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A Pinnacle of Feeling

A Pinnacle of Feeling: American Literature and Presidential Government

Sean McCann
Series: 20/21
Copyright Date: 2008
Pages: 248
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  • Book Info
    A Pinnacle of Feeling
    Book Description:

    There is no more powerful symbol in American political life than the presidency, and the image of presidential power has had no less profound an impact on American fiction.A Pinnacle of Feelingis the first book to examine twentieth-century literature's deep fascination with the modern presidency and with the ideas about the relationship between state power and democracy that underwrote the rise of presidential authority.

    Sean McCann challenges prevailing critical interpretations through revelatory new readings of major writers, including Richard Wright, Gertrude Stein, Henry Roth, Zora Neale Hurston, Saul Bellow, Ralph Ellison, Norman Mailer, Don Delillo, and Philip Roth. He argues that these writers not only represented or satirized presidents, but echoed political thinkers who cast the chief executive as the agent of the sovereign will of the American people. They viewed the president as ideally a national redeemer, and they took that ideal as a model and rival for their own work.

    A Pinnacle of Feelingilluminates the fundamental concern with democratic sovereignty that informs the most innovative literary works of the twentieth century, and shows how these works helped redefine and elevate the role of executive power in American culture.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-2890-6
    Subjects: Language & Literature, Political Science, History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
    (pp. ix-xvi)
  4. INTRODUCTION "The Executive Disease": Presidential Power and Literary Imagination
    (pp. 1-32)

    In the third book of Richard Wright’sNative Son, Bigger Thomas undergoes a disturbing encounter with a madman whose manic energy both terrifies and compels him. Arrested for the murder of Mary Dalton, Bigger awaits trial in the Chicago jail, where he finds himself bewildered by the mix of intense emotion occasioned by his crime. He is frightened by the ruthlessness of the district attorney and by the bloodthirstiness of the press and the white public; shamed by the humiliation of his family and friends; angered by the manipulation of his mother’s minister; and unnerved by the friendship extended to...

  5. CHAPTER ONE Masters of Their Constitution: Gertrude Stein and the Promise of Progressive Leadership
    (pp. 33-66)

    When she landed in the United States in 1935 on the triumphal tour following the publication ofThe Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Gertrude Stein returned to a country that she had not seen for three decades.¹ She had left America in 1903, in the depths of a personal and professional crisis—a medical school dropout, a frustrated lover, a writer who longed for “la gloire” but who was plagued by doubts about her ability. She returned a different woman, to what one would have imagined was a different country. Now a respected arbiter of avant-garde taste and a literary...

  6. CHAPTER TWO Governable Beasts: Hurston, Roth, and the New Deal
    (pp. 67-99)

    In the passage leading up to climactic scene of Henry Roth’s 1934 novelCall It Sleep, the protagonist’s aunt Bertha arrives at the Schearl home to identity the novel’s central problem.¹ The moment is rife with tension. Young David Schearl, an eight-year-old Jewish boy growing up on the Lower East Side, has been discovered fabricating a blasphemous tale to his Yeshiva instructor—that he is the bastard son of a Christian organist—a fantasy close enough to some family secrets to be incendiary. Still worse things are to follow. His uncle is steeling himself to reveal that David has sought...

  7. CHAPTER THREE The Myth of the Public Interest: Pluralism and Presidentialism in the Fifties
    (pp. 100-138)

    From at least one angle, J. D. Salinger’sThe Catcher in the Ryelooks like a strong rebuke to the majoritarian visions displayed in the work of writers like Hurston, Roth, Steinbeck, and Wright.¹ This is so not only because Salinger’s sensibility is so strongly individualistic and so suspicious of bureaucratic institutions like the military and the school, but because, quite explicitly, his novel appears to reject the pathos of martyrdom central to the social democratic writing that flourished during the thirties and early forties. Like much of the “new liberalism” that arose along with the Cold War, the advice...

  8. CHAPTER FOUR Come Home, America: Vietnam and the End of the Progressive Presidency
    (pp. 139-177)

    Norman mailer’s 1967 novelWhy Are We in Vietnam?offers an unorthodox answer to what may have been the defining question of culture and politics in the late sixties.¹ Despite its boldly interrogative title, Mailer’s book has nothing to say about foreign policy or the Cold War, and it does not even mention Indochina until its final lines—in which the reader is informed that the novel’s protagonist, a testosterone-charged Texas teenager named D.J., is due to ship out to Vietnam the following morning. Avoiding the banal concern with the details of public policy that he elsewhere dismissed as “housing...

  9. EPILOGUE Philip Roth and the Waning and Waxing of Political Time
    (pp. 178-196)

    In but the first few episodes of its premier season (1999–2000), the popular television programThe West Wing, managed to present its viewers with vivid renditions of two different images of the late twentieth-century presidency.¹ Portraying the mundane politicking of a liberal administration beset by fierce opponents and unreliable allies, the program dramatized the view of the federal government that had come to prevail among mainstream opinion leaders over the two terms of the Clinton presidency. Like Bill Clinton,The West Wing’s Josiah Bartlett is a centrist Democrat from a small state who has come to office without the...

  10. NOTES
    (pp. 197-242)
  11. INDEX
    (pp. 243-248)