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  • Early-19th-Century Literature
  • Thomas Wortham

As Alexis de Tocqueville noted during the boisterous reign of Andrew Jackson: "The greatest concern and almost the only pleasure which an American knows is to take part in his government and to discuss its measures. . . . If an American were condemned to occupy himself only with his own affairs, he would be robbed of half his existence . . . and his wretchedness would be unbearable." It was a time during which, in the words of one contemporary witness, "politics enters just about everything." Literature was no exception, a fact that Americanists have always known. But the meaning and consequences of the engagement of "literary imaginations" in the public sphere of politics are more complicated matters, and, according to William C. Dowling, in one of the best literary histories of the Early Republic that has appeared in several years, many American writers were driven to more personal spaces by the particular kind of politics that appeared increasingly to dominate public discourse during these formative years. Dowling's Literary Federalism in the Age of Jefferson: Joseph Dennie and "The Port Folio," 1801-1812 (So. Car.) discusses the literary politics of the much-neglected early decades of the 19th century and their legacy on subsequent generations of American writers. The cultural debate between the Jeffersonians and the Federalists has defined for many the ways we imagine the literary and political histories of the 19th century. Dowling looks closely at the example of Joseph Dennie and the origin of "literary Federalism," an intellectual attitude that James Russell Lowell later called "a Toryism of the nerves," which affected so many American writers at the time, including Washington Irving, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Thoreau, and others. It is a finely argued study that brings many issues into greater focus, and it might be the book of the year in the field.

But among the many monographs and articles published during 1999, [End Page 243] it is by no means alone in meriting attention and praise. Edward L. Widmer's Young America: The Flowering of Democracy in New York City (Oxford), a valuable extension of earlier work by Perry Miller, Mary Ryan, Sean Wilentz, and others, examines the group of "ultrademocratic," post-Jacksonian intellectuals in New York who called themselves Young America. They were headed by John O'Sullivan, the editor of the popular periodical Democratic Review, who is primarily remembered for coining the phrase "Manifest Destiny." O'Sullivan's important magazine has long deserved the careful examination and informed literary and historical understanding that Widmer brings to it. On the other side of the political fence, so to speak, is Dorothy C. Broaddus's Genteel Rhetoric: Writing High Culture in Nineteenth-Century Boston (So. Car.), which focuses on the more rarified, aristocratic attitude that came to be increasingly associated with Boston. The agenda of writers and intellectuals associated with this "city on the hill" was designed to save the young republic from its most dangerous egalitarian impulses, but it failed amid the political turmoil of the times.

Also important to an understanding of the Early Republic, Eric Wertheimer reminds us in his book Imagined Empires, were those civilizations that had existed in the Americas before, and through his careful readings of works by William Prescott, as well as Joel Barlow, Herman Melville, and Walt Whitman, he demonstrates with grace and intelligence the influence of this concept of "indigenous origins" on ideas of national sovereignty and the development of an American history narrative.

i Poe

Sometimes it occurs to those of us who have barely survived the last 30 or 40 years of "American literary scholarship" that we would be better served if a moratorium of indefinite length be placed on "critical" studies of Edgar Allan Poe, since so many of them have been bizarre, grotesque, and utterly disconnected to Poe's life and those literary texts that gave that life significance. But then along comes a book like Terence Whalen's Edgar Allan Poe and the Masses: The Political Economy of Literature in Antebellum America (Princeton), and we realize how much more we need to understand about Poe's career, especially in terms of the social and commercial world in which he lived...


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