U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Unlikely Bedfellows?: Conservative and Progressive Sensibilities in American Literature

The stimulating posts and discussions about Saul Bellow over the past few days had me thinking about what constitutes good literature. For it seems to me, in light of such debates, that most—if not all—accomplished authors and arresting novels evince a certain conglomeration of conservative and progressive themes. Perhaps this is not so mysterious—inasmuch as we might regard anxiety and hope as the dominant emotional structures underscoring conservative and progressive inclinations, respectively. What could be more alluring than an ambivalent text that applies pressure on the reader’s intellectual and moral makeup from myriad angles?

In my own research I am currently attempting to come to terms with such ambiguity in the prose of Charles Brockden Brown, often regarded as the first author of note in the United States. Perhaps more than any other early published text in the US, Brown’s dialogue Alcuin (1798) stands out for its progressive stance towards women. It relates a fictional, polite, yet open and lively, discussion between a man and a woman in a contemporary New York salon regarding the political status of women in the young republic. In fact, the protagonist, Alcuin, who visits the salon of Mrs. Carter, strikes the conversation with the hostess by inquiring if she is a Federalist. What ensues is a drawn-out exploration of various arguments in support and in opposition to affording women an equal footing to that of men, clearly influenced by Wollstonecraftian ideas. Indeed, Brown was at the time quite taken with both Godwin’s and Wollstonecraft’s social and political radicalism. And though he maintained a significant degree of ambiguity in the framing of the dialogue, Brown clearly intended to explore the radical ideas of Mary Wollstonecraft in a positive light. Furthermore, and perhaps more importantly, though at times Mrs. Carter and her interlocutor seem to question women’s equal footing with men, Brown cast them as equals in dialogue.

By contrast, the novel Wieland (1798), which Brown published that same year, reveals a more conservative inclination towards democratic ideals. Interestingly, it does so while it affirms some of the progressive themes Brown explored in Alcuin pertaining to women. In Wieland Brown weaves a tale of genteel German immigrants who arrive in colonial Pennsylvania during the mid 18th century and found an idyllic heterosocial and refined coterie consisting of two men and two women. The affairs of the tight-knit group grow ever darker once a lower class man, who possesses the power of ventriloquism, bursts their genteel bubble. Rife with gothic literary devices, Wieland is a horror tale of how Carwin—an Irish immigrant who came from the frontier and who has a special gift for mimicking and throwing voices—inadvertently causes Theodore, a member of this genteel group, to massacre his own family in belief that god had guided him to do so. Carwin, we find out by the end, never had such intentions, though at one point he probably intended to rape one of the women in the group. However, by throwing voices clandestinely he tipped a man prone to curious religious ideas over the edge—into a fit of murderous zeal.

The novel depicts a mutual fascination between Carwin and Clara, a genteel woman of the coterie—the sister of the man who would later go on the murderous spree. While Carwin develops quite an obsession towards her, she in turn seems piqued—and quite unsettled—by this mysterious figure. Indeed, the novel features a strong and smart woman protagonist, Clara, as an equal to her genteel male partners and superior to Carwin. Though the two men in the group discuss intellectual and ethical affairs more frequently, before Carwin arrives on the scene, the four seem to have formed a remarkably egalitarian and idyllic climate, befitting gentlemen and gentlewomen of both sense and sensibility. And although the ominous heritage of an ancestor, whose peculiar religious beliefs seem to have led to his mysterious spontaneous combustion and death, looms over them from the start, it is the arrival of democracy in the guise of Carwin that proves their undoing.

As one scholar suggested, the novel’s theme could best be understood by examining its setting in eastern Pennsylvania after the Seven Years War, 1754-1763.[1] Despite making few references to the contentious struggle during this period in Pennsylvania—between western frontiersmen of Irish and Scottish descent and more urbane German immigrants and Quakers centered around Philadelphia—Carwin’s intervention in the affairs of eastern genteel elites seems telling. Particularly if we consider that the members of the coterie were of German heritage and we recall that before mobilizing against Philadelphia in early 1764, a group of western frontiersmen known as the ‘Paxton Boys’ ruthlessly massacred twenty-one peaceful and unarmed Susquehannock Indians.

Having reviewed a history of Pennsylvania written by his teacher, Brown was quite familiar with the story of the heinous massacre followed by the social challenge posed by western frontiersmen to eastern seaboard elites.[2] Indeed, it seemed to have influenced his suspicion towards the rise of a more democratic and crude style in American political culture and the simultaneous decline of refined sensibilities in America in his own time. Moreover, what seems of interest in this case is the extent to which this particular synthesis of conservative and progressive tendencies seems complementary both in his prose and in certain coteries of refined gentlemen and gentlewomen of the period. For when he wrote both Alcuin and Wieland, Brown himself was part of a heterosocial genteel network of discussants who often met in New York salons to contemplate the ideas of Godwin, Wollstonecraft, and others.[3]

Perhaps the preponderance of such ambiguous constructions in literature should lead us to look more carefully for such ideological constructions in American history, more generally. Perhaps we might find that all too often conservative and progressive sensibilities complement one another more than historians of ideas would like to concede.

[1]. Ed White, “Carwin the Peasant Rebel,” Revising Charles Brockden Brown: Culture, Politics and Sexuality in the Early Republic, ed. Philip Barnard, Mark L. Kamrath, & Stephen Shapiro (2004),  p.41-59.

[2]. Ed White demonstrates this in “Carwin the Peasant Rebel.”

[3]. For more on this genteel network see Catherinie O’Donnell Kaplan, Men of Letters in the Early Republic: Cultivating Forums of Citizenship (2008), p. 42-86.