Democracy: Skepticism Versus Cynicism

This is the third in a series of posts between myself and Jennifer Howard about Henry Adams’ 1880 novel, Democracy. Read her first post.


Your point about Madeleine’s transgression is right, and, yes, a little chilling: Her mistake isn’t so much getting stuck between two romantic rivals, Ratcliffe and Carrington, but within the politics that drive the competition between them in the first place. Like you, I can try read Democracy as a romance, but recognize that doing so only goes so far because—as you point out, Adams can be so black-hearted. Maybe he’s set the tone for the serious novel about Washington politics, which has to strip itself of optimism lest you come off as a Pollyanna. I’m reading Thomas Mallon‘s forthcoming Watergate—a novel that owes a lot to Democracy, I think, and which also reminded me of the imposing statue that Adams commissioned for his wife’s grave marker. It’s jet black, scoured clean of anything that suggests redemption, and evokes bottomless grief. And yet, when ever I wind up in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, I always make a point to visit the replica there. That’s just the kind of person he was.

So while I want to be reassuring and say that there are points where Adams wants to give democracy a chance, I don’t think his heart was ever in it—there’s no silver lining he can’t find a storm cloud in. But I’ve wondered, perhaps like you, why I found the novel so enjoyable in spite of all that, because I wouldn’t enjoy a novel that simply took whacks at D.C., however cleverly.

I think a couple of things are at play—aside from Adams’ quick wit, which I mentioned in my first post about the book. Adams can also brandish what I suppose you might call slow wit, a way of setting a scene that captures both its beauty and it complexity. Think of the virtuoso opening paragraph of chapter six, when we finally escape the airless gloom of D.C. and head down the Potomac to Mount Vernon. The passage shifts from charming and pastoral—“one is conscious of walking in an atmosphere that is warm, palpable, radiant with possibilities.” Soon enough, though, Adams reminds us that however pretty Virginia might be in February, “at no other season is there so much [guile].… Wealth, office, power are at auction. Who bids highest? Who hates with most venom? Who intrigues with most skill? Who has done the dirtiest, the meanest, the darkest, and the most, political work?” [58]

I won’t try to convince you that this is proof that Adams is an upbeat guy because he can appreciate D.C. in spring just like you and I can. But I do think the scene exists because Adams wants to remind us that he’s operating with a moral compass—by bringing his characters out into the outdoors, he highlights the immorality of what’s going on back in the capitol, and frames the Ratcliffe’s venality as not just as a matter of breaking the law but as a kind of crime against nature.

Madeleine herself exemplifies this kind of push-and-pull, trapped as she is between a culture of corruption and her own better nature. About midway through the novel she makes a crucial observation:

Underneath the scum floating on the surface of politics, Madeleine felt that there was a sort of healthy ocean current of honest purpose, which swept the scum before it, and kept the mass pure. [98]

Of course, later in the novel she’ll make a discovery about Ratcliffe that’s proof that the place is just scummed up again. But I think the fact that she makes that discovery is part of Adams’ point: D.C. is not in a downward spiral so much as a state of constant flux, an ugly but essential process of scumming and de-scumming. For all the criticism people make about reformers throughout the book, nobody suggests that the reformers’ instinct will ever be absent in the capitol.

And that’s the root of Madeleine’s heroism: Adams brings her to the very edge of the corruption she observes, but never lets her fall off the cliff. That feeling is never more clear to me than in the moments after Ratcliffe delivers what may be the most cynical and calculating marriage proposal in all of literature. She’s “fitted better than any woman I ever saw, for public duties,” he tells her. “Your place is there. You belong among those who exercise an influence beyond their time.” [154] Setting aside her eventual decision (and we’ll get to that when we talk about the book’s climax, I suspect), Madeleine is well aware of what she’s getting sucked into, and the dangers inherent in it. Adams describes the question being “presented to her face like a pistol.”[158]

So there’s your bright side, though I admit it’s pretty dim: In Madeleine we’re rooting for an uncalculating intelligence and (to use a word that wasn’t in use in Adams’ time) self-actualization. She’s our hero because, unlike so many around her, she “dissected her own feelings and was always wondering whether they were real or not.” [108]

But we’ve barely gotten past the three characters at the core of the plot. What did you make of some of others swimming around the narrative, like Madeleine’s sister, Sybil, or Lords Dunbeg and Skye, or Victoria Dare, or Hartbeest Schneidekoupon? What role are they playing? Comic relief? Different degrees of striving in a status-obsessed city?

