Nathaniel Parker Willis's novel Paul Fane (1856), which tells the story of a painter who journeys to Europe to learn the significance of a slight he has received in America from an Englishwoman, is the meeting place of two traditions that were already converging in the discourse of the new Republican party: the long-standing American resentment of foreign aristocratic judgment and the growing belief that the slave oligarchy worked its will by overawing Northerners into a sense of inferiority. The novel helped to strengthen the parallel between these two anxieties by representing the content of the older complaint in the tone and with the emphasis of the newer political fear. The novel thus contributed to those Republican warnings against self-abasement that gave the new party a fresh power derived from a traditional feature of patriotic rhetoric. Paul's seduction into and recovery from the lure of an aristocracy willing to sanction his gentility only on the condition that he perpetuate through his art its system of class recognition dramatized the core Republican proposition: the politics of compromise was degrading and the nation would be saved only when the North resolved to demystify rather than reproduce the slave oligarchy's cultural authority. Through this means, the novel helped the Republicans to set the stakes of political victory as the survival of a Northern subject capable of keeping its distance from the residual standards and ideological reflexes whose effect was to annul its role in history.
David Grant; Self-Abasement and Republican Insecurity: Paul Fane in Its Political Context. American Literature 1 September 2008; 80 (3): 443–469. doi: https://doi.org/10.1215/00029831-2008-018
Download citation file: