A Pinnacle of Feeling: American Literature and Presidential Government

March 26, 2009

Television drama generates the best US presidents. Jed Bartlett (The West Wing) and David Palmer (24) offered a morally righteous alternative to Bill Clinton and George W. Bush. A Pinnacle of Feeling demonstrates that such representational strategies are not unique to network TV. Sean McCann identifies how ambitions for the executive branch of the US government informed the 20th-century novel.

Writers expressed this distinctive take on the presidency by treating the White House both as the authentic home of national sovereignty and as a place where reform-minded or desperate individuals could direct their appeals for transformative federal intervention. Typical here is Richard Wright's Native Son, which shows its protagonist incarcerated within earshot of a peripheral character who spends his days threatening to inform the president of some vast and secretive conspiracy. In contrast, McCann presents Gertrude Stein as rejecting the progressive politics of her youth: instead she is scathing about the "herd" for supplying the commander-in-chief with a mandate, identified - wrongly in her view - with the national will.

Few presidents appear as literary protagonists in their own right. Instead, their position serves as an ethical benchmark - whether as an authoritarian father figure, a career goal or even the target of an assassination attempt. If this symbolic use of public office threatens to rework the presidency as a chimerical, ghostly presence in the American novel, McCann carefully rebuilds these vague impressions to illustrate how authors reimagined the issue of popular sovereignty. His key argument gains momentum by describing how the ongoing debates over the boundaries of presidential government found close literary parallels. The arguments in political science monographs and middlebrow, social forecasting non-fiction are shown as the logical counterpart to imaginative representations of government institutions.

As the parochialism of the nation's party system came under attack in the US, McCann notes that novelists deployed rhetoric favouring great deeds backed by public sentiment. This sometimes creates a rather uneasy relationship between his four main chapters and the extensive footnotes, but more often than not the analogies ring true. Likewise, and more contentiously, what goes unspoken in the fictional literature seems to reinforce the same point.

For instance, whereas the very existence of national politics barely registers in Henry Roth's Call It Sleep (1934), its young protagonist creates a public spectacle that plugs an isolated community back into the national consciousness. McCann describes this act as replicating the emotional and rhetorical structures of the New Deal. Yet he also constructs a parallel argument showing how other authors - including Stein, Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Yates and Ralph Ellison - wrote implied critiques of the "redeemer president". Ellison in particular used the opportunity to retreat from the compromised commitments of the 1930s and to try to mend racial divisions with his own revised version of national identity.

Cold War conflicts change the direction of McCann's hypothesis. Close readings of John Updike and Norman Mailer are used to show how disappointment and consensus displaced the earlier cultural goals; a period of literary hostility to the executive branch is broken only briefly to mourn John F. Kennedy. A closely argued epilogue presents The West Wing as juggling these contradictory impulses, while Philip Roth's American trilogy (American Pastoral, I Married a Communist and The Human Stain) continues to criticise the notion of the president as the sovereign will of the people (at least until George W. Bush proved sufficiently disastrous to inspire writers to renew their pursuit of redeemer presidents).

Broadly coinciding with Wright's centenary year, a film adaptation of Yates' Revolutionary Road and obituaries for Updike and Mailer, A Pinnacle of Feeling demonstrates impeccable timing. In providing a literary-historical backdrop to such present-day talking points, McCann identifies the precedents for managing the huge hopes now being invested in President Barack Obama.

A Pinnacle of Feeling: American Literature and Presidential Government

By Sean McCann. Princeton University Press 248pp, £24.95. ISBN 9780691136950. Published 23 October 2008

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