Skip to content

Dana D. Nelson, Commons Democracy: Reading the Politics of Participation in the Early United States (New York: Fordham UP, 2016), 232 pp.:

Dana D. Nelson, Commons Democracy: Reading the Politics of Participation in the Early United States (New York: Fordham UP, 2016), 232 pp.

Like many publications in the field of Cultural and Literary Studies, this volume focuses on a single term: the “commons” as shared public resource, and the related activity of “commoning.” It thereby introduces readers both to the social and literary history of the early republic in an introduction followed by a theoretical opening chapter on “Telling Stories: Vernacular versus Formal Democracy,” which deals with J. Hector St. John Crèvecœur’s Letters from an American Farmer. The following four chapters investigate how novels from the early republic engage Dana D. Nelson’s central concept of “commons democracy.” Her work has the great merit of integrating well-known novels such as Hugh Henry Brackenridge’s opus magnum Modern Chivalry (1792-1816, Chapter 2, read in the context of the Whiskey Rebellion) and James Fenimore Cooper’s The Pioneers (1826, Chapter 3, read as a “critique of self-advancement […] at the expense of […] social order” [23]) with neglected novels of the 1830s, namely Robert Montgomery Bird’s Nick of the Woods, William Gilmore Simms’s Richard Hurdis, and Caroline Kirkland’s A New Home, Who’ll Follow? (Chapter 4, read as variations on the theme of self-governance), as well as Cooper’s “Littlepage trilogy” (Chapter 5, read in the context of the Anti-Rent War in upstate New York). Until now, these texts have been studied primarily in terms of the (rise of the) novel, race, frontier life, gender, and print culture. Questions of social history and democratic representation have only played a marginal role in their critical reception. Nelson subjects them to a focused reading from a socio-historical perspective and thus reveals the importance of social history for the interpretation of fiction from the early republic.

The book opens by laying out the social and political dimensions of its central term, “commons democracy,” which Nelson takes to refer both to local, informal democratic and social practices, as well as their political implications and impetus (Chapter 1). Nelson follows her research proclivity—evidenced by her previous publications—of taking up especially charged and complex areas of American Studies and politics with a keen eye for social injustice (6), not always without interpretive bias. She productively and provocatively engages social history and literature, probing their boundaries. The attempt to make single points of her argument equally relevant to several points in time is part of the provocative strategy of her writing, which never loses sight of political ideals as they translate into literature. Her broadly conceived terms such as the title-giving “Commons Democracy” thus serve to make her readers rethink their preconceptions concerning the social history and literature of the early republic.

On the whole, Nelson does not forego the danger of idealizing a bottom-up political “movement of the people.” Because her argument is not intent upon focusing on her title-giving term, but rather rhapsodically unfolding its many implications, she misses the opportunity to write a fruitful “history of the democratic spirit” that by looking at the lower classes of society, would put institutional and political histories of the American Revolution in perspective.1 The value of her work thus lies in giving a very broad introduction to a complex field without always offering the required analytical and argumentative focus. Nevertheless, she intelligently brings socio-political critique to her literary analysis.

Although Nelson claims to be writing a socio-political critique, her study is primarily an analysis of Anglo-American novels of the early republic. Except for the broad claim that “[e]arly novels reflect widely diverging understandings and practices of what ‘self-government’ might be and was, before the historical fact of democratic liberalism’s victory” (23), nowhere in her account does it become sufficiently clear why she chooses to analyze the novels selected.

Taking up the topic of her previous work, she engages “whiteness” or “becoming white,” here discussed as “inter- and intra-racial commons” (20), as distinguished from both the “natural and civic commons” (104) and the “labor commons” (148), and thus reiterates her main term which thereby becomes blurrier rather than more defined (22-23). While her text certainly has some insightful phrases (such as, “the growth of democracy is one of the United States’ most central and carefully rehearsed stories about itself,” 24), her attempt to write a socio-politically informed literary study (or a literary study of socio-politics, it never becomes quite clear which of the two she is aiming for) is inconsistent in its terminology. Nelson for example claims the United States to be a “representative republic” rather than a democracy (24). Such lack of distinction between the form of government and the social and political system points beyond its terminological imprecision to a lack of engagement with these disciplines, which is at odds with the aims of the book. While rehashing many well-established tenets of American political history, Nelson thus does not fully arrive at a productive re-engagement of literature and politics. The status of what Nelson terms “muscular popular sovereignty” (32-33) is neither sociologically nor politically made plausible by her argument; her attempt at taking up social history and describing a micro-historical correlate for what she finds in the novels investigated is mythologizing rather than explanatory. Thus, her project reiterates the over-generalizing tendentiousness of the political history it intends to critique, albeit with a different emphasis. Her diagnosis that the “Framers [of the U.S. Constitution] engineered a government advertising a democratic access it actually aimed to curtail” thus oddly seems to be more a general statement on a political system than on the title-giving “early United States” (34). While uncovering the democratic allure of the Declaration of Independence to have been a ploy, following critics Suzanne Hemberger (“A Government”), Woody Holton (Unruly Americans), and neo-Marxist Ellen Meiksins Wood (Democracy), she argues that a more local, communal, and direct sense of democracy was buried in the Constitution, which served to fixate and delimit popular authority by writing it simultaneously into and out of the Constitution. In this she merely repeats her sources, which she then links to the novels she investigates.