Democracy: A Funny Town for a Woman

This is the first post in a discussion on Jennifer Howard‘s blog and mine about Henry Adams‘ 1880 novel, Democracy. For more background, you can read my introductory post as well as Jennifer’s.


So, why did we decide to do this again? Right: We were both talking about the gaps in our reading when it comes to novels about Washington, D.C. Though I’m not the native you are—I moved here in 2007—I’ve tried to catch up as best I can with the city’s literary background. I’m left with mixed feelings. I admire Ward Just, though his fiction mostly sticks to legislators and journalists; Edward P. Jones has written brilliant stories set in the District, so brilliant I keep wishing he’d write a District-set novel to match The Known World; Christopher Buckley can be very funny when he skewers the town, but he does it with a very broad satirical brush. In the same way D.C. has a kind of unstable, not-quite-there status as a non-state, there seems to be a great novel about the District that’s still waiting to be written.

Is Democracy that book? Maybe it’s too old or specific in focus to qualify itself, but it does clear a very high hurdle in making legislative parrying entertaining. Writing about Democracy in 2010, Christopher Hitchens identified one problem with writing about the federal D.C. that trips up a lot of writers (or perhaps prompts them to avoid the subject altogether): “Washington is and always has been irretrievably bogged down in process,” he writes. “And process doesn’t generally make for electrifying prose.” What struck me almost immediately about Adams’ novel is that while it doesn’t exactly make process electrifying, he can often makes it very funny. The tone of the novel seems exactly right for a wonkish culture that functions through scheming and horse-trading but dresses it up in proclamations of egalitarianism and high values. Once you’ve finished it, it’s clear that the first laugh line in the book is the title of the book itself; it ought to be in scare quotes (“Democracy”) to make clear that Adams was mocking anybody who tried to apply the term to America with a straight face.*

Some of the jokes are straight gags that could have come out of Twain. The novel’s heroine, Madeleine Lightfoot Lee, is a widow arriving from New York to understand Washington’s culture in general and its power structure in particular, and we learn early that she “had not entered a church in years; she said it gave her unchristian feelings.” [11] Pondering Ratcliffe, one of the Senators who vies for her attention and affections, Adams writes that “she wanted to understand this man, to turn him inside out; to experiment on him and use him as young physiologists use frogs and kittens.” [20] Later, when Madeleine and Ratcliffe discuss Charles Darwin, she patiently tolerates the Senator’s puffing about how highly evolved legislators are as a class, before demolishing him with one line: “You are rather hard on the monkeys.” [52]

The fact that the protagonist of the novel is a woman matters a lot when it comes to the book’s sense of humor, I think. For one thing, seeing the novel from a woman’s perspective automatically makes it an outsider’s narrative, and as such open to being written as a kind of anthropology report from a strange land. (It wasn’t until 1917 that Congress had an elected female legislator—Jeannette Rankin, who just happened to be born the same year Democracy was published.)

But also, Madeleine being a woman—and an unattached one at that—amplifies the preening and egotism that consume so many of the powerful men in the novel. Part of the fun in that is watching how, over time, these men become more candid about Washington’s machinations in her presence—she hardly has to lift a finger to get these frogs dissected. In one early scene, Ratcliffe and some colleagues are gathered in Madeleine’s home, and she asks the question at the heart of the novel: “Is a respectable government impossible in a democracy?” It’s a formal parlor-chat question, and Ratcliffe responds in kind, diplomatically suggesting that if you “try to purify the government artifically…you only aggravate failure.” Another guest deems it a “very statesmanlike reply,” [37] but Adams notes the “shade of mockery” in his voice—it’s clear Ratcliffe isn’t being honest. A little later, at another party, Ratcliffe will be: “If our virtue won’t answer our purpose, we must use vice, or our opponents will put us out of office, and this was as true in Washington’s day as it is now, and always will be,” [71] he tells a fellow senator. Another guest wants to change the subject—“the conversation verges on treason,” he says. No mocking tones or shades thereof are identified; before the book is half finished Madeleine has cut through the polite gestures and found the cynicism and corrosion at the heart of the place.

