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  • Executive Designs:Rereading Sovereign Power through Novelistic Style
  • David James (bio)
Sean McCann , A Pinnacle of Feeling: American Literature and Presidential Government , 20/21 ser. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008) ix + 248 pp. $35.00.

"I tried to give meaning by turning myself into a kind of Everyman, my experiences into a microcosm of the whole"; so said Philip Caputo, reflecting on the underlying motivations of his applauded 1977 memoir A Rumor of War (qtd. in McCann 157). Caputo offers a statement of purpose that would resonate with many of the prominent fiction writers included in Sean McCann's A Pinnacle of Feeling: American Literature and Presidential Government, encapsulating as Caputo does that impulse to dramatize the right, or indeed responsibility, of the individual citizen to lend his or her voice to the expression of national destiny. Recent evidence of that desire for self-expression has come in the form of Taylor Branch's unauthorized transcriptions in The Clinton Tapes (2009), where the president covertly pours his heart out in nocturnal recording sessions at the White House.1 Without the benefit of this level of intimacy, twentieth-century novelists found their own means of getting up-close-and-personal with the constitution and evolution of executive governance. How effectively they did so—and how this in turn shapes our retrospective view of [End Page 188] some canonical works of modern fiction—is the point of departure for McCann's ambitiously synoptic book.

That McCann draws attention to what he calls Caputo's "self-consciously artful design" (157) raises metacritical issues about how we read for that experience of executive power in the first place: namely, to what extent literary plots should be taken as allegories of civic leadership, and which formal strategies have been most forcefully enlisted by novelists wishing to present us with "a microcosm of the whole" state. If such relations between narrative form and state power are not always self-evident, it seems surprising not to see them spotlighted more explicitly in McCann's preliminary exposition. For it's here that he could have highlighted precisely what makes A Pinnacle of Feeling so appealing to a readership beyond literary or cultural historians of twentieth-century North America, specifically readers who are interested in the critical question this book raises (if only implicitly) for each of its chronological case studies: the question of how we "calibrate," as Ato Quayson has described it, "the social" and "the literary" as mutually responsive domains.2 This attempt to historicize fiction's participation in public culture— without reducing the text itself to either a symptom of its times or an instrumentalized mouthpiece for the political climate it dramatizes—can be included under the rubric of a recent reassessment of historicism in general (as exemplified by Richard Godden's painstaking study of the historical fibers in William Faulkner's later diction and grammar) and of postwar literary responses to institutional mediation in particular (as shown by a special issue of this journal, Contemporary Literature and the State; Andrew Hoberek's The Twilight of the Middle Class; and Mark McGurl's survey of the intersection of narrative poetics [End Page 189] and compositional pedagogy).3 Notwithstanding their diverse concerns, each of these studies attempts to deepen our sense of how public institutions either constrain or catalyze alternative forms of literary expression. And insofar as that expressivity is a formal one, each of these scholar-critics contributes something to the analytical debates circulating around the aims of what Caroline Levine has aptly called "strategic formalism."4

Now, it wouldn't be quite accurate to call McCann a strategic formalist. And his encyclopedic introduction, "'The Executive Disease': Presidential Power and Literary Imagination," assumes the guise of a thematically copious documentary, largely at the expense of narrative technique. But by deftly kicking off with Richard Wright's Native Son (1940), McCann quickly familiarizes us with one of his book's overarching points of interest (crystallized in Wright's case), which is to examine both the way novelists [End Page 190] have "sought to make literary use of social reform," as Amanda Claybaugh has put it, and the more antagonistic link between artistic "ambitions and the very...


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