Literary art in times of crisis: The proto-totalitarian anxiety of Melville, James, and Twain

Matthew J Darling, Marquette University


In times of social and political crisis, many novelists succumb to the pressures that politics places on the literary imagination. Some directly respond to these pressures by writing novels in which politics and political actors play leading roles. Others respond indirectly by treating politics allegorically or incidentally. Either way, fictional responses to political crises provide readers with a window through which to view the anxiety that novelists feel in response to important social and political problems of their time. During the second half of the nineteenth century, Herman Melville, Henry James, and Mark Twain all published novels in which they respond to certain crises facing Europe and America in those years. Written just three years after revolutions broke out in cities all over Europe, Moby-Dick (1851) expresses Melville's concerns about the increasing number of individuals whose social isolation is so profound that they have become susceptible to the false promises of a dangerous, monomaniacal leader. Among the characters in James's The Princess Casamassima (1886) is a radicalized Italian princess, whose involvement with a group of revolutionary anarchists mirrors the actual participation of aristocrats in the worrying campaign of bombings and assassinations carried out by radicals in Europe during the 1880s. In A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court (1889), Twain conveys his concerns about the effects of imperialism through the story of Hank Morgan, a time-traveling American whose attempt to civilize Arthurian England---by establishing a republic and importing the benefits of the industrialized world---ends in disaster. Although each novelist responds to a different social or political problem, the problems themselves are related in an interesting way. Social isolation, the alliance between social elites and the revolutionary underclass, and imperialism all eventually contributed to the rise of totalitarianism in twentieth-century Europe. Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism (1951) identifies these and other nineteenth-century problems as causes of twentieth-century totalitarian movements. Her analysis provides useful background for the study of these novels. By recognizing the proto-totalitarian significance of the anxiety expressed by these novelists, the reader achieves a new appreciation for the prescience of their political visions.

Recommended Citation

Darling, Matthew J, "Literary art in times of crisis: The proto-totalitarian anxiety of Melville, James, and Twain" (2006). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI3231312.