Saturday, May 17, 2008

Throes of Democracy

I'm a little over halfway through, but I thought I'd deliver an interim report on Walter McDougall's Throes of Democracy.

Let's begin with what it is not. It is not a narrative political history of the period. If you are not already familiar with the basic chronology of events, this book is not for you. I think the book would be tremendously confusing to a reader lacking sufficient background.

It is true that Professor McDougall does intersperse impressionistic summary accounts of the political background here and there, but I just don't think it's enough. Certainly, the reader who assumes he is going to get a comprehensible overview of the period is going to be sorely disappointed. If that is what you want, my recommendation is that you opt for Daniel Ward Howe's magnificent What Hath God Wrought (covering 1815-1848), David M. Potter's definitive The Impending Crisis (1848-1861), James McPherson's Battle Cry of Freedom (Civil War) and Eric Foner's Reconstruction (or Kenneth M. Stampp's brief but excellent The Era of Reconstruction).

So much for what the book is not. What, then, is it? Here's where I start scratching my head. I suppose that most would characterize it as a "social history" (with snippets of political narrative scattered about). I fear, however, that that phrase gives the book too much credit. Good social history does not, perhaps should not, have a "point," but it should at least have an organizing principle that allows the reader to understand why the author is focusing on certain phenomena rather than others. Daniel Walker Howe's What Hath God Wrought is magnificent in this respect, bringing together social, religious, literary, technological and political developments to try to explain the multiple competing visions in the first half of the Nineteenth Century of what America was and what it should become, and how and why it went down one path rather than others.

Broadly speaking, Professor McDougall clearly has a theme. He sees Nineteenth Century America as a wildly diverse, violent and contradictory, teeming with avaricious hustlers, immigrants, preachers (who may be hustlers or reformers or both) and reformers (who may be hustlers or preachers or both).

But in conveying this theme, Professor McDougall encounters a problem. He does so largely by telling a series of stories about particular characters and movements. Some are interesting, some are not, but it is hard to tell what binds them all together, other than the fact that they illustrate the diversity outlined above. However, if diversity is the only common element, then everything is relevant. In the end, one gets the impression that Professor McDougall is simply stitching together otherwise discrete essays, statistics, trivia and biographical sketches. The result is not Frankenstein, but you can see the scars, and the whole is less -- and less satisfying -- than the sum of the parts.

Let me take one chapter as an example: "Migrants, Farmers, Mechanics, and Clowns: The Anxious, Exciting Birth of an Industrial People, 1830-1860. In sixty pages, Professor McDougall discusses aspects of the following:

Introduction, population growth
Irish immigration and efforts to oppose bias
German immigration and influence
Jewish immigration
Emmigration from New England to the Old Northwest
Farming in the Northwest; technological innovation; transport
Technology: patents; telegraph, sewing machine
Coal; locomotive; railroad development
Rise and growth of technology redux
Newspapers and magazines
Dan Rice, entertainer and huckster
P.T. Barnum, entertainer and huckster
High vs. low entertainment

There you have it. The topics are related, and you can even discern a sort of progression from one topic to the next, but the overall impression is an unsatisfying jumble.

As I said, I am only half way through. If my impression changes, I will be happy to repent.

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