Monday, February 28, 2011


After finishing Democracy by Henry Adams in the late hours of last night, I put down my electronic reader and realized that really not much has changed since 1880 when the book was published. Men fighting over a woman, the woman rejecting both, a jealous sister, and corruption surrounding the whole tale. Sounds like something I would see on a late-night reality TV show.

What interested me the most about the novel was its author. Henry Adams, the grandson of John Quincy Adams and great-grandson of John Adams, anonymously published this novel in the late 1880s and his name was not revealed as the author until his death in the early 1900s. Had I not known he was the author, I would have thought a woman was writing and narrating the story of Mrs. Lee's adventure in Washington D.C. Often there are lines in the story objectifying men and promoting the power of women over men. Adams portrays Madeline Lee as the strongest-willed character in the novel - the men around her are competing for her attention and often look foolish and powerless when they do not get their way. Adams also does a remarkable job portraying relationships between women: jealousy, competition, gossip, camaraderie. The sister relationship between Madeline and Sybil reminded me of my own relationship with my sister: we compete intensely with one another yet are first to defend the other, we understand our different personalities, bicker to no end, but at the end of the day would stay up until the crack of dawn listening, talking, and comforting one another. It came to a great surprise to me when I learned that Adams did not have any sisters, but two brothers, because his grasp on the special relationship between sisters was so accurate.

Adams portrays political power as extremely corrupt with illegal money exchanges, appointing friends to cabinets, and manipulating the political system in order to achieve personal pleasure and goals. Did Adams witness some of this corruption within his own family of politicians, including one of our Founding Fathers? Was America doomed to corruption from the day it was born?

To me, it seems Adams had a heightened knowledge of not only the politics of the United States, but also relationships between men and women -- he understood how powerful, intelligent, and strong-willed women could be years before the US granted suffrage to females. Perhaps he saw how his grandmother influenced his grandfather in politics and was witness to the role of a strong female in a political family.

I really enjoyed reading Democracy and thought it a little amusing that Mrs. Lee chooses to travel to Egypt at the end of the novel in search for a place lacking Democracy. The status of Egypt is one of the few things in the book that has not remained the same in the 130 years after its publication -- and even Egypt's transformation is only at the beginning stages of change as we have witnessed in the past few weeks.

If this book is read in another 130 years will the dynamic of relationships between men and women be the same? Will the interworkings of the American political system still resemble Henry Adams portrayal in Democracy?


Megan said...

You're making us look bad Madam Makoff

TJE said...

Megan, are you a night owl?