There’s more to say about that, especially when it comes to some of the discoveries that Madeleine makes about Ratcliffe and his rival Carrington, and in the romantic subplots involving Madeleine and her sister, Sibyl. But I’ve a typed enough already. Your turn, Jennifer: Did the book make you laugh? Could this story have worked with a male lead?

*Adams, who wrote the book anonymously and wasn’t identified as its author until 35 years after it came out, had reasons to be bitter. Slate ran a fine backgrounder on Adams and the book last year.

Some Programming Notes

I have a review of George Pelecanos‘ new novel, What It Was, at Washington City Paper. I had the rare luxury of an extended word count, so I tried to riff a little about how the new book (much like his last novel, The Cut) cultivates a more optimistic tone than his earlier crime novels. Snippet:

He hasn’t written a book fully set in the ‘70s since his 1997 breakthrough, King Suckerman, and since his 2005 novel, Drama City, he’s been committed to writing about the District as it’s lived in now—the past, when it appears, takes the form of cinematic flashback revealing some old mistake that requires correction. But read The Cut and What It Was alongside each other and it’s clear they actually both go the same way, despite the four-decade distance between their settings. The two novels represent Pelecanos in an increasingly optimistic mode about the District; he’s still fully aware of the city’s flaws, but he’s more interested in sorting out what kind of maturity (and manliness) is necessary to overcome it.

I have a shorter review of Stewart O’Nan’s new novel, The Odds, at the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. It’s not as ambitious as his previous novel, last year’s Emily, Alone, but it’s a fine, slim tale about salvaging a marriage. In an interview with the New Yorker‘s Book Bench blog, O’Nan explained that (spoiler alert) he cut the story short, I think to its benefit: “I was going to follow them home and show how the money doesn’t solve their problems, only prolongs things, the weekend ultimately becoming a painful memory, but then I thought, why not let them have this moment?”

If you’re in New York this weekend, tomorrow night I’ll be participating on a panel at the Center for Fiction about criticism, joined by a group of very smart people. There’ll be two moderators, National Book Critics Circle president Eric Banks and Bookforum editor Michael Miller, and two copanelists whose work I’ve enjoyed, novelist Rivka Galchen and essayist Elif Batuman.

A reminder: Next week I’ll be blogging about Henry Adams‘ 1880 novel Democracy with Jennifer Howard, who’ll be weighing in on her blog. It’ll be fun; hope you can join us.

Links: Gag Rule

Shalom Auslander answers most of the questions in his Q&A with the Rumpus with jokes. Which makes moment when he (more or less) doesn’t, in response to a question about the connection between comedy and morals, interesting: “Humor is anger, and it’s tempting for the writer to resolve it or direct it at one thing or another. That happens more often than it should, I think (Heller, almost always; Vonnegut, often, but Vonnegut’s humanism always seemed tacked-on to me, like he was looking for some light, anywhere, somewhere, so I don’t mind his lecturing because I don’t think he even believed it). I tried hard with Hope to keep that from happening, in the first place because I don’t like preachers, and in the second place, because I don’t like preachers, and in the third place, because the most difficult questions have no right or wrong (that’s what makes them funny)…. Kundera writes about going into the dark depths of a joke, and I think when you do that, when you take it all seriously, the joke loses its one-sidedness—its preachiness—and casts a wider net. If everyone is a fool, no one is a fool. But it’s still pretty fucking funny.” I’m a fan of Hope: A Tragedy, though it deserves a fuller treatment than that linked blurb.

Caitlin Flanagan bids Joan Didion farewell.

Lorrie Moore considers the Roches, who “sound like plucky girls riding home on a school bus, making things up as they go along.” (Suzzy Roche has just published a novel.)

Robert McCrum on skimming novels.

Madison Smartt Bell offers a brief survey of New York City in fiction: “I tried to like Jay McInerney’s Bright Lights, Big City (enthusiastically wished on me by my excellent writing students at the 92nd Street Y), but really I was more interested in people who mugged the people coming out of the Odeon.” (Thomas Caplan‘s 1987 novel, Parallelogram, which I hadn’t heard of, sounds interesting—proof, Bell says, “that you could write about New York’s patrician class and the city’s Morlocks in the same book.”

