The American political novel in the nineteenth century
Johnson, Jean Ostby
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For the purposes of this dissertation, a political novel is any novel concerned with political figures, ideas, or movements contemporary with some part of the author's life. In Parts One and Two I have examined the political novels written in the United States from the beginnings (in 1774) to 1900; I have outlined the political and economic backgrounds and have attempted to determine where the American novelist took his stand in relation to them. Part One (1774-1890) traces the decline of the gentleman-scholar as politician and as political novelist. Such early novelists as Brackenridge, Paulding, and Cooper favored a Jeffersonian agrarianism which would allow the lower classes to vote and the upper classes to rule; in the immediate pre- and post-Civil War period, the novelists (e.g., De Forest and Tucker) primarily rationalized the positions of their own geographical sections with respect to the causes and results of the war. After the war, the country entered upon that period of materialism, speculation, and governmental corruption known as the Gilded Age, the label given it by Mark Twain and C. D. Warner in their political novel of that name. In this twilight of patrician influence and control, three idealists--De Forest, Mark Twain, and Henry Adams--recorded in political novels the disappointment of their hopes for democracy. They looked back with nostalgia upon the agrarian democracy of early America, when honorable men were chosen to manage governmental affairs. Still later, more optimistic members of the upper middle class, now largely on the fringes of politics, offered hope for improvement through election of honest men to office and through Civil Service reform. Conspicuously absent in these novels was criticism of the corrupting influence of big business on politics. Part Two considers the novels of 1890 to 1900. In these novels the case for the laboring man or the farmer was presented and the ubiquitousness of big business in American politics was denounced. Believing that the restoration of morality in governmental affairs did not solve the critical economic problems, the writers of these novels called for such reforms as governmental regulation of transportation and communications, cheap money, and guaranteed employment. Like the early political novelists, they found their ideological roots in the Enlightenment as it was adapted for American use by Jeffersonian agrarianism. Part Two also includes an analysis of a group of "boss novels" which appeared between 1900 and 1908. These novels, in which the boss appeared as a loveable rogue, exhibited a composite of nineteenth-century ideological forces: the boss epitomized the ideas of equality, of the preference for the common man over the gentleman, of humanitarianism, and of the evils of big business; but he also embodied the Darwin-Spencer Alger "survival of the fittest" theory which previous novelists had condemned when used to justify the actions of the business man. Part Three surveys the impact of the political novel upon American politics and upon American literature. I have concluded that the political novel in the nineteenth century had little effect upon politics. However, after 1885 it gave impetus to the movement toward literary realism. The realism in the political novels of the last decade of the century was not only a conscious attempt by writers like Garland and Howells to make American literature reflect American democratic ideals but also an unconscious but inevitable ingredient of the large numbers of protest novels produced by those connected with the Populist movement. Agrarianism as a national political force and its literary concomitant did not survive after the nineteenth century. These movements were superseded by the forces of socialism and economic determinism in politics and by naturalism in literature. However, they left to twentieth-century fiction a legacy: a tradition of literary protest, an awareness of economic and political forces, and a recognition of the possibilities of the ordinary American as a subject for fiction.
Thesis (Ph.D.)--Boston University