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  • Men's Worlds
  • Bryan Waterman (bio)
American Sympathy: Men, Friendship, and Literature in the New Nation. Caleb Crain. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001. 310 pp.
Founding Brothers: The Revolutionary Generation. Joseph J. Ellis. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2001. 288 pp.
Affairs of Honor: National Politics in the New Republic. Joanne B. Freeman. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2001. 376 pp.

Though the three authors and texts under consideration differ significantly in approach, emphasis, and conclusion, they share a common subject: emotional, political, and literary relationships between and among elite white males in the early United States (or, in Crain's case, through the late nineteenth century). In some cases the relationships are romantic (or Romantic); in some, they are no less emotional, though founded in enmity rather than friendship. In almost every instance, the interpersonal relationships are accompanied either by literary production or by regulatory social rituals or institutions, sometimes both. In the subjects' lifetimes, these relationships and cultural forms not only facilitated private emotional fulfillment or unrequited longing but also amounted to "reputation" and "public opinion," topics only Freeman addresses explicitly; in our own time the fruits of these friendships or interpersonal conflicts amount to history and literature, and all three studies suggest a host of reasons to investigate the links among friendship, fraternal association, and cultural production. [End Page 537]

None of these books individually delivers an explicit and coherent interpretation of these links (though they each yield various other payoffs); but, taken together, the books suggest several reasons—biographical, cultural, literary—for further work on the topics listed in Crain's subtitle. One reason these ongoing investigations are important is that they should help us better understand those aspects of early republican literature that Michael Gilmore has recently described as an emphasis on "collaboration rather than individual authorship" unparalleled in any other historical period (550). What forms do these collaborations take? Are they primarily interpersonal, or supported by institutional forms of association like freemasonry or the federal government? And what kinds of texts do these collaborations and associations generate? Crain, Ellis, and Freeman all demonstrate, I believe, that such acts of collaborative production can no longer be read simply as "republican" gestures, as modes of authorship that predate a liberal literary marketplace. The stories these books tell complicate easy distinctions between republican and liberal modes of literary production; they also implicitly address and perhaps can help us resolve such perennial debates among early Americanists as the tensions between cultures of print and speech, and the distinction between literary and political public spheres.

Of the three authors, only Crain explicitly takes "literature" as a subject. One of the most distinctive features of the engagingly written American Sympathy—its unapologetic use of biography—helps us plot the ways Crain's concerns overlap with the historians'. Like Ellis and Freeman, Crain investigates not only the personal relationships between prominent figures but also the self-consciousness with which they performed for contemporaries, if not for the historical record. Crain approaches these issues through four case studies: friendships among a circle of young Philadelphians in the 1780s; Charles Brockden Brown and a series of young male friends in the 1790s; Emerson, his Harvard classmates, and later the Transcendentalists, from the 1820s to the 1840s; and Melville's seamates, as they resurface in Billy Budd. His primary aim, he explains, is to investigate "the transition from life into literary art" (13). The sides of that equation are not always balanced: with Brown and Emerson, Crain spends almost equal time examining "personal"writing (letters, diaries) and literary endeavors, but the opening chapter on the young Philadelphians leans more toward biography than literary criticism and the final chapter on Melville is the [End Page 538] least explicitly biographical. Crain's principles of selection are never stated, but what unites this cast of characters is a particular form of desire that Crain sees residing at the crossroads of life and art. The title of his book would suggest that this desire is best characterized as "sympathy," a word that rarely seems, in the worlds Crain recreates, to have meanings beyond homosocial—sometimes proto-homoerotic—desire between men.

Certainly, as his brief overview...


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