Democratic Conventions: The Politics of Form in the Gilded Age
Hale, Mary B
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Democratic Conventions argues that the American novel from 1865 to the turn of the century not only contributed to reconciling the conflicts of the war era, but more importantly, played a crucial role in reimagining the nature of political conflict itself. In the aftermath of the war, John William De Forest announces the need for a national literary project based on affective cohesion. Works by Mark Twain and Henry Adams shows how post-war trend in political novels contributed to De Forest’s project. Remarkable for the smallness of their concerns, Twain and Adams’ novels replaced the bitter conflicts of the war and Reconstruction with plots that hinge on the matters of political procedure. In this way, Twain and other journalists-turned-novelists, like Adams, create a new form of nonpartisanship, which existed nowhere in the press or politics of the Reconstruction Era but which finds its first home in the novel. Popular novels by John Hay and Henry Keenans show how it was not only the racial conflicts of the war era, but issues related to labor and federal power more generally that were occluded in post-Civil War novelistic treatments. The realist experiments of William Dean Howells, Harold Frederic, and Henry James offer forms for considering not only the possibilities of narrative art but also the limits of this kind of political thinking. In the concluding chapter, “Old Dominions of the Progressive Era” I consider why two turn-of-the-twentieth-century novelists of opposite backgrounds—Ellen Glasgow, the daughter of a wealthy industrialist who had roots in the Southern plantation aristocracy, and Sutton Griggs, the son of parents born into slavery who were not emancipated until Juneteenth 1865—both chose similar forms to think through the problem of the politics of the previous thirty years.