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A Pinnacle of Feeling:
American Literature and Presidential Government
Sean McCann

Hardcover | 2008 | $55.00 | £45.95 | ISBN: 9780691136950
264 pp. | 6 x 9 1/4
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eBook | ISBN: 9781400828906 |
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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 Feeling is 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 Feeling illuminates 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.


"McCann identifies how ambitions for the executive branch of the US government informed the 20th-century novel. . . . Few presidents appear as literary protagonists in their own right. Instead, their position serves as an ethical benchmark--whether as an authoritarian father figure, a career goal or even the target of an assassination attempt. If this symbolic use of public office threatens to rework the presidency as a chimerical, ghostly presence in the American novel, McCann carefully rebuilds these vague impressions to illustrate how authors reimagined the issue of popular sovereignty. His key argument gains momentum by describing how the ongoing debates over the boundaries of presidential government found close literary parallels. The arguments in political science monographs and middlebrow, social forecasting non-fiction are shown as the logical counterpart to imaginative representations of government institutions."--Graham Barnfield, Times Higher Education

"[T]his book stands as an inventive, somewhat original brand of literary criticism."--B. Wallenstein, Choice

"It is a tribute to McCann's superb book--one of the best I have read in the past five years--that his sharp description of the Republican project is a mere side-light, not central to his concerns or his thesis. McCann's scholarship, his knowledge of American history and the debates throughout that history about presidential power, his powers of exact description, and his probing analysis of the fundamental tensions in American democracy combine to make [other's] perfectly honorable books look rather pedestrian."--John McGowan, American Literary History


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Table of Contents:

INTRODUCTION: "The Executive Disease": Presidential Power and Literary Imagination 1
CHAPTER ONE: Masters of Their Constitution: Gertrude Stein and the Promise of Progressive Leadership 33
CHAPTER TWO: Governable Beasts: Hurston, Roth, and the New Deal 67
CHAPTER THREE: The Myth of the Public Interest: Pluralism and Presidentialism in the Fifties 100
CHAPTER FOUR: Come Home, America: Vietnam and the End of the Progressive Presidency 139
EPILOGUE: Philip Roth and the Waning and Waxing of Political Time 178
Notes 197
Index 243


  • 20/21
    Walter Benn Michaels, Series Editor

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