Everyone Has a Place at the Table

Political experts are cautioning against calling the 2012 election a realignment election—experience shows us that the United States will continue to experience pendulum swings between the right and the left—but it certainly appears to be the case that Republicans can no longer win elections by only appealing to older white voters. The electorate is definitely changing, and how one feels about that has a lot to do with one’s age, gender, and race/ethnicity.

A novel that employs multiple perspectives to look at a society undergoing comparable change is The Expedition of Humphry Clinker, by the 18th century Scottish novelist Tobias Smollett. I know a lot about Smollett as he was the subject of my dissertation.

Before exploring the intricate ways that Smollett captures a society in transition, let’s remind ourselves of what last week’s election told us about ourselves.

Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker focuses on the dwindling white electorate:

Last Tuesday, Romney won three-fifths of the white vote, matching or exceeding what several winning Presidential candidates, including Reagan in 1980 and Bush in 1988, achieved, but it wasn’t enough. The white share of the electorate, which was eighty-seven per cent in 1992, has steadily declined by about three points in every Presidential election since then. At the present rate, by 2016, whites will make up less than seventy per cent of voters. Romney’s loss to Barack Obama brought an end not just to his eight-year quest for the Presidency but to the Republican Party’s assumptions about the American electorate.

John Hellemann of New York Magazine, meanwhile, examines Obama’s winning coalition:

Contrary to the assumptions of the Romney campaign, the electorate that turned out last Tuesday was more diverse than 2008’s, not less. Nationally, the white vote fell from 75 to 72 percent, while the share made up by blacks rose from 12.2 to 13 percent, by Hispanics from 8.4 to 10, by Asians from 2.5 to 3, by women from 53 to 54, and by 18-to-29-year-olds from 18 to 19 percent. Obama’s claim on each of those groups was overwhelming: 93 percent of African-Americans, 71 percent of Latinos, 73 percent of Asians, 55 percent of the ladies, and 60 percent of the kids. And that all made the difference in the battleground states. Had it not been for Obama’s vast advantages with Hispanics, he would not have carried Colorado, Florida, or Nevada, and the same was true when it came to African-Americans in Virginia and Ohio. And had it not been for his margins with young voters and college-educated women, the races in Iowa, Wisconsin, and New Hampshire would have been razor-close rather than five-to-seven-point strolls in the park.

Faced with a similarly changing landscape, an aging Smollett chose to write Humphry Clinker as an epistolary novel. On the one hand, there are letters written by Matthew and Tabitha Bramble, members of the older generation. Their niece and nephew, Lydia and   Jery, also write letters, as does the servant girl Winifred. Much of the drama of the book lies in how different characters can look at the same scene and come away with entirely different impressions—which is not unlike the experience of different Americans looking at the contemporary U.S.

Bramble, as his name implies, is a prickly soul who is going to Bath in an attempt to find relief for a case of gout and who complains incessantly. Bath in 1771, as one of my Jane Austen students recently reported, had become a resort where people of all classes gathered to try the waters. Indeed, Beau Nash, longtime Master of Ceremonies, had deliberately set up the resort city to appeal to a wide variety of people.

Bramble is not pleased with this free mixing. For him, Bath is a place of confusion and social chaos where one might suddenly find oneself in a ballroom on equal footing with someone of a lower class. Here he is complaining about how England’s booming economy is beginning to erase class distinction:

