus not only informs the celebratory "pseudo-epics" (22) of the Connecticut Wits but also the popular novels often grouped under the blanket term "sentimentalism," as well as the utopian writings of the "new intellectuals" (22) Elihu Hubbard Smith and Charles Brockden Brown. While these three areas form the center of Schloss's literary analysis, his book begins with an extensive review of recent historiographic debates about Republicanism, a history-of-ideas discussion of the topos of Republican virtue from antiquity to the early national period, and finally a nuanced but controversial discussion and revision of previous scholarship on the status of women in the early Republic.
Historical overviews take up the first half of the book, and even subsequent sections of literary analysis begin with lengthy discussions of other critical voices ("Forschungsüberblick"). Schloss himself justifies this somewhat cumbersome manner of finding his own argument by explaining that the debate about Republicanism among American historians has received little attention in Germany. The unfamiliar structure of this monograph, moreover, stems from the implicit requirements of the German academic system, especially those governing the "Habilitationsschrift" (a second "dissertation" necessary for gaining tenure status) on which Schloss's book is based. Instead of following the essay format structuring American monographs, each chapter is strictly subdivided into logical [End Page 194] units that provide historical background information ("The Classical Republican Model...