Theses Doctoral

Rum, Rome, and Rebellion: The Reform of Reform in the Political Fiction of the Gilded Age

Fernandez, Matthew Joseph

"Rum, Rome, and Rebellion: The Reform of Reform in the Political Fiction of the Gilded Age" examines a collection of American political novelists who were active during the mid- to late-nineteenth century. These writers were not only active in politics, they also used their experience in politics to compose realist fiction that typically contained a great deal of humor and satire. Despite their different backgrounds, each of these writers challenged the literary and political conventions of Romanticism, championing ironic detachment and cosmopolitanism. Although fiction about quotidian political life rarely achieves canonical status, such literature has always enjoyed a large readership, both in the nineteenth-century and in our own time. This dissertation attempts to untangle why we find (or don’t find) literature about quotidian political life entertaining and/or instructive, while also providing insight into this transitional period in American history.

Each chapter concentrates on the fifty-year period between 1848 and 1898 from a different location, forming what are essentially four cross-sectional samples. This serves two interconnected purposes. One, it reorients the periodization of American literature and history away from 1865 by highlighting cultural continuities between the periods before and after the Civil War And two, it serves to highlight the integration of American literature, culture, and politics, with the broader, nineteenth-century Atlantic world, where the year 1865 carries less cultural significance. The first chapter begins in the nation's capital and examines the anti-populist liberalism of Henry Adams and John Hay. From Washington, we move north to New England where we encounter Henry James’s Bostonians. With the exception of Lionel Trilling, few major critics have championed James’s "middle period," which provides quasi-ethnographic sketches of political movements on both sides of the Atlantic. I reveal James’s long-standing fascination and engagement with the political analyses of Alexis de Tocqueville, Nathaniel Hawthorne, and his friend, Henry Adams. I show how the novel anticipates George Santayana’s notion of "the genteel tradition" which dominated northern American culture during this period. After examining two canonical figures, I turn my attention in a more southerly direction, to two lesser known authors. The first is Maria Ruiz de Burton, a Mexican writer from the Southwestern Borderlands who immigrated to the U.S. after the Mexican-American War. Ruiz de Burton has primarily been read as a proto-Chicana/o author, but I view her as a cosmopolitan whose observations about American culture and politics resemble those of James and Santayana. My last chapter is set in Louisiana, where we encounter and recover an eccentric, Spanish-Creole politician and author named Charles Gayarré and his 1856 novel The School for Politics, a satire of local machine politics. Largely forgotten today, Gayarré was connected to intellectual circles in both Europe and Latin America, and was acquainted with American writers like Herman Melville and Henry Adams. I relate The School for Politics with his later political novels in which anti-imperialism and a pluralistic plea for the tolerance of ethnic minorities also implicitly serve as an apology for racial segregation in the Jim Crow South.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
English and Comparative Literature
Thesis Advisors
Delbanco, Andrew
Graham, Thomas Austin
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
January 19, 2022