Thursday, August 02, 2007

Book Review: "Republic of Intellect"

A recent lunchtime discussion with Bryan Waterman, author of Republic of Intellect: The Friendly Club of New York City and the Making of American Literature (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) prompted me to fast-track the book, which I purchased earlier this year but hadn't gotten to yet. A well-crafted mixture of historical scholarship and literary criticism, Republic of Intellect examines "the contours of late-Enlightenment intellectual culture that set the terms by which the earliest U.S. literature came into existence" (pg. 4).

In the Friendly Club - a group of approximately ten young professional men who met regularly for conversation and debate in 1790s New York - Waterman finds a fascinating and useful framework for, as he puts it, "understanding the relationships between literary and intellectual cultures" (pg. 6). The Club's members - including Charles Brockden Brown, Elihu Hubbard Smith, William Dunlap, James Kent and others - found themselves at "the generic, geographical, and professional crossroads of American society and at the primary point of entry and exit for transmissions within a transatlantic intellectual culture" (pg. 13).

Waterman's chapters cover much ground, including the great debate over the perceived "Illuminati conspiracy" in the late 1790s, the American reception of the works of William Godwin and Mary Wollstonecraft, the role of mixed-sex society and conversation, and the impact of yellow fever epidemics on the Friendly Club's membership and products. I found the Illuminati and Godwin chapters most compelling, but was quite struck overall by Waterman's readings of Charles Brockden Brown's fiction in light of his associations with his fellow Club members: his novels seem more easily explained when these considerations are taken into account.

The Friendly Club offers us something important as well, I think: moderate in politics and skeptical of religious authority and intrusiveness, the Club's members sought to transcend partisan considerations in favor of positive intellectual conversation and the progressive spread of knowledge - an ideal which remains unreached.

Aside from a bit too much literary criticism jargon in some spots, this book is excellent. The extensive and often illuminating endnotes were very useful, and I gleaned about fifteen titles which I've added to my always-growing list of things to read. Those include the edited diaries of two Friendly Club members, E.H. Smith and William Dunlap, and a few novels of Charles Brockden Brown that I wasn't aware of before.

Highly recommended for anyone interested in early American print culture, the late Enlightenment, or literary networks.