Republic of Taste: Art, Politics, and Everyday Life in Early America (Early American Studies)

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9780812248234: Republic of Taste: Art, Politics, and Everyday Life in Early America (Early American Studies)
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Since the early decades of the eighteenth century, European, and especially British, thinkers were preoccupied with questions of taste. Whether Americans believed that taste was innate—and therefore a marker of breeding and station—or acquired—and thus the product of application and study—all could appreciate that taste was grounded in, demonstrated through, and confirmed by reading, writing, and looking. It was widely believed that shared aesthetic sensibilities connected like-minded individuals and that shared affinities advanced the public good and held great promise for the American republic.

Exploring the intersection of the early republic's material, visual, literary, and political cultures, Catherine E. Kelly demonstrates how American thinkers acknowledged the similarities between aesthetics and politics in order to wrestle with questions about power and authority. Judgments about art, architecture, literature, poetry, and the theater became an arena for considering political issues ranging from government structures and legislative representation to qualifications for citizenship and the meaning of liberty itself. Additionally, if taste prompted political debate, it also encouraged affinity grounded in a shared national identity. In the years following independence, ordinary women and men reassured themselves that taste revealed larger truths about an individual's character and potential for republican citizenship.

Did an early national vocabulary of taste, then, with its privileged visuality, register beyond the debates over the ratification of the Constitution? Did it truly extend beyond political and politicized discourse to inform the imaginative structures and material forms of everyday life? Republic of Taste affirms that it did, although not in ways that anyone could have predicted at the conclusion of the American Revolution.

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About the Author:

Catherine E. Kelly is Associate Professor and L. R. Brammer Jr. Presidential Professor of History at the University of Oklahoma. She is author of In the New England Fashion: Reshaping Women's Lives in the Nineteenth Century.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Introduction
The American Republic of Taste

Henry Cheever, an academy student in Massachusetts, was determined to hone his prose, molding it to meet the standards laid out by Hugh Blair's Lectures on Rhetoric and Belles Lettres and by Henry Home, Lord Kames's Elements of Criticism. He filled his commonplace book with epigrams culled from the works of Milton, Goldsmith, Dryden, and Pope. Keen to demonstrate his mastery of the fine style prescribed by the rhetoricians and exemplified by the poets, he set out to describe the summer sunset he had just witnessed. In July 1829, after beseeching the "Omniscient Potentiate" for guidance, he wrote that the "borders of the western horizon" glowed "like a golden flame," their light punctuated by "blue pyramidial mounts like [a] sudden flash of spirit in raging roaring flames." In crafting his tortured summer sunset, Cheever marked himself not just as a reader and writer but also as a looker, as an active and engaged spectator whose "golden flames" and "blue pyramidial mounts" derived not just from a particular way of reading and writing but also from a particular way of seeing.

* * *

Lucy Sumner, newly married and intent on embodying the virtues that spelled republican womanhood, had fallen into the habit of visiting Daniel Bowen's Columbian Museum. The paintings, taxidermied birds, wax figures, and curiosities provided her circle with "rational and refined amusement," especially when compared to the risqué and "disgusting" circus that had been attracting far more patronage than she thought proper. But Sumner valued the Columbian for more than its admirable collection. The museum encouraged a distinct—and distinctly rewarding—sort of spectatorship. When one spent time at the Columbian, she explained to her friend Eliza Wharton, "the eye is gratified, the imagination charmed, and the understanding improved." Far from "palling on the taste," the interplay of familiar exhibits and novel additions had an animating effect on intellect and imagination. At the Columbian, she declared, "I am never a weary spectator."

* * *

Sometime in the late 1780s, Samuel Powel, one of the wealthiest and most influential men in Philadelphia, paid tribute to his friend and fellow revolutionary, George Washington, by tracing his silhouette and inscribing "General Washington" on its back. We have no information about the circumstances under which Powel made the profile, although family lore held that he used a recently invented Argand lamp to project Washington's profile on the wall. We know only that the Powel family took pains to save it, passing the memento from one generation to the next until it finally found a home upstairs in their elegant townhouse, now a museum. The impromptu likeness testifies to the so-called Patriot Mayor's close personal and political relationship with the pater patriae. Its preservation testifies to his family's lasting pride in that association. But behind this all-too-predictable story about prestige and personal connection is another set of stories, even if we cannot recover them. What impulses led one powerful and cosmopolitan man to amuse himself by drawing the rough silhouette of another? What impulses led a revolutionary hero known for his reserve to amuse himself and his friends in this way?

