Democratic Personality: Popular Voice and the Trial of American Authorship

Stanford University Press

This book proposes a new view of the democratization of America by recasting democracy as a symbolic theater, historically realized in an untheorized and irrational public utterance that began with the Salem witchcraft crisis of 1692 and extended through the Great Awakening and the antebellum era. This discursive practice gave rise, as popular voice, to a distinctive mode of political and literary subjectivity, "democratic personality," which emerged without reference to the political-philosophical currents and attendant humanistic values that anticipated the formation of a liberal democratic society.

The author constructs a genealogy of democratic personality by examining the historical and, later, fictional theaters within which it emerged to redefine the relation of appearance to reality and thus challenge hierarchies of political and cultural power. Its history, as outlined in the first half of the book, traces how colonial culture forsook Puritan cosmology to embrace the complex cultural semiosis of a democratic society based on the representational potential of the individual. As a strategy for self-production that spurred an urgent inquiry into the ontological status of representation, democratic personality crucially influenced the rise of a national literature by complicating the ideological problem of establishing a "democratic" poetics.

The second half of the book examines the development—in the work of Brown, Crèvecoeur, Burroughs, Cooper, Emerson, and Whitman—of an American "aesthetic of innocence." As a platform for the production of a national literature that would claim a unique exemption from the deformations of fiction, the aesthetic of innocence evolved into the practice of a literary eugenics that intended to domesticate democratic personality by embracing its primitive energies as uniquely American while attempting to contain the subversive uncontainability of its voice. The book concludes with a reading of Billy Budd, Melville's novelistic rejection of liberal culture's attempt to domesticate democratic personality.

About the Author

Nancy Ruttenburg is the William Robertson Coe Professor of American Literature in the English Department at Stanford. She also holds courtesy appointments in the Department of Comparative Literature and the Department of Slavic Languages and Literatures.  She received the PhD in Comparative Literature from Stanford (1988) and taught at Harvard, Berkeley, and most recently at NYU, where she was chair of the Department of Comparative Literature from 2002-2008.   Her research interests lie at the intersection of political, religious, and literary expression in colonial through antebellum America and nineteenth-century Russia, with a particular focus on the development of liberal and non-liberal forms of democratic subjectivity.  Related interests include history of the novel, novel theory, and the global novel; philosophy of religion and ethics; and problems of comparative method, especially as they pertain to North American literature and history.

Prof. Ruttenburg is the author of Democratic Personality: Popular Voice and the Trial of American Authorship (Stanford UP, 1998) and Dostoevsky's Democracy (Princeton UP, 2008), and she has recently written on the work of J. M. Coetzee and on Melville’s “Bartleby.”  Books in progress include a study of secularization in the postrevolutionary United States arising out of the naturalization of “conscience” as inalienable right, entitled Conscience, Rights, and 'The Delirium of Democracy'; and a comparative work entitled  Dostoevsky And for which the Russian writer serves as a lens on the historical development of a set of intercalated themes in the literature of American modernity.  These encompass self-making and self-loss (beginning with Frederick Douglass's serial autobiographies); sentimentalism and sadism (in abolitionist fiction); crime and masculinity (including Mailer's The Executioner's Song); and the intersection of race, religious fundamentalism, and radical politics (focusing on the works of James Baldwin and Marilynne Robinson).  Her courses will draw from both these projects.  

Prof. Ruttenburg is past president of the Charles Brockden Brown Society and has been the recipient of a Guggenheim Fellowship, a National Humanities Center Fellowship, a University of California President's Research Fellowship, as well as fellowships from the Social Science Research Council for Russian and East European Studies, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the American Council for Learned