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Writing the Republic

Writing the Republic: Liberalism and Morality in American Political Fiction

Anthony Hutchison
Copyright Date: 2007
Pages: 256
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    Writing the Republic
    Book Description:

    In this provocative book, Anthony Hutchison challenges the belief that the American novel is "antipolitical" and condemns the relative absence of American literature in studies of the political novel. In Hutchison's view, our fiction is always informed by the complexities of the American political tradition, and to acknowledge this is to introduce a new, rewarding chapter of critical inquiry into the study of American literature.

    Focusing on the works of Herman Melville, Gore Vidal, Russell Banks, Lionel Trilling, and Philip Roth, Hutchison finds a critique of liberalism put forth by classical republicanism, transcendentalism, Marxism, and neoconservatism at their respective moments of historical ascent. He shows how these authors take very specific historical periods and episodes for their subject matter and interrogate, critique, and contextualize pivotal moments in the intellectual history of American liberalism. In their work, liberalism reconstitutes itself in the face of competing ideological pressures, demonstrating that the novel is very much characterized by a "republican" concern with the health of the polity.

    Considering such artists, philosophers, and theorists as Ralph Waldo Emerson, Fyodor Dostoevsky, Hannah Arendt, and John Dewey, alongside numerous contemporary commentators and historians, Hutchison repositions American novelists as serious political thinkers. He reveals Melville'sMoby Dickto be the formal template for the American political novel and compares and contrasts its embodiment of "republican" fiction with the "democratic" mode Mikhail Bakhtin associates with Dostoevsky. He especially draws attention to the meaning of republicanism in the early national period, the place of abolitionism in the Civil War, and the post-1930s liberal retreat from Left radicalism.

    By concentrating on the tension between issues of liberalism and morality in the political thought of these American novelists, Hutchison hopes to advance a more nuanced and textured understanding of the U.S. political tradition. He scrutinizes a number of critical studies and makes a cogent case for a more interdisciplinary approach to the American political novel that focuses less on the politics of representation and more on the representation of politics.

    eISBN: 978-0-231-51190-2
    Subjects: Language & Literature, History, Political Science
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Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents (pp. vii-viii)
  3. ACKNOWLEDGMENTS (pp. ix-x)

    Tocqueville’s early recognition of an intimacy between literary and sociopolitical traditions emerges alongside his view that in a democracy “each generation is a new people.” This leads him to suggest that the literature produced by democracies such as the United States may well be characterized by a certain immaturity, manifest in “facile forms of beauty, self-explanatory and immediately enjoyable.” Unhampered by the weight of a literary tradition and its accompanying “anxiety of influence,” writers in a democracy need merely respond to readers who “above all … like things unexpected and new.” The style cultivated among such authors will thus “often...

  5. PART I The Nineteenth-Century Context
    • 1 ELUSIVE REPUBLICANISM: Thomas Jefferson and the Foundations of American Politics in Gore Vidal’s Burr (pp. 3-29)

      In the immediate post–World War II period, the political tradition of the United States was explained in terms of the triumph of liberalism and, in particular, the liberal political philosophy of John Locke. America’s self-image, it was claimed, was rooted more or less exclusively in Lockean “natural rights.” Such rights were part of a contract freely entered into by citizens, the consent of the governed premised on institutionalized recognition of the private individual’s entitlement to life, liberty, and property. For its proponents, the liberal, pragmatic disdain for ideology that grew out of such a “privatized” notion of rights constituted...

    • 2 “OUR DIVINE EQUALITY”: Russell Banks’s Cloudsplitter and the Redemptive Liberalism of the Lincoln Republic (pp. 30-60)

      In August 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered his famous oration “The American Scholar,” exhorting the young men of the Harvard Phi Beta Kappa society to free themselves from the dead hand of the past and, more specifically, “the sacredness which attaches itself to the act of creation.”¹ This “intellectual declaration of independence,” as Oliver Wendell Holmes was later to describe it, has often been viewed as a response to the prevailing European criticisms of early American culture and society as shallow and rootless, impoverished by the absence of tradition. Emerson’s confident call for the young nation to seize the possibilities...

  6. PART II The Twentieth-Century Context
    • 3 IDEAS IN MODULATION: Marxism and Liberal Revaluation in Lionel Trilling’s The Middle of the Journey (pp. 63-95)

      There are many historical-contextual factors to be borne in mind when distinguishing between the respective political agendas advanced by the Old and New Left. Arguably, the most important of these is the absence from the latter’s historical experience of a politically and intellectually transformative economic crisis equivalent in magnitude to the crash of October 1929. “The historical context of the Old Left,” as John Patrick Diggins has remarked, “was the abundance of poverty; that of the New Left, the poverty of abundance.”¹ Indeed, it would be difficult for the intellectual historian to overstate the ultimate effect of the Depression on...

    • 4 LIBERALISM BETRAYED: Neoconservatism and the Postwar American Left in Philip Roth’s American Trilogy (pp. 96-168)

      If Lionel Trilling’sThe Middle of the Journeyoffers invaluable insights into the relationship between liberals and radicals at the time of the Moscow trials, then it also, in some quite striking ways, seems to foreshadow the unraveling of this relationship during Senator Joseph McCarthy’s meteoric rise to national prominence in the early years of the cold war. Trilling based the character of Gifford Maxim on Whittaker Chambers, a CPUSA member and acquaintance of his in the 1930s who by the end of that decade had exchanged communism for Christianity. Most famously, after the war, Chambers was to expose a...

  7. CONCLUSION WRITING THE REPUBLIC: Moby Dick and the Form of American Political Fiction (pp. 169-186)

    In the latter half of the 1960s, Irving Howe developed and refined some of the themes he had discussed in the previous decade connected with the relationship between politics and the American novel. InPolitics and the Novel(1957), Howe, taking his cue from the myth critics, had been more or less content to dismiss the American novel as hopelessly imprisoned by a “politics of isolation.” His 1967 essay “Anarchy and Authority in American Literature,” however, signaled a retreat of sorts from this view by tracing a latent political strain in classic American fiction. This turned out to be a...

  8. NOTES (pp. 187-204)
  9. BIBLIOGRAPHY (pp. 205-220)
  10. INDEX (pp. 221-230)