Jonathan Lethem: “Marvelous living writers like John Barth and Robert Coover seemed quite unmistakably central to the American literary conversation. They’re still with us and publishing, but you can see the tide taking them away. I can’t use their names as reference points in conversations with anyone younger than myself. There’s too much culture and it is mostly all going away, to be replaced by other culture.”

“The best rock novels I’ve read are more embodied with rock than overtly about rock.” (Related.)

Darin Strauss on when to start stories, drawing on an assertion by one of his former teachers that “story equals trouble.”

On the New Yorker provocateur Wolcott Gibbs.

Spin magazine is pursuing a Tweet-heavy reviewing strategy. I’m not panicking: It might work for book reviewing if somebody were skilled enough to do it well. As Robert Birnbaum and Sven Birkerts noted in a recent interview, what gets taken away in reviewing is often replaced with something else. What’s changed (maybe) is some of the the economic incentive for long reviewing: “[Y]ou take a piece that in former days you might have flogged for a price and you think, well, I still want to get this out there, and maybe they’ll like it, and fine if it’s for free if it gets some exposure.”

Pico Iyer‘s essay on long sentences has one bum sentence, a short one: “If we continue along this road, whole areas of feeling and cognition and experience will be lost to us,” he writes. This seems to imply that there was once a time when people didn’t oversimplify debates by reducing them to simple sentences—or a time when people didn’t try to oversell points by inserting them in brocaded ones. If books are shelters from “the bombardment of the moment”—and that’s not all they ought to be—it won’t be the length of the sentences that matter.

Democracy Now

I’ve never tried hosting a group read on this blog. That’s partly because I don’t want to apply any more structure to writing-I-do-for-free than I have to, and partly because I haven’t found the a book that seemed right for that kind of project. But starting January 22 I’d like to give it a try: With the help of my friend Jennifer Howard, a reporter at the Chronicle of Higher Education and occasional Bookslut blogger, I’ll be devoting a couple of weeks to posting about Henry Adams‘ 1880 novel about Washington, D.C., politics, Democracy.

Jennifer and I came up with this idea last fall, when were chatting on Twitter about D.C. novels that a) we haven’t read and b) most eagerly wanted to get to. Democracy topped the list mainly because it’s reputed to (still) be among the most spot-on portraits of political maneuvering in the nation’s capital. Having since finished it, I can say there are plenty of other reasons to read it too: It’s wickedly funny, makes observations about D.C.’s nonpolitical life that still apply today, and couches all this in a well-turned romantic tale. (Though, this being a D.C. novel, the romance and the politics tend to get mucked together.)

We’ll post back and forth on our blogs, working with the Library of America’s Adams anthology. Of course, the novel is easily had for free. Questions? Leave ’em in the comments. Regardless, I hope you’ll join us, whether the novel is long familiar to you or completely new.

Little Sentences and Middle Ground

In Open Letters Monthly, Nicholas Nardini has an interesting take on Don DeLillo‘s first short story collection, The Angel Esmerelda, arguing that DeLillo’s sentences are better equipped for his big-canvas novels:

Despite the big novels, the basic unit of DeLilloan literature, the scale on which he seems to consciously work, is not the volume or the chapter or the paragraph, but only the lowly sentence—and usually a short sentence…. Momentum, in fact, is something that DeLillo’s novels seem to actively resist. They are best characterized not as plots but as conglomerations of sharp, individual perceptions, each competing for the limited attention of the reader…. DeLillo’s atomic sentences, bound only covalently to their neighbors, are the stylistic signature of the species of modern attention he records.

This approach works in his novels, Nardini, argues, because there’s a sense that his sentences are serving something all-encompassing, while in his short stories those sentences tend to read as an arid piling-on of gnomic utterances. I haven’t read The Angel Esmerelda, and it’s first DeLillo book I haven’t made time for since Underworld. That’s mainly because, as Nardini rightly points out, DeLillo’s short game isn’t very interesting: “Midnight in Dostoevsky” is a drab set piece about a pair of college students, and “Hammer and Sickle” is a stiff portrait of an inmate imprisoned for Madoffian crimes. Both felt like little more than sketches, overtures to novels that don’t exist, so I haven’t seen the point in investigating further.

