- The Illiberal Imagination: Class and the Rise of the U.S. Novel by Joe Shapiro
One of the first and, for many writers down to the present, one of the last words on class in the US was offered by Benjamin Franklin in 1782, when he observed that there are “in that Country few People so miserable as the Poor of Europe, there are also very few that in Europe would be called rich; it is rather a general happy Mediocrity that prevails” (Writings , 975). This central plank of the exceptionalist narrative has been restated and reformulated ever since, by nineteenth-century economists like Henry C. Carey through to twentieth-century literary critics like Lionel Trilling, whose 1950 book The Liberal Imagination is ironically alluded to in the title of Joe Shapiro’s incisive new study of the pre–Civil War American novel. Contesting the “liberal consensus model of U.S. literary history,” within which the nation has always been hegemonically middle-class, Shapiro intends to show that “the consolidation of the early U.S. novel includes the representation of class inequality and class struggle” (3).
That Shapiro needs to articulate such an elemental argument in the twenty-first century goes to show how deeply America’s long history of disavowing class continues to resonate. Despite its wide-ranging exposure and rectification of Cold War–era criticism’s blind-spots concerning race and gender, for example, the New Americanist school of the late 1990s and early 2000s left the issue of class consistently implicit, and—during this same period—the Americanist wing of the New Economic Criticism, for all its emphasis on the culture of capitalism, tended to treat literary texts as symbols of financial exchange rather than documents of class conflict. Only with the revival of Marxian thought in the wake of the 2008 banking crisis, and the renewed attention to the cultural grievances of white workers prompted by the election of Donald Trump, has the question of class now started to become more central for US-focused literary scholars. Thus, The Illiberal Imagination joins a small but significant body of recent work, from critics such as Stephen Shapiro, Dana Nelson, and Ed White, dedicated to situating the early American novel within an anti-exceptionalist model of class relations.
To say that The Illiberal Imagination is intended to assert what should be a straightforward thesis is not to say, of course, that its analysis lacks complexity and nuance. Indeed, in moving the slim tradition of class-oriented studies of the American novel, which has mainly focused on the Gilded Age, back in time, Shapiro also moves beyond this tradition’s vital but sometimes narrow concern with the recovery of working-class voices. Accordingly, rather than searching American fiction for evidence of anti-bourgeois resistance, Shapiro explores how major “U.S. novelists through the 1840s work to construe the existence of class inequality as natural, right, and desirable” (4). Chapter 1, for instance, reads Charles Brockden Brown’s Ormond (1799) and Arthur Mervyn (1799–1800) as bildungsromane which “represent poverty as potentially beneficial to individuals subjected to it and, by extension, work to ratify the inequality of which this poverty is a symptom.” Chapter 2 positions Hugh Henry Brackenridge’s picaresque Modern Chivalry (1792–1815) not, in the usual vein, as a balanced satire of Federalism and Jeffersonianism but as a formally systematic defense of the political necessity of elites against a burgeoning egalitarianism (37). Similarly, Catharine Maria Sedgwick’s sentimental novels of the 1830s are unpacked for the ways in which they “continue the project of legitimating class inequality in [End Page 595] the United States” by privileging a supposedly providential interdependence of classes over the tenets of an emergent Christian Socialism (110). James Fenimore Cooper’s Littlepage trilogy of the mid-1840s, which revolves around New York’s Anti-Rent Wars, is explored for its refutation of the social levelling envisaged by antebellum land reformers. It was only with the onset...