The author writes primarily of the American Revolution period. The book, originally published in 1979, is a study of four colonial artists namely; the painter, novelist, dramatist and the educator. The book offers anincredible look at the colonial life and makes it clear that the New World was a new invention and not a new Europe or any other thing. America is simply itself and is still becoming that. The book is easy to read and is a perfect choice for a textbook.
The biographies of the artists contain an impressive balance of chronology, analysis and trivia. In a natural way, they all tie into the author’s thesis and theme which is centered on the conflicts between American art and democracy. The book was written close to three decades prior to most of Ellie’s best-selling and lauded scholarships. As such, the introductory parts of the book including the preface were unreadable and Part I of the book was not any better. The second part of the book was good and displayed a glimpse of the author’s future writing style. The bibliographies not only document why culture floundered in the early American history bit also provide a detailed look at the Americans, their revolutionary principles and in particular republicanism and the politics of the land. The ending of the book looks at Emerson briefly whom the author believes was the founding father of America.
Ellis, further makes two primary points and makes the book repetitive by arguing these points from the introduction chapter to the four profile chapters of Noah Webster, Charles Willson Peale, William Dunlap and Hugh Henry Brackenridge. The onset of the argument by the author is that there was a general feeling of cultural potential during the early periods and when the republic was young albeit no tangible evidence of any cultural flourishing.The belief by the author is that the culture was based on the general feelings thrived by the artists along with commerce in an atmosphere characterized by freedom. “Artistic creativity and economic productivity were expected to flourish together in the free and stimulating conditions of the American marketplace.”
A keen reader and literature enthusiast would identify the failure of the said flourishing. The author argues that, “Here was the crucial point at which so many Americans of the Revolutionary generation had gone wrong. They had failed to recognize the inherent antagonism between the bourgeois values of the marketplace and the sensibilities essential to the life of artists and intellectuals. By leaping into the marketplace, they had in effect, and quite unknowingly, committed cultural suicide.” The author also writes of Peale that it was easy for him, “let his political convictions overwhelm his esthetic judgment.”
I am of the opinion that it is part of the truth. For instance, I do not feel that this was the reason Brockden’s novel was a failure (it is interesting that Ellis does not include Brockden). The reasons are more complicated though Ellis is right about it being one of the maincauses for the failure of the arts to flourish during the periods of early American history.
The literature is well researched and well written, but one would feel that it is incomplete. The short biographies tell the grand story well but the author falls short by failing to wrap up the volume with an examination of both the common and uncommon characteristics of the four detailed personalities.
The superb command of the English language by Ellis is nearly as present in the book as it is in his other publications. However, based on the methodology used and writing style employed, I felt at times that I was missing some vital information from the life stories that were responsible for shaping the ideas of the four individuals in the study. What is more, it was impossible to get the intricate details of any of the individual’s life in the volumes. The volumes used the four individuals as supporting evidence for a grander narrative and getting into details would bore the reader or result into Ellis straying far from the primary subject matter.
I liked the book and found it to be interesting. The author had a simple thesis and a well-written documentation in the cultural ideas of the immediate post-American revolutionary period. However, as aforementioned, the research was incomplete and a reader would be left yearning for more information about the artists. Ellis would have refined his ability to synthesize information and accurately describing figures and characters of the given age to ensure complete and in-depth information is documented. Such a move would make the book much more successful and appealing to readers.
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