“Democracy”: Media Circuses and New Monuments

This is the fifth post in a cross-blog conversation Jennifer Howard and I are having about Henry Adams’ novel “Democracy.” See Jennifer’s most recent post, “Swamp Creatures and Monuments,” here.


You ask about how recognizable the Washington, D.C., in Democracy is compared to the one we live in today. My instinct is to say not at all. You rightly note that D.C. lacked some of its familiar monuments at the time the novel was published, but I wonder if Adams would have bothered mentioning them even if they were there. Has expresses little interest in looking at Washington as a physical place: His pastoral vision of the city, as described in the trip to Mount Vernon, takes the city in at a distance, and it pretty quickly devolves into another caustic swipe at the town. The city for Adams is something more abstracted—more of a mood or a “culture” (this novel practically demands the scare quotes for that word). When Ratcliffe wants to start bending the President’s ear about a scheme, he waits until he’s back from town for a while, so he can “begin to feel the effect of a Washington atmosphere.” [83]

And let’s skip toward the very end, in which Sybil wraps up the various intrigues by pointing out that “after what has happened, we can never go back to Washington.” [184] Sybil is not exactly stricken with regret about that—there are the great ruins of Europe and the Middle East to take in. But she says she’ll miss riding with Carrington into Virginia, and that scene is one of few passages in the novel stripped of any of Adams’ smirking: “Then reaching the Virginia side they cantered gaily up the laurel-margined road, with glimpses of woody defiles, each carrying its trickling stream and rich in promise of summer flowers, while from point to point they caught glorious glimpses of the distant city and river. … The day was blue and gold; everything smiled and sparkled in the crisp freshness of the morning.” [107] Adams does have a soft spot for the place—he just needs to get out of town to find it.

But in terms of Democracy describing a city I recognize, I think the media circus that’s described in Chapter 11 feels true, at least for somebody who experiences Washington’s party culture almost exclusively via the Reliable Source column in the Post. The scene is a party for the duchess of “Saxe-Baden-Hombourg,” who’s born and English princess, and Adams neatly skewers the way even the most patriotic Americans prostrate themselves before somebody with a title: she and the duke receive “the respect which all republicans who have a large income derived from business feel for English royalty.” [139]

Adams is doing more than sending up politicians here, though. Madeleine, who is our stand-in as a cultural interloper suspicious of political parrying, earns the duchess’ ear for most of the evening, and I love that we first learn this fact through how their connection is reported by the media: The sketches of the event by the New York papers made Madeleine “rather shorter, and the Princess rather taller, than was strictly correct.” [147] The scene makes plain Madeleine’s place in the pecking order, and how that pecking order is established. I don’t doubt that there are plenty of people who scan the boldfaced names in the Reliable Source in the morning, hunting for their own, and then worrying about how they were mentioned if they did happen to appear.

Thinking on it now, that seems like a missed opportunity for Adams—from my skewed perspective a century and a half on, I wished there was more of that outsider’s perspective, a sense of how the media and other citizens look at the city. (We hear much about Ratcliffe’s beloved Peonia, Illinois, but not about its residents. It’s the 1880s equivalent of flyover country.) Madeleine is a fine heroine to spend a little time with, but there is a lack of outside air that can feel a little stifling.

So, then: Great D.C. novel or not? Your mentions of monuments reminded me of Andrew Holleran‘s brilliant 2006 novel, Grief, which exploits them so well. Holleran so often describes those landmarks as tomblike and funereal, but his tone is more sympathetic to the city, which he admires and brings more nuance to than Adams’ satire. “There’s something still halfhearted about Washington, as if the country cannot make up its mind about government itself—a city that, block by block, weaves in and out of grandeur and shabbiness,” Holleran writes. And maybe I wanted a bit more grandeur out of Democracy—I laughed at the digs, even the cheap ones, but D.C. is more than its shabbiness, physically or politically. If this isn’t a great D.C. novel for you, what novels come closer? Can we take Adams’ acid observations and combine them with parts of other novels, Frankenstein-like, and make a more perfect one?

