Young America: The Flowering of Democracy in New York City

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This fascinating study examines the meteoric career of a vigorous intellectual movement rising out of the Age of Jackson. As Americans argued over their destiny in the decades preceding the Civil War, an outspoken new generation of "ultra-democratic" writers entered the fray, staking out positions on politics, literature, art, and any other territory they could annex. They called themselves Young America--and they proclaimed a "Manifest Destiny" to push back frontiers in every category of achievement. Their swagger found a natural home in New York City, already bursting at the seams and ready to take on the world.

Young America's mouthpiece was the Democratic Review, a highly influential magazine funded by the Democratic Party and edited by the brash and charismatic John O'Sullivan. The Review offered a fresh voice in political journalism, and sponsored young writers like Hawthorne and Whitman early in their careers. Melville, too, was influenced by Young America, and provided a running commentary on its many excesses. Despite brilliant promise, the movement fell apart in the 1850s, leaving its original leaders troubled over the darker destiny they had ushered in. Their ambitious generation had failed to rewrite history as promised. Instead, their perpetual agitation helped set the stage for the Civil War.

Young America: The Flowering of Democracy in New York City is without question the most complete examination of this captivating and original movement. It also provides the first published biography of its leader, John O'Sullivan, one of America's great rhetoricians. Edward L. Widmer enriches his unique volume by offering a new theory of Manifest Destiny as part of a broader movement of intellectual expansion in nineteenth-century America.

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Most people have probably never heard of John O'Sullivan, who launched a magazine called Democratic Review in 1837 with money provided by the Democratic Party, or of the "Young America" movement the magazine spearheaded. But one of the phrases that emerged from Sullivan's writing--"Manifest Destiny"--has entered the American lexicon, although in a much more limited form than its author intended. When O'Sullivan wrote in 1838, "It is manifest that the reaction now apparent over the whole length and breadth of the land is a great national movement that must go on," he had in mind not merely the expansion of political boundaries but a broad cultural dissemination of democratic principles that encompassed literature and other arts.

Edward L. Widmer's effective combination of history and literary criticism sheds much-needed light on an intellectual movement that captured many sons and grandsons of the American Revolution, including Nathaniel Hawthorne and Walt Whitman (and, although he would always maintain a critical distance, Herman Melville). Young America vividly depicts the United States in the tumultuous years between the presidency of Andrew Jackson and the Civil War, an era in which politics was America's popular culture.

About the Author:


Edward L. Widmer has taught at Harvard University and the Rhode Island School of Design, and received fellowships from the Mellon Foundation, the John Carter Brown Library, and the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research. He is currently a White House speechwriter and lives in Washington with his wife and son.

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