William C. Dowling. Literary Federalism in the Age of Jefferson: Joseph Dennie and the _The Port Folio_, 1801-1812. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1999. xv + 127 pp. $24.95 (cloth), ISBN 978-1-57003-243-1.
Reviewed by Matthew Rainbow Hale (Brandeis University.)
Published on H-SHEAR (September, 1999)
Readers familiar with William C. Dowling's 1990 book on writers in Revolutionary Connecticut will immediately recognize his most recent publication, Literary Federalism in the Age of Jefferson, as a complementary study of the relationship between politics and literature in the early republic. But whereas Dowling's earlier study dealt with the Connecticut Wits' attempts to exert influence in the world of politics through a literature of demystification, Literary Federalism marks Joseph Dennie's retreat from politics into a world of literature. Indeed, it is the author^Òs willingness to explore the soon forgotten values of Dennie and the magazine he edited, The Port Folio, that makes this study not only a welcome contribution to the ongoing reconsideration of the Federalists, but an important work for those interested in the emerging literary culture of the United States.
Literary Federalism is a short book (88 pages of text) divided into four chapters. The first chapter, "The Demon Democracy," discusses Dennie and his fellow Port Folio writers^Ò opposition to Jeffersonian society. It argues that Federalist writers viewed Jefferson and his administration as symbols of the "money or market society" (15) taking hold in the early republic. The second chapter, "Oliver Oldschool," analyzes the significance of Augustan and classical tropes, characters, and values in the pages of The Port Folio. More than simply inherited terms or signs of elite learning, references to Augustan and classical thought provided both a steadfast moral perspective from which to criticize the corruption of Jeffersonian America and a source for true, republican virtue. "The Philosophy of Merriment," the third chapter, explores Federalist writers' determination to cultivate a mirthful disposition in the face of the gloom and disorder that supposedly characterized the United States of the early 1800s. It makes clear that the light-heartedness so readily apparent in the pages of The Port Folio stemmed not from an escapist hedonism, but from a desire to confront serious issues like death, the tide of history, and the unreality of earthly life. The final chapter, "The Republic of Letters," argues that a particular version of public sphere ideology provided Federalist writers with a justification for their somewhat disturbing reliance on modern print technology. By creating a zone of uncorrupted reading and writing in which language was the determining "principle of transcendent rationality," the pages of The Port Folio made literature a vehicle "not merely to a separate but to a superior order of reality." (74)
Such a brief overview hardly does justice to the merits of this illuminating book. The discussion of the Augustan and classical heritage, for example, contains a number of keen insights that should prove useful to historians of the early republic. Dowling effectively suggests that Port Folio writers^Ò special interest in classical and Augustan literature marked their belief in an unchanging human nature that belied historical change. John Adams' History of the French Revolution by Ancient Writers, a series of selections from Latin authors pieced together so as to relate the main outline of the French Revolution, thus represented a discourse on the sameness of human weakness in societies that are "only locally or trivially different in different epochs or cultures." (34) In the same way, Dowling's discussion of the value of education makes it clear that Federalists understood classical learning as an empowering version of "time travel." (36) By hearkening to the timeless thoughts of authors like Pericles and Cicero, young Federalists became better people because they directed their energies away from apparently useful pursuits like self-interested money-making and toward ancient literature as an end in itself.
The international perspective of Literary Federalism also deserves special mention. For in paying close attention to the concerns of the Federalist writers, Dowling quite naturally underscores the significance of the French Revolution in American life. At the most basic level, he illuminates the way in which European events of the 1790s marked a watershed in the thought of Port Folio writers. (47, 83-84) He also notes the Federalists^Ò preoccupation with French Revolutionary emigres, who filled the pages of The Port Folio with horrifying tales of the guillotine, abstract philosophy, and jacobin radicalism. (58) Perhaps most importantly, Dowling hints at the process whereby Joseph Dennie and his cronies began to see the French Revolution as a literary theme of historical writing rather than an ongoing political event demanding polemical interpretation. (83-84)
Dowling's treatment of English poet Thomas Moore^Òs influence upon The Port Folio (60-63) further demonstrates the benefits of an international perspective. In the first place, the author shows how Moore's 1804 visit to Philadelphia served to crystallize an emerging "community of transatlantic souls" who stood aghast in the wake of the French Revolution and looked for solace in "Anacreontic values." (60) In addition, Dowling explains, the similar reactions of Port Folio Federalists and Moore to Jeffersonian democracy pushed Dennie and those of like persuasion to see their struggle in the largest terms possible: a fight against the impersonal, universal forces of modernity. Finally, the author argues convincingly that Moore^Òs appearance in Philadelphia helped bring to fruition an understanding of the aesthetic as a timeless, ethereal realm unaffected by the apparently real, but ultimately "dissolving reality" (62) of petty pursuits like land speculation.
