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Reviewed by:
  • The Crowd in American Literature
  • Sanford E. Marovitz
Nicolaus Mills. The Crowd in American Literature. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State UP, 1986. 146 pp. $20.00.

Although the phenomenon of "the crowd" has been subject to recent study by historians, Nicolaus Mills observes near the opening of this small volume that in American literature it has been largely neglected in favor of Adamic, pastoral, and individualistic themes, an oversight he attempts to correct with The Crowd in American Literature. By a crowd, Mills means a group that cannot fit in a room but can "be contained in a public hall or square." Through exploring literary treatments of "three major crowd types—the revolutionary crowd of Adams and Jefferson, the majority crowd of the classic American novel, and the working-class crowd of America's social realists," Mills believes that he can provide with his study "a basis for redefining the meaning of [a democratic] society in American fiction."

In the opening chapter he indicates that despite certain well-known differences between them, Adams and Jefferson agreed that crowds could be a legitimate political force against tyranny and that they "could act with discipline and restraint." His argument here on revolutionary crowds is well documented and persuasive. [End Page 313]

Chapters Two and Three are the longest of the four that constitute the main text of the book, and both were published in only "slightly different form" a few years earlier. In them Mills examines but few works, though the cultural-historical context in which he discusses the fiction is broad and perceptive. The second chapter devotes some attention to Cooper but focuses mainly on a limited selection of writings by Hawthorne, Melville, and Twain in which the crowd is exposed as a group readily subject to authoritarian leadership against democratic individualism. His brief treatment of Hawthorne's "My Kinsman, Major Molineux" is appropriate but unoriginal, though he does make a case for the functional value of crowds in The Scarlet Letter. Of Moby Dick, his description of the Pequod's crew as a unified "mob" under Ahab's compelling influence is not convincing; his discussion of the influence is well focused, but it provides little if anything new. The segment on Twain deals chiefly with A Connecticut Yankee and Huckleberry Finn, in that order. In both, Mills has been overly selective in the crowds he describes, and his attention in the latter to "a 'crowd' of fifteen armed farmers who pursue Jim when he escapes' ' is misplaced because so small a group does not conform with his definition of crowd as presented earlier—and putting quotation marks around the word only confirms his recognition of the discrepancy but cannot justify it. Misspellings—such as "Ann" for Anne Hutchinson, and "Steelkit" for Steelkilt—are trivial in themselves, but they are annoying, especially in so short and limited an overview of American literature.

In Chapter Three, Mills treats the crowds of four novels in detail, placing them effectively in the social context. In this chapter there is a consistent pattern of development recognizable from the earlier to the later fiction: Howells' A Hazard of New Fortunes; Dreiser's Sister Carrie; and Steinbeck's two proletarian novels, In Dubious Battle and The Grapes of Wrath. Mills demonstrates that although the crowds of laboring people and the poor in these carefully selected novels become better organized as the decades pass, they do not become more effective against the increasingly overbearing and at times violent methods employed by the large exploitative companies to counteract them.

Chapter Four, a coda more than a conclusion, is a welcome but too-limited excursion into postwar literature, the only example of which he analyzes is Ellison's Invisible Man. His point is that technological advances in the media have made the impression conveyed by a crowd more important than the crowd's own actions. An appendix, "The Crowd in American Painting," is thematically relevant, but it shows little effort to relate the art of Mills's four artists to the literature. Consequently, it is a tangential essay that complements but does not help develop the literary thesis of the book. At best The Crowd in American Literature constitutes...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-658X
Print ISSN
0026-7724
Pages
pp. 313-314
Launched on MUSE
2009-01-01
Open Access
No
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