A teenaged academy student. A minor character in the United States' first best-selling novel. One man of affairs nearing the end of his life and another already securing his place in history. At first glance, the individuals at the center of these three vignettes seem to have little in common with one another. But in describing a sunset, touting the moral benefits of museum attendance, or creating a profile, each claimed citizenship in the republic of taste. To situate Henry Cheever, Lucy Sumner, Samuel Powel, and George Washington in the republic of taste is to place them at the intersection of the early republic's material, visual, literary, and political cultures. They knew that the exercise of their taste was caught up in the material world. It depended on taxidermied animals and Argand lamps. It demanded both beautiful vistas and books that contained a vocabulary capable of describing those vistas. Whether they believed that their distinguishing taste was inborn (and therefore a marker of breeding and station) or acquired (and thus the product of application and study), they understood that it was predicated upon, demonstrated through, and confirmed by reading, writing, and looking—processes that they believed to be inextricably bound together. Cheever, Sumner, Powel, and Washington also believed that their shared aesthetic sensibilities connected them to other like-minded individuals. They trusted that these shared affinities, which provided so much personal pleasure, also advanced the public good and thus held out great promise in the American republic. Never mind that the newly formed United States lacked the Old World's aesthetic infrastructure. In their eyes, the nation itself constituted a kind of gallery, a series of real and imagined spaces in which republican citizens could display and affirm their sensibility, their taste, and their virtue.

* * *

The intellectual underpinnings of the American republic of taste stretched back a century and spanned the Atlantic. European, and especially British, thinkers had been preoccupied with questions about taste, visuality, and aesthetics since the early decades of the eighteenth century. Whatever their differences, David Hume, Edmund Burke, and Hugh Blair all linked aesthetic dilemmas to political ones by the middle of the eighteenth century. Moreover, they did so in terms that invited the engagement of a growing middle class. Around the same time, prominent and well-connected painters-turned-theorists like Sir Joshua Reynolds insisted upon art's broadly didactic purpose, imbuing it with civic value. This wide-ranging body of thought, which encompassed philosophy, belles lettres, and the fine arts, contributed to a new understanding of the world. It simultaneously helped shift authority from the state to society and defined a terrain on which society could define and organize itself. Its high-minded aesthetic ideas were distilled and popularized through Britain's flourishing periodical press, starting with the Spectator (1711-1712), whose essays, published daily, titled simply by number, and reproduced widely, would influence aesthetic theory and literary culture on both sides of the Atlantic well into the nineteenth century.

Before the American Revolution, educated and affluent Anglo-Americans sought access to the tasteful world that emerged from the pages of these texts in order to strengthen their ties to the metropole, in order to become more Anglo and less American. During and after the American Revolution, however, they invested this transatlantic discourse with enormous and explicitly republican significance. Exploiting the similarities between aesthetic and political dilemmas, American thinkers explored questions about taste and beauty in order to wrestle with questions about power and authority. Thus, in 1776, John Adams imagined representative assembly as "in miniature, an exact portrait at large"; more than ten years later, Anti-Federalists repurposed Adams's metaphor to attack the proposed Constitution, which failed to provide a legislative body that could serve as a "likeness" of the people. Indeed, Federalists and Anti-Federalists explicitly invoked debates over the relative importance of uniformity and variety as components of beauty in arguments over issues including representation and the separation of powers. In much the same way, debates over the nature of taste (Was it innate or learned? Was there a single standard or were there as many standards as there were individuals?) directly informed debates over political and social authority. Precisely because the imagination posited by eighteenth-century aesthetic theory demanded both creative freedom and critical restraint, it provided Americans with an intellectual framework for considering the limits of liberty. Thinking about art, architecture, literature, poetry, or the theater thus became vehicles for thinking about and thinking through political issues ranging from government structures, to legislative representation, to qualifications for citizenship, to the meaning of liberty itself.

If taste accommodated social aspiration and encouraged political debate, it also suggested the possibility of affinity grounded in a shared national identity. Putatively free from the Old World's decadence, taste promised to be a vehicle for discovering and exercising a distinctly American genius. And putatively free from sectional prejudice and partisan strife, taste provided a platform that would encourage men and women to rise above their differences. Like "manners" and "sensibility," the period's other shibboleths, taste promised to bind the disparate citizens of a republic together while setting them apart from Europeans. Thinkers as different as Thomas Jefferson and Joseph Dennie, whose views extended across the early national political spectrum, clung to the hope that a republic could be forged at least partly out of taste. With so much at stake, it is small wonder that aesthetic preoccupations peppered the pages of the U.S. periodical press and turned up in speeches given to mark everything from college graduations to July 4th celebrations. Thus did a transatlantic republic of taste distill into an American republic of taste.