Death City

1. “There’s something still halfhearted about Washington,” writes the narrator of Grief, Andrew Holleran‘s slim, beautiful 2006 novel, “as if the country cannot make up its mind about government itself—a city that, block by block, weaves in and out of grandeur and shabbiness.”

2. That’s as good a one-sentence summary of Washington, D.C., in fiction as you’re likely to come across, mostly because of the first part, about “government itself.” The second part of the sentence isn’t unique to Washington: Every city “weaves in and out of grandeur and shabbiness.” The grandeur-shabbiness divide is what makes cities appealing to noir writers, who like to show how easy it is to shift from one to the other. But Grief isn’t a noir but an elegy—a gay writer’s lament for the AIDS-stricken age he survived. And the difference between a noir and an elegy here is government—the trappings of structure and authority. The federal city helps him keep it together. This novel couldn’t possibly be set anywhere else.

3. Still, the city is unstable: It can’t make up its mind about itself, as the narrator says, and neither can he. He walks a lot through D.C. to sort it out—it’s as walkable a city as San Francisco, but rarely gets described that way in fiction—and he tends to settle on the museums and monuments. Words Holleran returns to when he describes the city: cemetery, tomb. “At night the National Museum looked like an enormous mausoleum,” he writes. Later, he’ll equate it to a “parlor where a body was laid out amidst the lilies.” A friend, responding to a suggested museum visit, cries, “Museums are morgues!” But the narrator keeps coming back.

4. Elizabeth Hand, reviewing the novel in the Washington Post: “I have never read a novel that so powerfully and movingly evokes D.C.—its spirit, its ideal essence.” Thomas Mallon, in a dust-jacket blurb: “[Holleran has] a superb feeling for the real Washington, D.C.” Are Hand and Mallon putting a positive spin on things, or do they mean to say that D.C.’s essence is embalming fluid?

5. Because even sunlight is grim in Grief‘s vision of Washington. A friend recalls how he attended so many funerals for AIDS victims in Rock Creek Cemetery one summer he picked up a suntan.

6. Holleran’s method for enlivening this tableau and holding the reader’s interest is to withhold information about the narrator. We know he’s come to D.C. after the death of his mother, but the circumstances aren’t entirely clear. We know he’s teaching a class at a local university but not what it’s on. We also know he’s naive—he gets scammed out of $20 shortly after his arrival. But he learns. And as he acclimates to the city we get a more and more precise picture of where, exactly, he’s renting. Ultimately his wanderings have a maplike precision, right down to the protesters he routinely sees on the curbsides.

7. He can crack a joke. He spies a middle-aged man cruising the men’s rooms at the university “like a lobster fisherman checking his traps.” Eventually can crack a joke, rather: That one’s on page 110.

8. The strange thing about Grief, as Washington novels go, is that it makes little effort to get past the federal city, the L’Enfant plan and the monuments, the way a “realistic” novel about the city might. The narrator is constricted to a tourist-friendly sliver of Northwest, the better to show how he’s clinging to safe structures.

9. The major themes of Grief, according to the remarkably thorough Wikipedia article on the novel: “Struggles and Hardships,” “Mortality of a Middle Aged Man,” “Loss of a Loved One,” “Premature Death,” “Family Member Death.” The anonymous article author gets an A for effort, but these are all subsets of the main theme of the book, which Holleran already made pretty clear in the title.

10. Still, the very fact that a 150-page, moderately well-reviewed novel inspires that kind of attention says something. Daphne Merkin praised the book in a 2007 New York magazine article about underrated novels. “It’s bone-spare but plangent with meaning—the kind of novel that would be immediately hailed if it were written by a laconic European writer.” Given the kind of attention laconic European writers get, Grief never stood a chance.