Every upstart of fortune, harnessed in the trappings of the mode, presents himself at Bath, as in the very focus of observation—Clerks and factors from the East Indies, loaded with the spoil of plundered provinces; planters, negro-drivers, and hucksters from our American plantations, enriched they know not how; agents, commissaries, and contractors, who have fattened, in two successive wars, on the blood of the nation; usurers, brokers, and jobbers of every kind; men of low birth, and no breeding, have found themselves suddenly translated into a state of affluence, unknown to former ages; and no wonder that their brains should be intoxicated with pride, vanity, and presumption. Knowing no other criterion of greatness, but the ostentation of wealth, they discharge their affluence without taste or conduct, through every channel of the most absurd extravagance; and all of them hurry to Bath, because here, without any further qualification, they can mingle with the princes and nobles of the land. Even the wives and daughters of low tradesmen, who, like shovel-nosed sharks, prey upon the blubber of those uncouth whales of fortune, are infected with the same rage of displaying their importance; and the slightest indisposition serves them for a pretext to insist upon being conveyed to Bath, where they may hobble country-dances and cotillons among lordlings, squires, counsellors, and clergy. These delicate creatures from Bedfordbury, Butcher-row, Crutched-friers, and Botolph-lane, cannot breathe in the gross air of the Lower Town, or conform to the vulgar rules of a common lodging-house; the husband, therefore, must provide an entire house, or elegant apartments in the new buildings. Such is the composition of what is called the fashionable company at Bath; where a very inconsiderable proportion of genteel people are lost in a mob of impudent plebeians, who have neither understanding nor judgment, nor the least idea of propriety and decorum; and seem to enjoy nothing so much as an opportunity of insulting their betters.

Thus the number of people, and the number of houses continue to increase; and this will ever be the case, till the streams that swell this irresistible torrent of folly and extravagance, shall either be exhausted, or turned into other channels, by incidents and events which I do not pretend to foresee. This, I own, is a subject on which I cannot write with any degree of patience; for the mob is a monster I never could abide, either in its head, tail, midriff, or members; I detest the whole of it, as a mass of ignorance, presumption, malice and brutality; and, in this term of reprobation, I include, without respect of rank, station, or quality, all those of both sexes, who affect its manners, and court its society.

Smollett, who was cranky himself, probably puts a lot of himself in Matthew Bramble. But he can’t deny that there is a new energy loose in the land, and he uses the younger generation to capture it. Jery and Lydia, just like Jane Austen’s Catherine Morland 30 years later, are enthralled with Bath. Here’s Lydia:

At eight in the morning, we go in dishabille to the Pump Room, which is crowded like a Welsh fair; and there you see the highest quality, and the lowest trades folks, jostling each other, without ceremony, hail-fellow well-met. The noise of the music playing in the gallery, the heat and flavor of such a crowd, and the hum and buzz of their conversation, gave me the head-ach and vertigo the first day; but, afterwards, all these things became familiar, and even agreeable.

Jery, as one would expect from a young man, is diverted by the spectacle rather than threatened by it:

Another entertainment, peculiar to Bath, arises from the general mixture of all degrees assembled in our public rooms, without distinction of rank or fortune. This is what my uncle reprobates, as a monstrous jumble of heterogeneous principles; a vile mob of noise and impertinence, without decency or subordination. But this chaos is to me a source of infinite amusement.

I was extremely diverted last ball-night to see the Master of the Ceremonies leading, with great solemnity, to the upper end of the room, an antiquated Abigail, dressed in her lady’s cast-clothes; whom he (I suppose) mistook for some countess just arrived at the Bath. The ball was opened by a Scotch lord, with a mulatto heiress from St Christopher’s; and the gay colonel Tinsel danced all the evening with the daughter of an eminent tinman from the borough of Southwark. Yesterday morning, at the Pump-room, I saw a broken-winded Wapping landlady squeeze through a circle of peers, to salute her brandy-merchant, who stood by the window, propped upon crutches; and a paralytic attorney of Shoe-lane, in shuffling up to the bar, kicked the shins of the chancellor of England, while his lordship, in a cut bob, drank a glass of water at the pump. I cannot account for my being pleased with these incidents, any other way, than by saying they are truly ridiculous in their own nature, and serve to heighten the humour in the farce of life, which I am determined to enjoy as long as I can.

Those follies, that move my uncle’s spleen, excite my laughter.

Though Matthew Bramble is perpetually grumpy, however, underneath he is ultimately good-natured and tolerant. He is cast as a benevolent misanthrope, a popular trope in 18th century fiction. In current parlance, it is as though he has a Tea Party exterior but is secretly a moderate Republican.

Here’s hoping that the current GOP taps into its moderate side in the upcoming months, working with the Democrats so that we can clear out some of the brambles that are strangling us. America is beginning to look different than the country we grew up in, but there are ways of embracing it.

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