Nardini’s piece is worth reading in full, though I think he neglects something in setting up this split between DeLillo’s short stories and his ambitious historical novels like Underworld and Libra: the short novels that have made up the bulk of his post-Underworld work. The Body Artist and Cosmopolis are lesser books, but 2010’s Point Omega was a novel that got to have it both ways: It had a brevity that drew attention to the (as Nardini calls it) Little DeLillo Sentence at its best and enough of a plot to make sure those sentences don’t feel almost comically overburdened with Import.

As I wrote about the novel at the time, the novel pits the big-picture musings of a retired war strategist with the more emotional concerns of the filmmaker who visits him, and neither feel like they’ve gotten short shrift. And the sentences can even be downright pretty, an adjective that rarely gets applied to DeLillo: “I looked out into blinding tides of light and sky and down toward the folded copper hills that I took to be the badlands, a series of pristine ridges rising from the desert floor in patterned alignment.” DeLillo may have abandoned the doorstopper and the short story may not be his former, but his late period may yet be redeemed by the short novel.

Links: Make It New

Ruth Franklin delivers a few of her reading resolutions for the 2012. Her fourth one, about avoiding distraction, seems increasingly essential. As for me, last year I read little besides 2010, ’11, and ’12 releases, and I hope to spend the coming year spending more reading time with books that aren’t on the new-release schedule; we’ll see how it goes.

There is no question about the political import of contemporary writing that George Saunders cannot politely bat away. In an interview with Full Stop as part of its series of questionnaires on “The Situation in American Writing,” he defends writing as “useless work” and writes that, at best, “what fiction can do is inspire tenderness.” This would come off as protesting too much (or, rather, overly protesting a fiction writer’s utility as a protester), except that he acknowledges that a writer is a product of his or her allegiances; because those political and class positions are unavoidable in the writing, he argues, why expend the extra effort broadcasting them?

James Campbell looks at the first volume of Ernest Hemingway‘s collected letters and Paul Hendrickson‘s biography, Hemingway’s Boat, and finds some of the roots of Papa’s self-aggrandizing fictions. His son Gregory was fed up with that and plenty else besides by 1952: “If I ever meet you again and you start piling the ruthless, illogical and destructive shit on me, I will beat your head into the ground and mix it with cement to make outhouses.”

Paul Laurence Dunbar (from his 1898 novel, The Uncalled): “There are plenty of interesting characters in a small town. Its life is just what the life of a larger city is, only the scale is smaller.”

I’ve never lived in Los Angeles, but I was enchanted by James M. Cain‘s 1933 essay on the city, “Paradise,” even the parts grousing about what makes for a quality chamber of commerce. Still, if you get through the virtuoso opening section you’ll have read the best writing in it. Cain nails a tone at once awed and skeptical about Southern California, as in this bit where he empowers the reader to add a few cultural touches to LA: “If a filling-station occurs to you, a replica of the Taj Mahal, faithfully executed in lath and plaster, put that in. If you hit on a hot-dog stand in the shape of a hot dog, prone, with portholes for windows and a sign reading ‘Alligator Farm,’ put that in. Never mind why a hot-dog stand should have portholes for windows and a new line of alligators.”

From Bernard Malamud to Helen Frankenthaler to Dick Cheney in a few easy steps.

Deborah Eisenberg: “You can’t just expect to sit down and write something good. There have always been a few people that can. I certainly can’t and when I started I couldn’t write a decent English sentence. It’s very thorny grammar, it’s difficult, it’s squishy weird grammar, it’s hard to get a handle on.”

Jane Smiley, debunking the notion that great writers work in solitude: “[A]s I got to know about various great literary figures, like Shakespeare and Virginia Woolf, they weren’t by themselves at all. They were part of a group. They had friends or associates or rivals that they contended with or joined with so when I got to the [Iowa] writers workshop it seemed normal to me that you would talk about what you were interested in, the way you would no matter what you were trying to do. This applied to artists too.”