11. It’s not hard to see why. I mean, the title.

12. But not just the title. There’s a strict formality to the novel’s structure amid its elegant details—appropriate for the city it imagines, but a hard sell for any reader looking for a realistic portrait of the city or a conventional rendering of the novel’s subject. (A two-star Amazon review: “I am an aging gay man. I have lost both my parents and have buried two lovers. I know well what grief is—and this is not it.”) The narrator is making his way through the letters of Mary Todd Lincoln, the kind of thing only characters in novels do, as a symbolic gesture. But it works because Lincoln’s grief in those letters is so compelling, and the assurance the narrator receives from them is so palpable—her mood snaps perfectly with the mood of the entire book. “All those dashes and exclamation points!” his landlord says. And all that death inside. He could be describing a book of Emily Dickinson poems.

13. Mary Todd Lincoln: “For sorrow, such as ours, there is no balm, the grave and Heaven, with reunion with our loved ones, can alone heal, bleeding, broken hearts.” It’s a line, the narrator tells us, “I’d decided to learn by heart.”

14. Holleran announces the book’s main question early on: Is grief a process—something that is eventually done with—or a perpetual state of being? Grief is like living in fiction, Holleran suggests, because in grief we always have a story to tell ourselves—something about the person we lost, or what the loss did to us. And the opposite of grief, in the novel’s reckoning, isn’t happiness but the simple business of living—the ability to go on without massaging a narrative out of our past. “You can have one nice day here after another,” the landlord tells the narrator, encouraging him to plant roots in D.C. But having one nice day after another would involve sacrificing the story he’s writing in his head.

15. This is what fiction does: It frames and organizes us, becomes a placeholder for our emotions, gives it a shape. When a critic says that a book is “too formal,” what is it the critic is complaining about? That it’s pushing our capacity for emotional response off the page? Or that it offers itself as a repository for emotions we’d prefer not to acknowledge? Grief is a deceptively humble but wholly successful proof that it can be the latter.

Links: Epic Fail

“There is no epic literature without a lyrical element. But that has completely disappeared from American literature.” (Exercise: Define “epic.” Also, define “lyrical.”)

D.G. Myers prefers Charles Willeford‘s “Oh, shit, here we go again!” to Kurt Vonnegut‘s “And so it goes.”

When I go off on one of my jags about D.C. novels, somebody will occasionally mention Andrew Holleran‘s 2004 novel, Grief. (One friend recently mentioned loving it but finding it impossible to finish because it was so profoundly sad—perhaps the most peculiar but intriguing bit of praise I’ve heard about a book.) Mary Pacifico Curtis makes a compelling case for it.

A 1906 letter from Upton Sinclair to president Theodore Roosevelt, written shortly after The Jungle was published.

Amy Hempel: “I do so much revision in my head before I write something down that I probably do less actual revision than many other writers.” (via)

Wealthy folks are heading to Montana to try their hand at being horsemen, much to the chagrin of Thomas McGuane.

Joyce Carol Oates: “It’s rare for me to ask for others’ opinions—I don’t have that kind of personality, though I am a writing instructor myself. I would not feel comfortable asking another person to read my work and spend time thinking about it in a potentially helpful way.”

Arthur Phillips is having fun being poker-faced about his next book, which appears to be a Pale Fire-ish faux critical commentary on a Shakespeare play about King Arthur.

In the Guardian, a dozen writers weigh in on each month of the year. Lionel Shriver notes that “February is for ­curmudgeons, whinge-bags and misanthropes.”

Matthew Hunte compares the 1999 and 2010 classes of New Yorker‘s “20 Under 40” writers, and notes how the first group’s “heirs to a tradition of formal experimentation and hyper-intellectualism” gave way to one whose thematic preoccupation is “escape, whether it is from a stifling relationship, a plantation, a collapsing country or merely from responsibility.”

Fredrik Colting‘s riff on The Catcher in the Rye is officially barred from publication in the United States.

I initially figured that Amber Sparksconcern about the lack of working-class American fiction was a bit of an overreaction. But then I saw that at least one New York Times headline writer noted that Louis Auchincloss wrote about WASPs “people who mattered.” To the barricades!