Other aspects of Literary Federalism are highly penetrating and deserve close scrutiny, including Dowling^Òs treatments of Alexander Hamilton and Fisher Ames' deaths (47-48), the language of disease (50-55), The Port Folio^Òs equation of jacobinism with Cromwellian rule (56-57), and "federalist feminism." (80-82) However, this is an H-SHEAR interactive review so it is probably time to address the questions raised by this piece of scholarship. And to the author^Òs great credit, the questions raised in such a short work nonetheless speak to some of the central historiographical problems of recent scholarship.
First, it would be helpful to the reader if the relationship between Port Folio Federalists^Ò "philosophy of merriment" and the discussion of aesthetic values in David S. Shield's Civil Tongues and Polite Letters in British North America was spelled out more thoroughly. One of the great achievements of Civil Tongues and Polite Letters is the way in which it explains the cultural significance of belles lettres in British North America between 1690 and 1780. Shields convincingly shows that belles lettres filled a void left by (or stood in contrast to) common versions of religious and political thought like dissenting pietism and Whig republicanism by acknowledging the power of pleasure in human society. Skeptical of the yearning for literary fame, cosmopolitan British Americans like Dr. Alexander Hamilton, author of the History of the Tuesday Club, valued literature primarily for its ability to stimulate social enjoyment and mutual amusement.
At first glance, Dowling's analysis of Dennie's attachment to belles lettres and convivial comedy (65-66) seems to parallel Shields' notion of literary sociability. However, closer reading reveals that Dowling ultimately draws a very different conclusion. For whereas Shields asserts that most of the writings he discusses were a "disavowal of durable learning and undying truth in favor of a passing, shared amusement," Dowling argues that "the deeper meaning of the carpe diem mode [as found in the pages of The Port Folio] lies in this implicit and paradoxical celebration of poetry^Òs own permanence in a world of death and loss." (63) Shields and Dowling thus present contrasting explantions for the impetus behind belles lettres. According to Shields, poetry, conversation, and wit operated as "profoundly occasional" social acts that rejected literary longevity in favor of recreation. Dowling, on the other hand, emphasizes the way in which Dennie's attraction to aesthetic values betrayed a desire for timelessness.
Furthermore, while both Shields and Dowling see the politics of belles lettres as implicit, rather than explicit, they differ about its role. Shields suggests that eighteenth-century belles lettres "subordinated" the potency of political discourse by framing it in the context of "play." Sociable writings and conversations, in this view, were less subversive diatribes against the ruling regime than "havens of alternative possibilities" put forth in the spirit of "free conversation."  In contrast, Dowling argues that Dennie^Òs literary "lounging" assumes a burden of serious moral implication" because it protested the triumph of economic values championed by Jeffersonian America. (66) The Port Folio's retreat into literature was, in that sense, a "mode of literary warfare" operating in the service of classical republicanism. (68)
Perhaps these points of difference between Shields and Dowling can be reconciled by referring to the different historical eras they examine. (For the most part, Shields^Ò subjects enjoyed the blessings of a rising British empire, while Dowling^Òs main characters lived in a new American republic struggling to establish its political and cultural identity.) Perhaps, too, they can be harmonized by illuminating the different perspectives of each scholar. (Whereas Shields assumes that the dynamics of cultural aesthetics gave rise to politics, Dowling supposes that political wrangling brought forth new conceptions of literature.) In any case, the tension between these two studies merits further analysis.
