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.

11 thoughts on “Democracy: A Funny Town for a Woman

  1. Weird coincidence–I just finished Democracy yesterday and see this on Twitter his morning. I have to admit, the thing I’m most going to take away from it is the idea of Adams naming his Jewish characters “Schneidekoupon” (coupon cutter). Every time one of them appeared I kept imagine him looping along the ridiculous name once again and deciding that, yes, this was definitely a hilarious idea. Coupled with a plot that seemed determined to frustrate easy conclusions about the Civil War (the somewhat Lincoln-esque Ratcliffe is a scoundrel, and Carrington’s experience in Lee’s army is supposed to make him more sympathetic) the whole thing has a slightly more discomforting politics than I remember getting out of the Education. But maybe I’m just misremembering that book?

    1. There’s a brilliant, brutal line in the paragraph that introduces Schneidekoupon, a wealthy man who also runs Chamber of Commerce-ish journal: “heavy bets were pending whether he would manage to sink first his Review or his yacht.” DC is a city full of think tanks and policy shops funded by some form of wealth or another, so it was one of (numerous) lines that prompted me to write “always thus” in the margin.

  2. I have some catching up to do and and a quick question from the first page of the first chapter. What is a transcendental commission-merchant, or should the question just be this: what is a commission merchant? Probably “literary transcendental” are adjectives for the character.
    The writing is funny, wry from the first page ” In her despair she had resorted to desperate measures. She had read philosophy in the original german…” Mark A’s characterization of the POV as an outsider anthropology report rings true.

  3. I hung up on the name “Schneidekoupon” as well–although many of the other names are, in their way, equally reductive/absurd. Consider that the villainous, amoral senator who courts Mrs. Lee has “Rat” in his name. Then there’s the drab, impecunious Irish aristocrat, Lord Dunbeg (“a coronet and a peat-bog”), and the provocative coquette-about-town, Victoria Dare. Not much subtlety there. That doesn’t excuse Adams from the charge of antisemitism, though. Thanks to Google Books, I came across a discussion on that point that might interest you:

  4. An outsider pov, yes, but if one knows some other Adams, particularly the much-later, more famous, Education, this first chapter is the same sensibility as later Henry. The “Is that all there is”ness?…[world-weariness as Slate writer summarized]..a sensibility so…emotionally exhausted(?) that all he came to see was decline….Spengler-like, entropy…see also
    The Degradation of the Democratic Dogma….Henry made the protagonist a woman but imagine how…unusual she is as we encounter her….many fewer women might be considered able to write it (besides Clover) before suffrage, before many educational opportunities, etc. How many women read German philosophy ‘in the original’ (since few men did too). Even the most famous (besides Geo Eliot who did).

  5. One weakness so far, 4 chapters, is the vagueness of actual political issues. Some of these generalities are wonderfully timeless, though:
    “”Half of our wise men declare that the world is going straight o perdition; the other half that it is fast becoming perfect.” Madeleine observes and might have referred to last night’s State of the union and rebuttal, or the politicians who without missing a beat describe descent into perfidy and the wonders of America in the same speech.
    The human motives seem tone perfect. Ratcliffe, it is said, views the down side of any legislative proposal. This is not the practical downside , but the political difficulties. The Bulgarian ambassador goes on a rant about American corruption equalling Euro corruption and Ratcliffe, who styles himself the the voice of the honest laborer and farmer is silenced, because he has just made a case that the citizens must be reformed before the corruption in civil service is addressed. Posturing ever the enemy of problem solving.
    If the sisters represent curiousity about the insider world of DC we soon see that they will probably have to face their own insider world of boredom, games and posturing.

  6. Just to play the historian for a minute and expand my earlier worries about Adams’ politics: I’m reluctant to endorse the idea Adams is writing ‘timeless’ observations or a classic Washington novel, just because of the political vagueness Joseph points out.

    The book was published in 1880, and Slate is right that the characters resemble figures from then (certainly Ratcliffe:Blaine, maybe prez:Hayes). But while it’s relatively straightforward on two major issues of the late 1870s (the tariff and civil service reform, both of which are musty today), it’s basically silent on what we today think of as the most important one in the 1877 election: the withdrawal of troops from the South, and the beginning of 80 years of racial disenfranchisement.

    How would this book read today if it were included? Would Adams’ worldly cynicism towards politics be so attractive? The sympathetic depiction of the lost cause through Carrington (another obvious name), the omission of race and reconstruction as issues (Blaine as speaker helped pass the last Civil Rights bill before 1957–I don’t know whether he’s prominent enough to receive the same rehabilitation in the historiography as Grant, but there might be something coming), the contempt towards American voters shared by all the characters: they might be quite a bit more discomforting.

    Even without that, Adams’ cynicism about democracy directly reflects the indifference that led him and other northern one-time Republicans to cease caring about full black suffrage in exactly this period. (Sven Beckerts has written about how Madeleine’s crowd in New York–who she goes to rejoin, unsullied by Washington–tried to limit the franchise on lower class voters at this same time.)

    Maybe that’s just to say we should think of Adams/Madeline not as just outside observers, and certainly not as stand-ins for the reader, but as a pernicious and particular Washington type in and of themselves: the comfortable elites who wearily declare plagues on all available houses, who fixate on process because of blindness to outcomes, and who can afford to treat politics as entertainment because they’ll be the winners whoever is in charge.

  7. I share a similar reactions with Ben Schmidt about the indifferent cynicism of M. Lee and others to whom the failure or success of democracy seems mostly an intellectual amusement whose consequences are unlikely to affect their status and comfort. I also wonder if her indifference is entirely credible. She once refers to universal suffrage without mentioning women. So far, I cannot fully believe her or the distance they all seem to have from the violence of the civil war or the aftermath of the war. There is a counterpoint to this indifference in Senator Gore’s disclosure on the topic whose inner disposition places the success or failure of democracy as the fulcrum of hope for a new kind of humanity. Perhaps both these sensibilities were at war in Mr. Adams. I am only up to chapter 7. The trip to Mt Vernon offered a glimpse into a time when George Washington was still in living memory. Adams makes some tasty sentences:” “Off with you as quick as you can!” said he to the negro-hands, and in another moment the little steamer had begun her journey, pounding the muddy waters of the Potomac and sending up its small column of smoke as though it were a newly invented incense-burner approaching the temple of the national deity.”
    How bland current images of Washington are by compare to the stories they swap at Mt Vernon; how easy for the freed slaves to become “negro-hands”.

  8. Chapter eight sheds for its duration any shot at satire and humor.. A bit leaden but we find out here that Ratcliffe is more rat than cliff. He towers with a smallness of spirit and his games with Ms Lee are too calculating for the reader to have much sympathy for his political games. I wiki’d some background stuff and he seems to be a combination of Blaine and John Sherman as the president seems a combination of Hayes and B Harrison.

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