Washington Irving, “Salmagundi” (1807–1808)

My friend then proceeded to inform me that for some time before, and during the continuance of an election, there was a most delectable courtship or intrigue, carried on between the great bashaws, and mother mob. That mother mob generally preferred the attentions of the rabble, or of fellows of her own stamp, but would sometimes condescend to be treated to a feasting, or any thing of that kind, at the bashaw’s expense. (208)

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Salmagundi was a short-lived periodical written by Washington Irving with the help of his brother. Much like the letters of Jonathan Oldstyle, the Salmagundi was a cooperative effort between the Irving brothers. The articles in each issue are extremely varied, including poetry, stories, commentary by the editor “Launcelot Langstaff” or the Captain of a Ketch, “Mustapha Rub-a-Dub Keli Khan,” or other sketches and stories. Many of these characters are drawn from Irving’s life and social circle. In spirit they remind the reader of the letters of Jonathan Oldstyle in that they are a reflection of a culture coming to know democracy and eager to debate the profound, the serious, and the mundane within the commons. As much as the Federalist Papers, the Salmagundi is a product of the American Revolution, and the emerging unique American political and cultural identity. It should be more commonly studied, in part because reading them is so pleasurable.

The completed Salmagundi consists of twenty issues, published over a little over a year (January 24, 1807 to January 25, 1808). They are all divided into a few parts and each total around 15 pages each (I am not sure how much each issue would have been in the original type). They were meant to be read in short bits, probably in the company of others or in a public space. The “public use of reason” fills up every page. They are essentially political documents, posing as social satire.

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Most issues open with commentary by Launcelot Langstaff, introducing the characters that have submitted articles and occasionally talking about his encounters with various denizens of the city, focusing on their conversations about politics and social life. We can notice a few things about these commentaries. First, Langstaff is interested in publicizing private conversations, although they are fictional, they seem to be rooted in real experiences and considerations of the day. In the age of universal surveillance, much has been said about the importance of privacy and the unjust interference into private lives. On the other side of the question is the necessity of a vibrant public life that seems to undermine privacy for the public good. We accept this for public figures. Their affairs and hypocrisy are considered socially relevant in a democratic society. Does this not privilege those leaders? Suggesting that they are more important to a democracy than the average person. I wonder if there is a larger argument to be had about the role of the privacy, the commons, and public discourse. Better to have your private life exposed than to lose the commons of public discourse.

As a piece of evidence that that authors of the Salmagundi hold no private thoughts sacred, consider the February 24, 1807 edition, which has at its core the exposure and publication (without consent it seems) of the private travelogue of one Jeremy Cockloft, the Younger. The only justification for this invasion of his privacy is that the notes “may not prove uninteresting to my readers.” (94) This journal is exposed with the same irreverence as the day-to-day oddities of the New York Assembly Hall. Despite saying later that “whether we write, or not write, to be none of the public’s business,” the authors are shameless in putting nearly everything they can into the public record. (189) Mustapha Rub-a-Dub makes a comment in one of his letters arguing that all people want their place in the sun, if only for a moment. As a text, the Salmagundi suggest that this was possible in a democratic society.

One of the most memorable figures in the Salmagundi is Mustapha Rub-a-Dub Keli Khan, who befriended Langstaff while he visited America. He wrote letters back to Tripoli, but they were not sent off before being translated by Will Wizard (another contributor to the Salmagundi), who knows all languages. The early United States was no stranger to European travelers commenting on the new republic and its absurdities. Rub-a-Dub’s comments seem to build on these other Old World observations of the United States. He serves to ridicule American government systems, pomposity, and disorderly society. It is hard for an American not to feel proud at his comments about American women “boxing the ears” of their husbands or the order from below created by the militias. Here is his conclusion on the military: “Such, my friend, is the gigantic genius of this nation, and its faculty of swelling up nothings into importance. Our bashaw of Tripoli, will review his troops of some thousands, by an early hour in the morning. Here a review of six hundred men is made the might work of a day! With us a bashaw of two tails is never appointed to a command of less than ten thousand men; but here we behold every grade from the bashaw, down to the drum-major, in a force of less than one tenth of the number. By the beard of Mahomet, but every thing here is indeed on a great scale.” (120)

Yet for all the mockery and fun and satire of the Salmagundi it a celebration of a young republic and the democracy that was being lived out on the streets and public spaces. It also broached serious political and international questions such as women’s rights, suffrage, impressment at the seas, government corruption, and even social class.