Second, Dowling's discussion of Federalists writers' accommodation to the triumphant, Jeffersonian public sphere is a bit perplexing. According to the author, Federalists realized that the same public sphere that buttressed democratic America^Òs persistent focus on the present also provided a "last refuge or sanctuary for readers who have remained true to classical republican values." (73) In so doing, they maintained the belief that the pages of The Port Folio offered a literary world of Enlightenment reason, despite their alienation from Jeffersonian democracy. (70) The question raised by this type of analysis is whether or not Dowling agrees with Dennie and his compatriots regarding their supposed participation in a Habermasian republic of letters. For if Federalists like Dennie were successful in their attempts to carve out a space in the republic of letters, then the triumph of the public sphere in late eighteenth and early nineteenth-century America was far greater than most have assumed. That a magazine like The Port Folio was able to engage a broad reading public despite Federalists^Ò defeat in politics would suggest that electoral politics did little to define the limits of the public sphere in the early republic. On the other hand, if Federalist editors only fooled themselves into thinking that they operated in the public sphere, then the triumph of Jeffersonian politics would be that much more impressive. For if it could be proven that the pages of The Port Folio was a sterile and rather incompetent counterfeit of the public sphere debates raging in newspapers like the Aurora, then it would indicate the way in which the French Revolution and Jefferson^Òs election in 1800 served to close off particular regions of political and cultural thought that had previously been open for discussion. The exact relationship, therefore, between the literary world created in the pages of The Port Folio and the debating public audience of Jeffersonian America needs more attention.
Finally, while Dowling does not address the issue of literary romanticism directly, its traces are still readily observed in the text and call for further explanation. Certainly, the major thrust of the book -- the notion of a literary world removed from the reality of everyday life -- speaks to a romantic ethos. So do themes like the tidal force of history (50), the fascination with "death as nonbeing" (53), the ennobling of art as a timeless standard raised against the temporality of earthly activities (63), literary wanderings (65-66), and sublime ruins. (84) Indeed, the prevalence of romantic phrases cited by Dowling causes the reader to wonder about the role of Dennie's editorship of The Port Folio in the coming of literary romanticism in the United States. Should readers of Literary Federalism come away from this book thinking that Federalist authors repulsed by Jeffersonian democracy were ahead of their Republican counterparts in envisioning a romantic mode of writing? If so, to what should we attribute their progressive stance in that regard -- Jeffersonian politics? the French Revolution? the new market society? "modernity?" These queries might be unanswerable in the abstract, never mind such a short book as Literary Federalism. But it is important to think about them, I believe, because they seem to be at the core of many Federalists^Ò experience in the early republic. At the very least, readers of this list might benefit from the opinion of someone who is capable of unveiling subtle aspects of the late Federalist persuasion. And so at this point, I address Professor Dowling directly and say, "your turn."
. Dowling, Poetry and Ideology in Revolutionary Connecticut (Athens and London: The University of Georgia Press, 1990).
. For a recent example of the reevaluation of Federalists, see Doron Ben-Atar and Barbara B. Oberg, eds., Federalists Reconsidered (Charlottesville and London: University Press of Virginia, 1998).
. David S. Shields, Civil Tongues and Polite Letters in British North America (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1997).
. Shields, Civil Tongues and Polite Letters, 33, 209-274, 313-314.
. Shields, Civil Tongues and Polite Letters, xxv.
. Shields, Civil Tongues and Polite Letters, xxv.
. Shields, Civil Tongues and Polite Letters, xxv.
. Shields, Civil Tongues and Polite Letters, 189.
. For a recent account of the post-1800 debate in the pages of the Aurora, see Andrew Shankman, "Malcontents and Tertium Quids: The Battle to Define Democracy in Jeffersonian Philadelphia," Journal of the Early Republic 19 (Spring 1999) 43-72. In Parades and the Politics of the Street: Festive Culture in the Early American Republic (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1997) 186-192, Simon Newman discusses the exclusion of certain groups from popular political debate as "The Regularization of Popular Political Culture."
. Lawrence Buell's New England Literary Culture: From Revolution Through Renaissance (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1986), 84-102, is an invaluable introduction to the continuity between classical and romantic thought in the early republic.
Copyright (c) 1999 by H-Net, all rights reserved. This work may be copied for non-profit educational use if proper credit is given to the author and the list. For other permission, please contact H-Net@h-net.msu.edu.
If there is additional discussion of this review, you may access it through the list discussion logs at: http://h-net.msu.edu/cgi-bin/logbrowse.pl.
Matthew Rainbow Hale. Review of Dowling, William C., Literary Federalism in the Age of Jefferson: Joseph Dennie and the _The Port Folio_, 1801-1812.
H-SHEAR, H-Net Reviews.
Copyright © 1999 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at email@example.com.