Printer Friendly

Beautiful Machine: Rivers and the Republican Plan, 1755-1825.

John Seelye's Beautiful Machine is a masterwork which, unfortunately, may not attract the attention that it deserves. No doubt, students of American literature and culture - especially in American Studies departments - will take note of this, the second in a projected three-volume study of rivers in American life and literature. It is as likely, however, that there are some historians like this reviewer who will, on perusing this book, first recall the pleasure of encountering Henry Nash Smith's Virgin Land and the studies of myth and symbol in American history that it inspired, but then will lay Seelye's book aside as a minor addition to a venerable but overworked structure. First impressions can be misleading. Seelye treats of rivers, canals, and steamboats penetrating the wilderness but not as the antecedents of Leo Marx's Machine in the Garden. Seelye's machine, as his subtitle suggests, is the network of waterways which the founding fathers believed would work with the Constitution to realize a republican plan of union. Rather than an historiographical curiosity, Beautiful Machine is an important contribution to understanding the early republic. The study of republicanism which has flourished in recent years, largely under the influence of J. G. A. Pocock's Machiavellian Moment, will be enriched and invigorated by this fresh and stimulating book. John Seelye's writing sparkles with insights both specific and broad. His reading of American culture is as rich, as well-informed, and as sensitive as Michael Kammen's. And Beautiful Machine is a pleasure to read.

If first impressions are misleading, summarizing this book's contents risks oversimplification. It is the perspective as much as the conclusions that distinguishes Beautiful Machine. Seelye's subject is the "imperial aesthetic" which he first explored in its colonial origins in Prophetic Waters (1977) and which he examines in its neoclassical form in the present volume. Seelye ranges widely. He introduces a cast of characters including inventors, poets, statesmen, map makers, adventurers, novelists, and explorers. It is the convergence of aesthetics and policy making - the geopolitics of novelist Charles Brockden Brown and the aesthetics of John Quincy Adams - that fascinates him. Seelye's perspective is broad, if not awesome. He moves as easily from neoclassicism to classicism, from Jefferson to Horace, as he does from the reports of Albert Gallatin to the exploits of Zebulon Pike.

Seelye leads the reader at a leisurely pace. At times his explorations into the byways of American culture might seem to be meanderings. But he never loses his way. And discussions of what might seem to be unrelated subjects come together with startling brilliance. Seelye brings the reader to one such point of convergence in his discussion of the year 1807 when Joel Barlow completed the Columbiad, Robert Fulton launched the Clermont, and Lewis and Clark returned from their Western survey. Each moment was the result of a "lengthy gestation." Together these events represented a "high point" in the American Enlightenment, equal in significance to the Constitutional Convention that met twenty years earlier. By following these gestations and their convergences, Seelye brilliantly illuminates the "aesthetics of imperialism" that sparked the imaginations of poets and statesmen and raised up that vision of a republican machine.

Although Seelye meant Beautiful Machine to stand alone, his achievement can be best appreciated in the context of his larger exploration into the "imperialistic aesthetic." "If we wish to comprehend the imperialistic thrust of American history," he writes in Prophetic Waters, we must return to the "colonial womb," to the world of Captain John Smith and Governor John Winthrop. His examination of the origins of both Cavalier and Yankee and his treatment of them as complements are important steps toward realizing what Perry Miller had promised but had not accomplished. And his shifting focus from the theological to the imperialistic makes a timely and significant contribution to early American studies. Prophetic Waters is an impressive achievement. The bibliographical essay alone deserves attention, and it should be read as preface to the second volume. Seelye ends the first volume with William Byrd on the frontier, gazing westward. And it is there that he opens Beautiful Machine with George Washington, the surveyor, land speculator and imperialist, continuing the expansionist epic. Seelye ably moves from Captain John Smith to General Washington, from Manasseh Cutler, transplanted Connecticut Yankee in the Ohio Valley, back to John Winthrop at Boston harbor, from Thomas Morton at Merrymount to General James Wilkinson on the Mississippi.

The "imperialist aesthetic" that emerges from this study is grounded in the practical, mundane world of politics. Seelye is interested in "people animated by ideas." Thus, Washington is not simply a symbol for an age but an historical actor, moved by lust for land and republican idealism, who shared with his fellow Americans a vision of uniting this republican empire by natural and artificial waterways. Seelye shuns the misty world of the psychohistorian and keeps his eye on geopolitical realities. Thus, in his treatment of the differences between Cavalier and Yankee he chooses to move from aesthetics to politics. Waterways signified unity but also exposed sectional rivalries. While Washington and his fellow Virginians looked to the Potomac as the entrance to the West, Northerners saw an alternative route by way of the Hudson River. Thus New York's successful completion of the Erie Canal altered the political map.

Beautiful Machine is a significant contribution to the study of early American cultural and political history. Criticism can be anticipated. Specialists will no doubt quibble with specific issues perhaps because Seelye's perspective is so broad. More important, Seelye's perspective itself will rouse critical comment. Seelye demonstrates that the New England paradigm has been broken, if only because he does not feel compelled to tilt against one region's presumptions by exaggerating the significance of another's. Yet, students of Southern culture may be disappointed that the North receives disproportionate attention. Perhaps this bias is reflected in Seelye's preference for printed primary sources. It is that choice of materials that affects his analysis. As the frontier moves westward, it becomes more distant in the second than in the first volume. It is largely viewed from the east. The reader interested in the experiences and expectations of the men and women who moved west will be disappointed. The Indian also receives less attention in the second than in the first volume.

But Beautiful Machine is a timely book. If Seelye seems preoccupied with the powerful, he is aware of their victims and the dark consequences of their actions. Seelye's emphasis on the French and Indian War as the "womb of American imperialism," his treatment of Washington as the agent of that geopolitical consciousness, and his placement of the War of Independence within that imperialist framework will strike responsive chords among a variety of scholars whose interests may range from the literary studies of Sacvan Bercovitch to the social political work of Thomas P. Slaughter.

Seelye has written a work distinguished for its learning, vision, and artistry. It serves as an important reminder of that interdisciplinary ideal that first inspired the American Studies movement. For this reason alone Beautiful Machine deserves attention.
COPYRIGHT 1992 Mississippi State University
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1992 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Author:Batinski, Michael C.
Publication:The Mississippi Quarterly
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Dec 22, 1992
Words:1174
Previous Article:Walker Percy: Books of Revelations.
Next Article:Poe and His Times: The Artist and His Milieu.
Topics:

Terms of use | Copyright © 2017 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters