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Nancy Ruttenburg, Democratic Personality: Popular Voice and the Trial of American Authorship.

Nancy Ruttenburg, Democratic Personality: Popular Voice and the Trial of American Authorship (Stanford UP, 1998), x + 537 Pp., $65 cloth, $19.95 paper.

As we learn in the opening pages of this challenging volume, the full story of the emergence of liberal democracy in North America has possibly overemphasized the compatibility of these two different elements. As a result, Nancy Ruttenburg attempts in this extremely ambitious and at times somewhat dense study to indicate the pre-liberal history of democracy. What the author calls "democratic personality" arose in isolation from liberal philosophy, with which it is most often paired by historians. In granting a pre-democratic liberal tradition that she associates with historians such as Bernard Bailyn, J.G.A. Pocock, Gordon Wood, and others, Ruttenburg turns the tables on this formulation by insisting on the need to investigate and identify a preliberal democratic tradition "for which the separation of the thinker from the mass, the theoretical articulation from the act, has not yet transpired" (6). Thus, according to the author, democratic personality must be seen as inhering not in the "intellectual substances of its utterances," but in the "individual act of utterance itself along with the historically inflected experience of subjectivity which that act presupposed" (6). In building her notion of democratic personality along such basic premises, and in drawing overtly (or sometimes less clearly) from a wide array of theorists including the likes of Jurgen Habermas, E.J. Hobsbawm, Michael Oakeshott, C.B. Macpherson, Claude Lefort, Chantal Mouffe, Ernesto Laclau, Raymond Williams, and M.M. Bakhtin (among many others), Ruttenburg's work consists of some pretty tough going at times. Moreover, she is thoroughly versed in the best Americanist scholarship and frequently makes vital use of the relevant works focused on textuality, voice, and the public sphere (by, for instance, Cathy Davidson, Michael Warner, Kenneth Cmiel, Christopher Looby, Jay Fliegelman, Allesandro Portelli, Harry Stout, Larzer Ziff, and Richard Bauman). The extent of the author's voracious reading is documented in the massive scholarly apparatus: fully 106 pages of endnotes along with another 27 of bibliography. As a result, and despite the demands that she places on her readers, there is much of substance that Ruttenburg brings before those scholars interested in pushing the boundaries of the theoretical construction of the public sphere in the colonial and early republican eras.

Although the book takes in a great deal of primary material, the first large section (Part One) deals essentially with two major series of events that for Ruttenburg instigated the genesis of democratic personality, and as such undergird her basic argument. These series are the Salem witch trials of 1692 and the Great Awakening as typified by the preaching tours and mass conversions led by George Whitefield. Together, these phenomena, covered in Chapters 1 and 2, take up almost 100 pages of text and comprise the author's foundational depiction of the rise of democratic personality and of a "protodemocratic order" (24). Chapter 1, concerning the witchcraft crisis, examines the performance of spectral possession and the theory of spectral evidence. Chapter 2 analyzes the dynamics of what Ruttenburg terms the "spectacular conversions" of the Great Awakening beginning in the 1740s. These two phenomena, separated though they were by almost 50 years, are usefully compared because both justified the emergence of democratic personality on similar terms: as forms of "humble self-enlargement" (20). Chapter 3, the final chapter of the first section of the book, describes the advent of the individual as mediated by theological innovations, many of which the author associates with the revivalistic tendencies of the likes of Whitefield and, especially, Jonathan Edwards.

In a sense, Ruttenburg is to be congratulated for the depth of her work in these chapters. On the other hand, one often feels that these chapters might be much more concise. The author appears to spend a lot of time and effort without necessarily pushing the argument forward. One might also observe that these exercises constitute a classic expression of the cultural studies mode, by which I mean the critic has relentlessly focused on two highly interesting yet somewhat arbitrary moments in colonial history, thereby providing a truly thick (and, as some may opine, overly-thick) description. Moreover, while the similarities are compelling, one wonders whether, taken together, these two widely-separated series of events can stand the scrutiny of being considered the exemplary moments of the rise of anything, especially something as complicated as the democratic personality that the author is here attempting to theorize. In short, one wonders whether the author is ascribing too much to these two series of events.

The remainder of the study, structured as the four chapters of Part Two, covers a wide array of writers, many of whom (such as Cooper, Whitman, Emerson, and Melville) one would expect in such a study that ostensibly covers the pre-Civil War period. Ruttenburg begins with a nuanced reading of Charles Brockden Brown's Wieland as contextualized by the work previously presented on the witchcraft crisis and the Great Awakening. Here, Carwin becomes a manifestation of the conservative fears of the released democratic personality. Ruttenburg goes on in Part Two to analyze works by Crevecoeur, Stephen Burroughs, Cooper, Whitman, and Emerson, ending the volume with a stirring and convincing reading of Melville's Billy Budd as a thorough and sustained deconstruction of the aesthetic of innocence as posited by Whitman. We take away from much of this material a deeper appreciation for the ways in which the author's theoretical method can enhance our understanding of these various authors.

I conclude this overview with some remarks about a questionable symptom of the postmodern ethos, as evidenced by aspects of Ruttenburg's study and, more generally, by much of the field at the present time. In part, my comments are motivated by the intriguing Emersonian final lines of her book: "So what is democratic personality? Democratic personality is that humble self-enlarging creature through whom, as the eye of the needle, the Creator and all creation are invited to pass" (388). However, by the end of this lengthy volume, this pithy statement may come across as a bit disingenuous to some readers because of the tone with which the author tends to deal with matters of religion and faith throughout the study. One might remark on the rather guiltless condescension with which some postmodern scholarship treats these highly personal and important issues. The quote above appears to salute a "Creator," while many passages throughout the book make it clear that the author is largely unsympathetic to, or else unwilling to seriously consider, the possible effects of that same Creator. The most egregious example of this symptom is in Chapter 2, covering Whitefield and the Great Awakening, where the author is clearly unable to understand the phenomenon of conversion on any level except a postmodern/naturalistic one. Ruttenburg is unable to conceive of conversion as having anything to do with the supernatural or the spiritual, and this sensibility, subtle though it may appear to some, may become rather tedious to other readers relying on different presuppositions, not to mention those who are simply interested in honoring the beliefs of others. Ruttenburg's analysis is hardly alone on this count, as Jenny Franchot has eloquently and concisely argued in her excellent critique, "Invisible Domains: Religion and American Literary Studies" (American Literature 67 [Dec. 1995]: 833-42). As Franchot argues, perhaps scholars should now begin to cultivate the same sensitivity to matters of faith and spirituality that they have so ably and earnestly demonstrated in their discussions of the more familiar categories of race, class, gender, and sexuality.

Harold K. Bush, Jr.

Saint Louis University
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Author:Bush, Harold K., Jr.
Publication:Nineteenth-Century Prose
Article Type:Book review
Date:Mar 22, 2000
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