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Paul Downes. Democracy, Revolution, and Monarchism in Early American Literature.

Paul Downs. Democracy, Revolution, and Monarchism in Early American Literature. Cambridge: University of Cambridge Press, 2002.

Paul Downes's Democracy, Revolution, and Monarchism in Early American Literature begins in Haiti, during the 1995 elections. An elderly man pokes his head out of the voting booth. For whom should he vote, he wants to know. This violation of the voter's secrecy and autonomy produces an almost hysterical reaction on the part of the poll watchers. They scream at him in unison that he must decide for himself. If the monarch was criticized for deciding the fate of his subjects while removed from the world and keeping the logic of his decisions a secret, how different is that from the manner in which democratic subjects make their political participation felt in the secret, removed space of the voting booth? The voting booth becomes Downes's starting point for deconstructing the American Revolution's opposition between monarchism and democracy. Refusing to take the American Revolution's rhetoric at face value, Democracy explores the interdependence of these two founding categories in the construction of an early American political identity. Although democracy gained meaning and political strength through its opposition to the king, Downes argues, it nonetheless used monarchism as a model for sovereign democracy.

Despite its breadth, Downes's first chapter provides a good foundation for his discussion of the role of a disembodied democratic subjectivity in early American political life. He first focuses on the mock burials of George 111, claiming that these political demonstrations inaugurated a political investment in the "institution of bodiless (or disembodied) political authority" (38). This political investment in a disembodied political voice, in turn, produced a contradictory relationship between materiality and immutable truths. Downes reads the anxiety produced by such a contradiction in the popular constructions of the "vanishing" Native American. As both noble savages and savage nobles, Native Americans represented a regal, timeless connection to eternal truths and the monarch's gaudy materiality, respectively.

Furthermore, postrevolutionary resistance to an embodied and historically contingent political subjectivity transformed women and non-whites into heirs of the monarch's rejected corporeality. In his fifth chapter, Downes reads the consequences of this inheritance in Washington Irving's "Rip Van Winkle," which creates a gendered and absolute opposition between disembodied noble masculine speech and noisy, forceful embodied feminine democratic speech. Downes disrupts this opposition by demonstrating that while revolutionaries rejected the effeminate corporeality of monarchism, democracy continues to demand that the "political voice confront its irreducible relationship to embodied ... speech constructed around a mutual contamination of referential clarity and rhetorical force" (163).

In postrevolutionary America, the people no longer needed to take a detour through the king's body to realize their rights. Consequently, citizens are subject to the laws that they have created. For J. Hector St John de Crevecouer, revolutionary rhetoric could not obfuscate the conflictual nature of a democratic citizen who is both political subject and political sovereign. Crevecouer thus condemns the revolt against George III in Letters from an American Farmer. While Jefferson may have legitimated the revolution by claiming innate, natural, God-given rights, for Crevecouer only the distant patriarch/monarch can create a coincidence between the political and the moral. Like the dead, noble Native Americans, Downes argues, the distant dead father in Letters becomes idealized and appropriated so citizens may enjoy the monarchic power "in the democratized form of legal life after death" (74).

Downes continues to explore the conflictual nature of citizenship in his comparison of two models of revolutionary subjectivity: Benjamin Franklin and Stephen Burroughs. At first, Stephen Burroughs, a counterfeiter, thief, and confidence man, seems to have little in common with the law-writing and law-abiding Benjamin Franklin. While Franklin preferred to sacrifice his self to the anonymous text of the law, Burroughs refuses to make such a self sacrifice--the sacrifice every citizen must make to participate in democracy--and insists on his individual voice. In the end, however, Burroughs experienced the same sacrifice of self and individuality through writing as thieves began to appropriate his name to their crimes, thus multiplying and dispersing his self. While Burroughs's disappearance into print caused him much misery, Franklin thrives because he willingly embraces government that replaces "bodies at the center of state power ... with structures of representation, written law, and elected positions" (99).

The abstraction of these two men into print results in a self-sacrifice of individuality that is similar to the way citizens make their participation felt through the anonymity of writing (the ballot). In his reading of Charles Brockden Brown's ventriloquists and fictional secret keepers, Downes focuses on the secret ballot in order to examine the relations among secrecy, writing, and democratic participation. Giving up all secrets, both in Brown's fiction and in political life, transforms people into hollow agents of the law. However, holding on to secrets does not provide Brown's fictional secret keepers, and by extension citizens, a fullness of identity. Rather, secrets create a relationship of appropriation that allows people to become disembodied subjects as they "throw their voice" in order to participate in the democratic political process.

Downes's Democracy deconstructs the traditional opposition between monarchy and democracy, thus advancing a compelling argument of how the extension of democratic rights owes much to its inheritance from monarchy. Unapologetically theoretical, Downes creates an engaging dialogue with the work of philosophers and political theorists like Derrida, Balibar, Arendt, Laclau, and Mouffe. The result is a work that provides a fresh methodological approach to the field of early American literature.

Pablo Ramirez

University of Guelph
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Author:Ramirez, Pablo
Publication:English Studies in Canada
Article Type:Book review
Date:Dec 1, 2005
Words:910
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