Washington Irving, “Letters of Jonathan Oldstyle Gent.” (1802–1803)

There is nothing that seems more strange and preposterous to me than the manner in which modern marriages are conducted. The parties keep the matter as secret as if there was something disgraceful in the connexion. The lady positively denies that any thing of the king is to happen; will laugh at her intended husband, and even lays bets against eh event, the very day before it is to take place. They sneak into matrimony as quietly as possible, and seem to pride themselves on the cunning and ingenuity they have displayed in their manoeuvers. (7)

To get my feet wet with Washington Irving, I will start small, with the nine satirical letters of “Jonathan Oldstyle,” published in The Morning Chronicle in 1802 and 1803. As I understand it, they were edited by Irving’s brother who must have known that the content was satire, but they were more ambiguously presented to the audience. In this way, the political and social satire of these letters is more advanced than much of the satire we see today, which is satire on its face and presented in clearly satirical venues (Comedy Central, for instance). I think it would be nice if the many daily newspapers printed a bit more subtly exposed satire than much of the drivel on the lifestyle pages.

By this point in this project, I reckon I am incapable of not seeing anarchist tensions in the bulk of American prose. In these letters, it comes across as an a type of vernacular conflict between the old and the new, set primarily in the theatres but also in other arenas of the American commons. Accounts such as these certainly make me pine for the vibrant commons of the past. While I often find “Johnathan Oldstyle” hopelessly old-fashioned (or course that is Irving’s intention), I wonder if I am not part of this generation’s “Oldstyles” At least in Irving’s day they could struggle about the proper way to present oneself when engaged in the public sphere or the content of its discourse. Today we lack much of a public square at all, being reduced to the scraps of Internet memes and the faux public space of contemporary coffee shops. In both the macro and the content, the letters of Jonathan Oldstyle are of the public. Whether we take them seriously or not, we read them awakened to the richness of the vernacular and contested public sphere.

Listen to Oldstyle complain of the popular fashions and to his ears vulgar flirting among the youth.

But now, our youths no longer aim at the character of pretty gentlemen: their greatest ambition is to be called lazy dogs—careless fellows—etc. etc. Dressed up in the mammoth style, our buck saunters into the ball-room in a surtout hat under arm, cane in hand; strolls round with the most vacant air; stops abruptly before such lady as he may choose to honor with his attention; entertains her with the common slang of the day, collected from the conversation of hostlers, footmen, porters, etc. until his string of smart sayings is run out, and then lounges off, to entertain some other fair one with the same unintelligible jargon. (6)

The rich levels of vernacular conversation are striking to me. The origin of vernacular conversation among the “pretty gentlemen” is learned from the underclass and carried into the ballrooms with no small degree of pomp to be spread to the ears of young women. Quite wonderful actually.

Most of the letters deal directly with the theatre, one of the most important public institutions for white men of early America. It is important to note that the content of the performance was deemed relevant to readers and author alike. They were, in other words, part of the public conversation. More memorable, however, is Oldstyle description of the audiences, fully engaged in the public conversation and putting on display their own styles for public consumption. They are as much a part of the show as the people on the stage.

I am attracted not to any particular comment or observation of Oldstyle as much as I am fascinated by the document itself, which imagines (or documents…for us it can only be imagination) a more vibrant, creative, and engaged relationship with the commons.

NOTE: I am considering taking this blog in a new direction. I feel I am close to a general interpretation of American letters from an anarchist perspective. Plus, I am quickly running out of Library of America volumes to analyze. (I live in Taiwan and lack access to the libraries that may solve this problem.) I would like to continue to do what I can with the canon, but also look more broadly at questions of American character in other areas of life, especially history. Maybe take a closer look at American anarchists as well. I also need to finish my various Philip K. Dick projects. We will see what the future will bring.

