This is the sixth post in a conversation that Mark Athitakis and I have been having on our blogs about Henry Adams’ 1880 novel, “Democracy.” See Mark’s previous post, “Media Circuses and New Monuments,” here.
I take some comfort from your comment that Adams does have a soft spot for the city and just has to cross the river (or go for a canter along Rock Creek) to find it. I say “some comfort,” because by the end of the book, it feels like he can’t wait to put Washington behind him. You can sense Adams’ relief as well as the characters’ when Sybil declares that she and Madeleine can never come back to Washington.
That rejection is undercut slightly by Sybil’s postscript to the letter she sends Carrington, urging him to try again as Madeleine’s suitor after they’ve returned from their travels abroad. (Carrington, too, is well away from Washington, finding gainful employment in a six-month assignment to Mexico.) There’s a sense that, much as one might loathe the atmosphere of Washington, people will keep coming here to try to accomplish something. If one decides to see Madeleine as a stand-in for the American people and Carrington as a specimen of that rare breed, the honest politician, there’s the tiniest ray of hope that she can still be won over by his virtues. That’s as close to optimism as Adams lets himself get in this book.
Small comfort, I think. Is Democracy a great Washington novel? By my lights, no. Adams is so hell-bent on skewering the place he can’t really see it. This is one of the traps that satire can fall into, and Democracy does.
Like you, I find Adams perceptive about certain aspects of capital-city political and social culture; you mention the Reliable Source-like report on the ball, for instance. I’d have enjoyed more of that kind of dissection, because Adams has a sharp eye for the grasping and the pretentious, qualities that Washington will always have plenty of.
I can’t quite forgive him, though, for scenes like the White House receiving line, which reduces political Washington to a puppet show, with figures stiff as marionettes. Even in a satirical book that felt like a cheap shot to me, and ultimately not that interesting, which may be the truly unforgivable fault in a story. For me, there’s also the problem that this is my hometown, and I don’t like to see it roughly handled. Which doesn’t make me the most impartial reader. I can’t let go of the feeling that D.C. is a city of dreams as well as Ratcliffian amorality, a place where splendid things can happen. Adams would laugh at that, probably.
I’m left unsatisfied by Democracy. But I still don’t know what a really great D.C. novel would look like. (I haven’t read Grief by Andrew Holleran; you’ve convinced me it needs to be on my list.) Can you imagine a D.C. version of All the King’s Men? Do movies stand a better chance of getting at the place than novels do, in part because they can use the backdrop of the cityscape so effectively? Or is the great D.C. novel not going to be about politics at all? Maybe we should ask Ed Jones.