Through portraits of four figures-Charles Willson Peale, Hugh Henry Brackenridge, William Dunlap, and Noah Webster-Joseph Ellis provides a unique perspective on the role of culture in post-Revolutionary America, both its high expectations and its frustrations.
Each life is fascinating in its own right, and each is used to brightly illuminate the historical context.
A handful of brief biographies to illustrate the hopes and disillusionment of artists in a triumphant democracy. In this tight, convincing book, Ellis studies the careers of painter Charles Willson Peale, novelist Hugh Henry Brackenridge, playwright and theater manager William Dunlap, and lexicographer Noah Webster. Like others in the generation that came to maturity with the Revolution, they thought America's newly won independence heralded a great cultural flowering, and fondly anticipated taking part in it. The New Athens, of course, never saw the light of day, not least because of the country's profound ambivalence towards the arts. Many Americans, even well-educated ones, shared the view of Plato, Rousseau, and other European thinkers that, as Ellis puts it, "The muses were history's buzzards; when they began to gather, the end was near." Then, as the 19th century ushered in a period of explosive capitalist expansion, it became apparent that artists would have to come to terms with the market in all its crudity, that their professional integrity and patriotic loyalty to the people were at odds with one another. In his own way each of Ellis' men recoiled at the necessity of living "in that space between aesthetic standards and popular opinion," but live there they did. Peale failed to support himself with his brush, but succeeded with his outlandish museum - the contents of which were snapped up after his death by P. T. Barnum. Dunlap went bankrupt with Shakespeare, but hit the jackpot with Kotzebue and chauvinistic extravaganzas like The Glory of Columbia. Webster made a lot of money with his speller and dictionary, but grew progressively more disgusted with the runaway development of the freedoms he had once championed. The only word, he claimed, he had ever coined was "demoralize." In the end, with Emerson, this tension led to an open split: American artists embraced alienation, and culture became a segregated sphere of our national life. Ellis' argument ably combines sweeping breadth and fine detail: a solid piece of scholarship with something important to say about a turning point in American history. (Kirkus Reviews)