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Democracy: An American Novel (Modern Library Classics) Paperback – July 8, 2003
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First published anonymously in 1880, the mother of all (American) political novels is the story of Madeleine Lee, a young widow who comes to Washington, DC, to understand the workings of government. "What she wanted was POWER." During the course of the novel, she sees enough of power and its corruptions to last her a lifetime. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
“[One] of the most perceptive books ever written about Washington.” —Maureen Dowd, The New York Times
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Unfortunately, I bought a soft copy from Cosimo Classics <[...]>. It is the worst published book I have ever owned. There was at least one typo per page, and the typesetter placed a hard carriage return after "Mrs." most of the time so that a new paragraph started with the name "Lee". The publishing errors were so bad and distracting that I had a hard time finishing the story and I just threw the book away when finished because it wasn't even worth giving away. I'll never make a purchase from these publishers again, but I would recommend the story to anyone.
For those interested in the trajectory of Democracy/History/Culture in the United States (and the World), the book is absolutely essential. We owe this partly to the credentials of the author, Henry Adams. His upper-crust shoulder rubbing in the political elite of Europe and United States combined with his psychologist's temperament (on full display in his book, Education of..) make for an invaluable contribution to world culture. Adams lived through a very critical era for modern understanding: Post-Civil War industrialism and modern capitalism and the corresponding influence on contemporary party politics. It bears repeating that this novel is as relevant today as anything currently written.
Although the dialogue heavy plot and prominence of the character-study are not ideally suited for modernity's fixation on thrill and shock, one who also has an appreciation for a novel of ideas will be delighted nonetheless. I consider the book to be a Brave New World for Democracy, as opposed to the Mendelian Dystopia which BNW exposed.
In "Democracy," the nation's capital "swarms with simple-minded exhibitions of human nature; men and women curiously out of place, whom it would be cruel to ridicule and ridiculous to weep over." But Adams is not hesitant about being cruel in his portrayal of Washington's residents, and he saves his weeping for the true victims in his novel: the American people. The typical American senator combines "the utmost pragmatical self-assurance and overbearing temper with the narrowest education and meanest personal experience that ever existed in any considerable government." (Plus ca change, plus c'est la meme chose!)
The story concerns Madeleine Lee, an intelligent and well-meaning (if somewhat naive) New York widow, who, bored with her cosmopolitan lifestyle, travels to Washington to learn what makes the nation tick. She and her sister are quickly surrounded by a diverse group of politicians, lobbyists, and foreign diplomats, and she finds herself courted by Silas Ratcliffe, a senator with presidential aspirations whose talent "consisted in the skill with which he evaded questions of principle." During one heated (and humorous) argument about George Washington's merits, Ratcliffe sums up his view of politics: "If virtue won't answer our purpose, then we must use vice, or our opponents will put us out of office."
Adams's prose is almost Jamesian in its measured pacing (and this may simply bore some readers); the initial chapters are unhurried as he weaves the web of the plot and sketches his all-too-believable characters. Along the way he tosses barbed zingers at every target. The climactic passages are among the most comically riveting, emotionally intense, and morally satisfying finales I've read in a satire: as you might expect, nobody gets exactly what they want, but everyone gets what they deserve.