Henry Adams: “History of the United States of America: During the Second Administration of James Madison” (Parts Two and Three)

To men who believed that every calamity was a Divine judgment, politics and religion could not be made to accord. Practical politics, being commonly an affair of compromise and relative truth,—a human attempt to modify the severity of Nature’s processes,—could not expect sympathy from the absolute and abstract behests of religious. Least of all could war, even in its most necessary form, be applauded or encouraged by any clergyman who followed the precepts of Christ. The War of 1812 was not even a necessary war. Only in a metaphysical or dishonest sense could any clergyman affirm that war was more necessary in 1812 than in any former year since 1783. Diplomacy had so confused its causes that no one could say for what object Americas had intended to fight,­—still less, after the peace in Europe, for what object they continued their war. Assuming the conquest of Canada and of Indian Territory to be the motive most natural to the depraved instincts of human nature, the clergy saw every reason for expecting a judgment. (920)

The final two volumes of Henry Adams’ nine volume history of America during the presidencies of Thomas Jefferson and James Madison cover the final year of the War of 1812, the peace settlement, and the legislation passed during the final two years of Madison’s term. There is also space, after almost 2,600 pages of detailed diplomatic, political, and military history to consider how the United States had changed between 1800 and 1815. The changes are dramatic and for Adams signified a consolidation of the national character. This is not very far from how historians now reflect on the War of 1812. They see it as an important war for its contribution to American identity and American nationalism. Of course, it provided many heroes (two would become presidents) and symbols (the National Anthem). I could not find any historians that agree with me that it should be looked at as a war for empire. I hope that is a sign of my novelty and not a sign that I am totally off base.

My opening quote is from Adams’ coverage of the Massachusetts clergy and their sustained opposition to the war. When reading it, I found it a useful reminder that some people certainly saw the war of 1812 for what it was, a vainglorious and ultimately successful attempt to expand the reach of the U.S. empire. I have covered this in my previous posts, so I will move to why Adams thinks 1815 was a turning point in the American identity.

Between 1800 and 1815, the United States became committed to the Federalist policies, even as they were being enacted by Republican legislatures. Acceptance of a national debt, a standing army, an expanded navy, and taxation were made necessary by the war and proved to be not at all as odious as the Jeffersonians made it out to be. There was a common acceptance of national development as well. “For the first time in their history, as a nation, the people of the United States ceased to disturb themselves about politics or patronage.” (1245) What replaced these political divisions was a movement toward economism. He even mentions in passing that this had a tragic consequence in entrenching slavery in the South. North and south, across parties, all whites could apparently enjoy the profits derived from the Cotton South, without political divides getting in the way. “The Rights of Man occupied public thoughts less, and the price of cotton more.” (1253) This, I hope we can agree, was not a positive shift in American life. It seems to suggest an end to a fierce debate in the early years of the American republic over what liberty would mean. It would not be until the Civil War that such a debate was revived (and again, capital and economic necessity would win out over an expanded definition of freedom).

While becoming more economically-minded and politically-unified, the nation had also become more integrated with canals, roads, and internal markets. Perhaps reflecting the turn toward practical politics, thought was also driven toward pragmatism. The hard-headed theological Puritanism of the colonial era gave way to new religious movements that had a softer, more unifying perspective. Adams reports on the rise of Unitarianism. Fixed principles in religion went along with fixed principles in politics. In literature, the shift in these years was the turn away from England and the development of an American character. Adams spares a few words for fellow Library of America member Washington Irving and his The History of New York.

The result of all of this, for Adams, was a country that was no longer in danger of being divided into separate nations. It is not clear what he made of the Civil War. Apparently it was not evidence of a divided nation. Writing at a time when the Civil War was commonly seen as an unfortunate scuffle between brothers, perhaps Adams really meant it. Is it possible that we can look at the period covered in Adams’ history as the beginning of the closing of political options and therefore the real end of the American Revolution. Never again could a politician get away with calling his election to president a “revolution,” like Jefferson did in 1800.

Adams ends his history connecting to some of the themes in his other work about the shift from the medieval to the modern. For the United States, the dynamo won out in 1815.

New subjects demanded new treatment, no longer dramatic but steadily tending to become scientific. The traits of American character were fixed; the rate of physical and  economical growth was established; and history, certain that at a given distance of time the Union would contain so many millions of people, with wealth valued at so many millions of dollars, because thenceforward chiefly concerned to know what kind of people these millions were to be. They were intelligent, but what paths would their intelligence select? They were quick, but what solution of insoluble problems would quickness hurry? They were scientific, and what control would their science exercise over their destiny? (1345)