This is by now a familiar story; its narrative outlines have emerged over the past thirty years from the work of literary and cultural historians, including Jay Fliegelman, David S. Shields, Eric Slauter, and Edward Cahill. But despite all that we have recovered about the resonance of taste for American political discourse, for all that we now know about the centrality of aesthetics more generally to American intellectual life, we have scarcely paused to ask whether, much less how, the eighteenth century's aesthetic turn figured in the lives of women and men who were not intellectuals in any canonical sense of the word. Did the early national vocabulary of taste, with its privileged visuality, register beyond the debates over the ratification of the Constitution or outside the pages of the Port Folio? Did it extend past political and politicized discourse to inform the imaginative structures and material forms of everyday life? Republic of Taste affirms that it did, although not in ways that anyone could have predicted at the conclusion of the American Revolution.

In the years following independence, ordinary women and men sought membership in the republic of taste because it afforded them cultural capital and personal pleasure in equal measure. They assured themselves that taste revealed larger truths about an individual's character, about his or her potential for republican citizenship. The man (or woman) of taste was disinterested, capable of seeing past particulars to grasp universal truths. At the same time, he was sensitive to the feelings and experiences of others. He was sensitive, indeed, to the world that surrounded him. Although his taste was to some degree innate, it was also the product of careful and sustained cultivation. He was thus knowledgeable, for in fostering his own taste he had become familiar with things that were appreciated by other people of taste. This familiarity with the texts, objects, and images that signaled taste was not only intellectual. It was also material. The tasteful life was graced by exquisitely bound books and mass-produced engraved prints, by decorated ceramics and schoolgirls' needlework. It was expressed in the graceful curves and swoops of penmanship and in the serenely composed faces that looked out from oil portraits and ivory miniatures. Taste conjured soft fabrics and polished surfaces just as it conjured intellectual and imaginative aspiration.

The valorization of taste was thus well suited to the early republic's Janus-faced culture of class, which simultaneously promised opportunity and reinforced distinction. In theory, taste operated freely, unconstrained by either hereditary status or financial net worth. By and large, Americans preferred thinkers who treated taste as a capacity that responded to careful cultivation over those who believed it to be an absolute. But however taste was theorized, it operated within a constellation of texts, images, objects, and persons that placed it well beyond the grasp of people whose occupations, wealth, or race excluded them from the ranks of an emerging middle class. Lack of money and standing did not necessarily signal a lack of taste. Indeed, the laboring men and women who created refinement's props often insisted that the quality of the goods they produced reflected their taste as well as their skill. That said, one was far more likely to discover a capacity for taste in a young woman whose once-respectable family had been rendered destitute by hard times than in a young man bent on clawing his way out of hardscrabble poverty.

Broad as taste's compass might have been, when Anglo-Americans attempted to define or to account for it, they turned time and again to metaphors and examples that hinged on sight and seeing. For Americans as for their British counterparts, taste and its cognate words—imagination, fancy, discretion, and, to a lesser extent, connoisseurship—were grounded in the eye. The countless Americans schooled in taste by the rhetorician Hugh Blair, for example, learned that taste was "ultimately founded on a certain natural and instinctive sensibility to beauty" and that beauty was first encountered visually. Those who read the Spectator knew that Joseph Addison had singled out sight, "the most perfect and most delightful of the senses," as the critical component of his "Pleasures of the Imagination"; they understood that discretion was like a "well-formed Eye" capable of commanding "large and extended Views." The logic connecting taste to vision was reiterated in the pages of the American periodical press. Writers and editors regularly reminded readers that the "finer organs" of a tasteful person could see beauty that was "hidden from a vulgar eye"; that taste turned a "nicer eye" on the works of nature; and that tasteful objects were those that "please[d] the eye." The same set of associations appeared in the formal speeches made by college students like John Wales, who promised listeners that they could improve their taste while taking their daily strolls simply by noting which things appeared "pleasing and beautiful" and which did not. In no time, he assured them, they would establish a standard by which "everything was easily and readily ajudged." Whether imagined as a badge of genteel discernment, an avenue to personal pleasure, or both, taste was imbricated in visuality. It depended equally on the perception of the subject and on the appearance of the objects and images within the field of vision.

Opportunities to exercise one's taste—to scan the surroundings with a knowing and receptive eye—increased in variety and quantity during the early republic. As the eighteenth century gave way to the nineteenth, bourgeois Americans acquired access to more books and magazines, more paintings and pr...

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