In the decades following the Revolutionary War, Americans had an opportunity––at once exhilarating and terrifying—to shape not just the politics of their new nation but also its culture. British political models abounded, of course: Thoughtful citizens could argue for William Godwin’s radical aesthetics, adopt a Shaftesburian “moral sense,” or compare Edmund Burke’s critique of the French Revolution with that of Thomas Paine. The cultural apparatus of America was likewise an import. But for all its access to the most exalted offerings of Europe, the young United States should not be idealized as the genteel, genius offspring of cultivated parents: It was, instead, nearly as fractious and backward after the Revolution as it had been before.
How could it have been otherwise? The pressures of the emerging party system were all-consuming: For educated men to refrain from partisan action was considered questionable, and to refrain from opinion, unthinkable. In Men of Letters in the Early Republic: Cultivating Forums of Citizenship, historian Catherine O’Donnell Kaplan steps into the post-Revolutionary fray and finds three examples of just this kind of subversive withholding: individuals who rejected political groups in favor of communities of shared sympathy, aesthetic rigor, and intellectual curiosity. They were Elihu Hubbard Smith and his New York–based Friendly Club, Joseph Dennie and his issues-driven magazines, and Joseph Stevens Buckminster, Arthur Maynard Walter, and William Smith Shaw, who created the Monthly Anthology and Boston Review and the Boston Athenaeum, a private scholarly association and reading room that exists to this day. “Was there a place and a use in the new United States for these men and their different kind of citizenship?” Kaplan asks. Her thoughtful book argues that the belletrism practiced by this trio made them not only “different” but downright provocative in late-eighteenth-century America.
Kaplan begins with Smith, a pathologist and polymath, whose story is unforgettable. Before dying at twenty-seven, the Yale-educated physician authored essays, a play, a libretto, and sonnets; edited perhaps the first anthology of American poetry; cofounded the Medical Repository, a groundbreaking magazine that went far toward discovering the causes of the yellow fever that would kill him; and presided over the Friendly Club, an intellectual association that drew together professional men of opposing political and philosophical views. Men of Letters focuses on the ways in which Smith encouraged Friendly Club members to share candidly their disparate perspectives. “Because cultural exchange was not confined to club meetings,” Kaplan writes, “texts and ideas traveled far and fast,” and although she does not suggest it, the reader cannot help but think of the Friendly Club members as protobloggers, publicly setting down their every opinion in a community that was positively teenage in its intensity.
Smith understood that civic responsibility came with club members’ decision to live out loud: “We must not,” he warned his colleagues, sit by and smugly “banquet on the pleasures of despair.” Unfortunately, despite their humanitarian intentions, the dreamy Friendlys proved better at finding publishers than at redressing the plight of slaves or of women, two causes that truly cried out for despair—and action—in eighteenth-century New York. Dennie, Kaplan’s second man of letters, however, did more than “banquet” on disgust with American policies: He served it forth as a feast in the pages of his magazines. In her portrait of Dennie, Kaplan argues that his self-referential publications created a Federalist identity politics and innovated beyond their literary rivals by serving at once as a crucible for political commentary and as an “oppositional community” for motivated anti-Jeffersonian readers. Unfortunately, these claims of special influence are rarely supported with instances of contemporary reactions to Dennie’s commentary.
One subject that Dennie did address was slavery—he contrasted Jefferson’s “brutal theory” of race dominance with the president’s personal relationship to “the lovely Sally,” as Dennie dubbed Sally Hemings. But as Kaplan deftly shows, Dennie’s horror of Jeffersonian hypocrisy and lack of “sensibility” was often used as a convenient screen for the Federalists’—and his own— fear of miscegenation. In this flight from self-knowledge, Dennie and his readers were not so different from Buckminster, Walter, and Shaw, who used the Anthology and the Athenaeum as ways of disengaging from political and commercial pursuits in favor of a more cerebral, at times monkish aesthetic. And yet the disciplined refuge of these bookish brahmins was made possible by wealthy Bostonians, whose participation in the marketplace could, in turn, be legitimated by a lifetime membership in the high-culture Athenaeum.
Fascinating dualities and self-deceptions such as these obtain in all three of Kaplan’s examples and leave the reader frustrated: Why does Kaplan rush through the Bostonian contribution and tease the reader with just a glimpse of Smith’s plan for a mythical western state he dubbed Utopia, a place she calls both “paradise and panopticon”? Why are these men, all contemporaries, so rarely linked up? The reader is left without the sense of intellectual play and balance that she has ascribed to the men of letters themselves. Thus, when she concludes that the idiosyncratic, visionary project of each of her subjects was a “poignant, productive failure,” the reader is not so certain. When has the gesture of dissent, however quiet or ironic, ever failed to capture the American literary imagination? Is it possible that we owe Thoreau, Whitman, and Kerouac to these forgotten literati? On this question, Kaplan declines to speculate.
Elizabeth L. Bradley is manager of programs at the New York Public Library’s Dorothy and Lewis Cullman Center for Scholars and Writers.