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  • The Aesthetics and Politics of the Crowd in American Literature
  • Christophe Den Tandt
Mary Esteve. The Aesthetics and Politics of the Crowd in American Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2003. x + 262.

Mary Esteve's essay examines the political significance of crowds in late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century US literature. Esteve's discussion covers antebellum authors (Walt Whitman, Edgar Allan Poe, and Nathanael Hawthorne), realists and naturalists (Henry James and Stephen Crane), African-American writers from the turn of the twentieth century to the Harlem Renaissance (W. E. B. Dubois, Nella Larsen), and the early practitioners of immigrant fiction (Abraham Cahan, Anzia Yiezerska, Henry Roth). In a gesture reminiscent of the New Historicism, Esteve grants the same status to literary and nonliterary material—philosophy (Immanuel Kant, John Rawls, Jürgen Habermas, William James), late-nineteenth-century crowd psychology (Gustave Le Bon, Gabriel Tarde), or political essays and memoirs (Frederick Douglass, Lydia Maria Child). Yet Esteve's political premises differ significantly from 1980s theory. Instead of endorsing a neo-Marxist ideological critique or a Foucaultian investigation of power apparatuses, Esteve seeks to show that the writers examined in her essay "exhibit a supple understanding of liberal democracy's presuppositions and values" (15). Against the belief, shared by late-nineteenth-century commentators and late-twentieth-century critics, that US culture in the age of crowds veered toward a politics of power dominated by nondemocratic interests, she argues that turn-of-the-twentieth-century literary production illustrates the resilience of a politics of reason and "the viability of mass democracy" (9).

To this purpose, Esteve focuses on the various ways in which writers and essayists handle two psycho-political "dramatis personae"—the crowd and the "public square" (12). These terms, Esteve contends, constitute the defining polarities of liberal politics in mass [End Page 200] democracies. The public square designates congregations of civic-minded, politically structured subjects intent on resolving differences by reasoned, democratic means. As such, it seems to stand as the antithesis of the crowd: human masses, nineteenth-century sociologist Gustave Le Bon argued, are chaotic, oceanic expanses whose energies can be harnessed only by charismatic tyrants. Unlike Le Bon, however, Esteve refuses to endorse the view that mass democracy entails the dismissal of the politically responsible subject. Instead, she means to show that turn-of-the-twentieth-century literature maps out the necessary coexistence of crowd and public square. She builds on Kant's hypothesis that the subject's faculties (Reason, aesthetic judgment, moral sense), though endowed with distinct jurisdictional fields, strive toward complementariness. In this light, the crowd acts as an object of aesthetic apprehension whose contemplation inspires political reflection without annihilating liberally minded citizens' commitment to reason. Abolitionist Lydia Maria Child, for instance, endured "aesthetically 'disagreeable' moments" as she beheld the masses of New York paupers (37). Yet Child's feeling of inhuman alienation, though powerful enough to make her feel she is "turning to stone by inches" (qtd. in Esteve 37), does not, Esteve contends, phase out the abolitionist's "organ of justice" (38): Child's writings allow "for the possibility of being oppressed aesthetically while remaining politically reasonable and responsive" (36).

Esteve is careful not to frame her argument as a representative survey of turn-of-the-twentieth-century intellectual and literary history. In an elegant disclaimer, she lists the numerous crowd scenes her "selective and truncated genealogy" of urban masses will not take into account (1). This "scant attention to historical sequence" (8) suggests conversely that her essay, in spite of its ostensible turn-of-the-twentieth-century focus, pursues an early-twenty-first-century agenda: vindicating a refurbished liberalism against the politics of postmodernism. In this light, her argument's pivotal figures are less James, Child, Dubois, or Roth than her theoretical sources—Kant, Rawls, John Dewey, and a re-centered, de-Marxified Habermas. There are a few compelling moments in this call for reason-based liberalism. Esteve scores an important hit against postmodernist orthodoxy as she highlights alarming similarities between Foucault and mid-nineteenth-century proslavery, pro-Confederate political thinker George Fitzhugh. Both authors, Esteve suggests, endorse "a metaphysics of force and transformation" (34). They refuse the arbitration of reason and therefore...


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