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  • "Read, Pause, and Reflect!!"
  • William Huntting Howell (bio)

It is a peculiarly split view of human existence in which symbolizations of meaning operate in a closed universe of their own, divorced from the "real" facts of historical causation.1

To foreground the stakes of my comment, I want to propose two modifications of Tip O'Neill's maxim, "All politics is local." First: All politics is literary. Whatever else it may be, ideology is in part the product of the artful deployment of language; words are necessary, if not always sufficient, structural elements of personal interest, social cohesion, and institutional power. Second: All literature is politics. There is no artful deployment of language that is not beholden to some sort of ideological configuration. To say "literature and political writing"—even in the service of troubling or interrogating the boundaries between the two, as this special issue of the JER does—is to posit difference and conjunction where there is no a priori separation. The work of thinking through the consequences of this continuity exceeds disciplinary specificity: a "close analysis of texts" is not only the "trademark gesture of the literary scholar," as Sandra Gustafson puts it in her introduction to this issue, but also a necessary condition of doing history.

To make this case in miniature, I want to look at a set of related [End Page 293] moments from the presidential election of 1828, in which rhetorical critiques and theorizations of writing become a way of forging (and understanding what it means to forge) political or ideological relationships. First, though, the interested parties: on the one hand, President John Quincy Adams—diplomat, negotiator, crafter of treaties, and eloquent pleader of cases; a man of words. On the other, General Andrew Jackson—Old Hickory, the mute cudgel, a conqueror of territories and a slayer of "enemies"; a man of action. Cast in the popular idiom as a contest between "Adams who can write" and "Jackson who can fight," electioneering in 1828 was not only deeply literary in and of itself but often took the form of what we might think of as literary criticism.2

Consider, for example, the famous anti-Jackson "Coffin Handbill," an anonymously compiled and printed broadside that circulated widely in 1828. Enormous (58 × 42 cm), salacious, vividly illustrated, and textually complex, the object is an artistic wonder: It includes heavy black borders, 18 coffins (representing white men killed by Jackson in his capacities as general, duelist, and aggrieved private citizen), a vivid account (including an engraving) of Jackson stabbing a man in the back with sword-cane, and a poem about Jackson's cruel treatment of six unwitting army deserters. Each of these elements would be worth pursuing in a traditionally "literary" way: The borders and coffins, reminiscent of both an eighteenth-century elegy tradition and of the broadsides commemorating the Boston Massacre of 1770, trade on print-culture commonplaces to align support for Jackson with public mourning and with anti-American violence. The depiction of the stabbing has analogues in the sensational fiction of the time (particularly in the emergent genre of the temperance narrative). The poem is a poem, writing Jackson's refusal to pardon Army deserters into a ballad tradition and elevating his crimes to folk-legendary status. In other words, as political hackery goes, this object is remarkably canny about literary convention and textual form; its [End Page 294] points about Jackson's infamy emerge not only from the gruesome facts it presents but also from the manner in which it presents them. Jackson's political and personal transgressions are not merely newsworthy, they are epical: suitable for the artist's burin, the balladeer's voice, the tragedian's pen. They deserve the theoretical immortality of art.3

But there is another layer to the broadside's interest in literary politics. In between the coffins—just below and to the left of the image of Jackson running through his unarmed counterpart—there is an account of Jackson's participation in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend in east-central Alabama, March 27, 1814. The analysis is decidedly literary-political, observing no distinction between a critique of policy and a critique of prose.



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pp. 293-300
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