At times it seems as if she wants to write present-day concerns for grassroots rather than corporate globalization into a literary analysis of the social in the early United States. When uncovering the Hobbesian impetus of the “Framers” of the Constitution (43), it would have been interesting to more thoroughly investigate the theoretical and theological implications of this connection, rather than to restrict her engagement of Hobbes to that of Antonio Negri and Michael Hardt’s Commonwealth, and Paolo Virno’s Multitude—especially since it has been superseded by the research of, for example, Paul Downes’s Hobbes (18; 234n. 23) (which she does not engage). Nelson brings the novels into dialogue with historical research, thus fleshing out the historical narrative, while the novels are not really engaged as literary artifacts, but rather mined for their plots. She thus provides a convincing window into the socio-economic early republic without fully engaging its literary history. Her literary analysis begins in the second third of the book, when she starts reading Hugh Henry Brackenridge’s Modern Chivalry as “a social theory of democratic representation” (67). It is questionable whether this analysis does justice to the novel by analyzing it from a socio-political perspective without regard to the theological aspects of the topic. Nonetheless, she implicitly suggests that the stratification and hierarchization of power within a political system is decisive: the novels she analyzes demonstrate the unduly hierarchical and centralist character of the United States. Other than what her title suggests, her main question and argument hence is not about democracy and the commons, but about federalism and centralization (cf. 71-72). Since this emphasis on centralization is borne out in her analysis of all of the novels and has some validity, it might have been improved by greater terminological precision. This would have lent more credibility to her claim that novels like Modern Chivalry anticipate later political studies by centuries (71). Given the synchronous rise of the novel and modern democracies, more than a passing remark on the significance of the novel as form and her choice of it over other literary genres would have been in order. As it stands, Nelson only somewhat mystifyingly claims that “the novel’s political philosophy aligns more with Montaigne than Hobbes” and that Modern Chivalry recommends a “middle way” (78). What that means other than that the novel is a bourgeois genre, and that “novel-reading emerges as an important form of democratic deliberation” (81) does not become clear, but Nelson certainly has a point when she claims that the novel insistently queries about inclinations to despotism and freedom in every act of representation. This uncertainty is precisely where a theological analysis would have been useful.

Although this volume may not yield enough new insight to specialists, its demonstration of the significance of social history in literary analysis makes it highly recommended as an initial foray for students—(especially at the undergraduate level)—into the thickets of the American novel’s reception of the political system in the early republic.

Philipp Reisner (Düsseldorf)


[1]  This has already been dealt with, cf. Frank and Mancall, a volume to which Nelson does not refer.

Works Cited


Downes, Paul. Hobbes, Sovereignty, and Early American Literature. New York: Cambridge UP, 2015. Print.


Frank, Andrew K., and Peter C. Mancall, eds. Early Republic: People and Perspectives. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2009. Print.


Hardt, Michael, and Antonio Negri. Commonwealth. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 2009. Print.


Hemberger, Suzette. “A Government Based on Representations.” Studies in American Political Development 10.2 (1996): 289-332. Print.


Holton, Woody. Unruly Americans and the Origins of the Constitution. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2008. Print.


Nelson, Dana D. The Word in Black and White: Reading “Race” in American Literature, 1638—1867. New York: Oxford UP, 1992. Print.


---. National Manhood: Capitalist Citizenship and the Imagined Fraternity of White Men. Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1998. Print.


---. Bad for Democracy: How the Presidency Undermines the Power of the People. Minneapolis, MN: U of Minnesota P, 2008. Print.


Virno, Paolo. Multitude: Between Innovation and Negation. Los Angeles: Semiotext(e), 2008. Print


Wood, Ellen Meiksins. Democracy against Capitalism: Renewing Historical Materialism. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1995. Print.

Export Citation