Synopses & Reviews
Asking why many American intellectuals have had such difficulty accepting wholeheartedly the cultural dimensions of democracy, Robert Dawidoff examines their alienation and ambivalence, a tradition of detachment he identifies as "Tocquevillian." In the work of three towering American literary figures - Henry Adams, Henry James, and George Santayana -- Dawidoff explores fully this distancing and uneasy response to democratic culture.
Linked together by common Harvard, Cambridge, and New England connections, and by an upper-class, Brahmin background, each of these three writers, Dawidoff argues, was at once self-critical and contemptuous of cultural democracy -- especially its indifference to them and what they represented. But their claims to detached observation of democratic culture must be viewed skeptically, Dawidoff warns, and borrowed with caution.
An important contribution of the book is its integration of gay issues into American intellectual history. Viewing James's and Santayana's attitudes toward their homosexuality as affecting their views of American society, Dawidoff examines this significant and overlooked element in the American intellectual and cultural mix. Dawidoff also includes powerful new readings of Adams's Democracy and James's The Ambassadors and discusses Santayana's Americanist essays.
In his foreward, Alan Trachtenberg notes the "taboo" that seems to have fallen over the word democracy. "It is rarely encountered anymore in humanistic studies," he says, " snubbed in favor of gender, class, race, region." This trend, he says, may be in part due to an unease about studying the culture in which we participate because the posture of the cutural critic implies a certain detachment. "The Genteel Tradition and the Sacred Rage returns the question of democracy to centerstage," he concludes, "not as political theory alone but as cultural and personal experience."
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"[A] lively and judicious book."--Henry James Review "Who else could take us from Santayana to Charlie the Tuna? The secret of Robert Dawidoff's brilliance is the delight he takes--and gives--in every level of American culture. Vernacular or elite, he is at home with them all and unsettles them equally with his restless, dazzling regard."--Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick, author of Epistemology of the Closet "Explores three great writers who, overcoming a pattern of upperclass alienation from crude popular democracy, produced a stunning range of response to the possibilities of American life. Penetrating, witty, and often daringly off-beat, Dawidoff is especially good when he looks at Henry Adams the novelist, Santayana the historian, and Henry James the master of whodunit technique. He writes cultural history of a high order."--J. C. Levenson, University of Virginia