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  • A Pinnacle of Feeling: American Literature and Presidential Government
  • Alan Nadel
Sean McCann. A Pinnacle of Feeling: American Literature and Presidential Government. Princeton: Princeton UP, 2008. xiv + 248 pp.

Focusing on roughly a dozen American writers, Sean McCann seeks, in A Pinnacle of Feeling, to "clarify the extent to which [they] often were preoccupied with the relations among democracy, nationality, and executive power" (xi; emphasis added). Unclear is McCann's [End Page 163] rationale for selecting the authors of American literature over the 150-year period that the book ostensibly surveys. If the basis is their concern with democracy, nationality, and executive power, the book is distinguished by profound omissions, including Ezra Pound (who famously embraced fascism), T. S. Eliot (who declared himself a "royalist in politics"), Carl Sandberg (a Lincoln biographer), as well as Mark Twain, Henry James, W. E. B. Du Bois, Upton Sinclair, Sinclair Lewis, and Edith Wharton, to name a few.

Its detailed discussion of the Progressive movement from Theodore through Franklin Roosevelt and readings of Gertrude Stein, Zora Neale Hurston, and Henry Roth make the first half of the book interesting. There McCann focuses largely on associating these writers with Abraham Lincoln, or with their interpretation of Lincoln, who may be a Rorschach test for historians of the American presidency. (Amazon lists 2,790 entries for "Lincoln Biography," of which McCann has used a little over half a dozen.) Starting with Whitman's views, McCann demonstrates that Lincoln consolidates contradictory attitudes toward what the populace expects from a chief executive, such that the image of Lincoln as often undermines as confirms specific democratic ideals. Richard Wright's Native Son thus promotes an understanding of executive power that entails a "vision of a world where dignity and liberty might prevail" (27), which, through the idea of martyrdom, links Wright to Allen Ginsberg, Whitman, and Lincoln.

Moving backward in time to Stein, we see how, like Wright, she "was deeply concerned to imagine her writing as a form of political leadership" (36). Foundational to her Progressivist views was evolution theory, which circulated widely among intellectuals of Stein's early adulthood as well as among contemporary politicians such as Theodore Roosevelt and Woodrow Wilson. The strongest portion of A Pinnacle of Feeling explains the progress of evolution along with the evolution of Progressivism, moving from Stein as an emerging American intellectual to her rejection of Progressivism (most clearly indicated by The Making of Americans [1908] and consolidated in the 1920s and 1930s), That evolution merged her doubts about the dynamic leadership associated with liberal individualism with her distaste for paternalism. While only incidentally about presidential governance, this chapter provides a coherent reading of one aspect of Stein's thought.

More belabored, McCann's examination of FDR Progressivism compares Zora Neale Hurston's work with Henry Roth's Call It Sleep on the basis that "Roth's novel makes reference to a means of ending violence that Hurston explicitly considers and then rejects" (90). This chapter, however, betrays a troubling premise: McCann treats fiction and poetry as didactic enterprises, the critic's job being to explain [End Page 164] the author's "message" or the "point" of his book. (One of numerous examples: McCann compares "the lesson taught in The Catcher in the Rye" to "the main point" of The Adventures of Augie March [108].) "Like FDR," McCann thus asserts, "Roth suggests a national sovereignty that protects the weak by curbing the authority of titans and fathers" (90). "If then, we take Roth's embrace of the law as a tacit endorsement of U.S. sovereignty and of the New Deal project of asserting national authority over regional and ethnic traditions, Hurston's antinomianism looks like a rejection of that vision" (94).

In American literature since 1945, McCann chooses authors even more tacit in regard to political positions. Here McCann—like Morris Dickstein in Leopards at the Gate—finds no women to take seriously, although Lillian Hellman, Mary McCarthy, Adrienne Rich, Joan Didion, and Toni Morrison (again, to name a few) might be particularly germane. These women seem excluded equally on the basis of gender and of politics, in that McCann's men reflect his sense that...


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