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Weir Mitchell Meets George Washington and Nearly Everyone Else

S. Weir Mitchell (1829-1914)When Dr. Weir Mitchell published The Red City: A Novel of the Second Administration of President Washington in 1908, he had already churned out more than a half dozen bulky novels over the preceding three decades. While that sort of literary production is not exceptional, it is unusual for a man who did not begin writing in earnest until the age of 50 and who was 81 when the book in question appeared, all the while serving as a successful and influential physician.

What keeps The Red City from standing as great example of American letters? To some degree I would argue that Mitchell’s work suffers from his too-dogged espousal of his conservative and nationalistic views, just as some of Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s novels from the same period suffered as they worked too hard to advance the cause of her brand of feminism and social reform.

The lesson to be learned from this novel is that a man of quality can land on his feet and prosper whatever his situation. In this case, we have a French nobleman, escaped with his head attached and his mother in tow after the Revolution. Arriving in Philadelphia, this man wastes little time in finding gainful employ and proving himself worthy of that hereditary title that the old French regime had bestowed upon him.

Although Philadelphia in the 1790s was a considerably smaller place than the city of today, the frequency with which this story finds itself stumbling over prominent historical figures is implausible. Indeed, if Mitchell is correct in his portrayal, one couldn’t go out into the streets of the city without running into  Alexander Hamilton or Thomas Jefferson or George Washington or Dr. Benjamin Rush or perhaps some combination of these figures or one of many other worthies.

But besides being awash in founding fathers, Philadelphia found itself a hotbed of revolutionary sentiment. As Mitchell describes it, the young nation is strongly split between the sensible folks, like our French viscount and the Hamiltonian Federalists on one hand and Thomas Jefferson’s Republican rabble on the other. The Jeffersonian camp believe that the American Revolution had not gone far enough and intend to employ any means to push it further along. If they have their way, Americans will call each other “Citizen” and meet up at the guillotine for a bit of entertainment.

The Cambridge History of American Literature describes the vogue for historical novels to which Mitchell contributed this and several other works:

all these tales were courtly, high-sounding, decorative, and poetical. But their enormous popularity—some of them sold half a million copies in the two or three years of their brief heyday—points to some native condition. In the history of the American imagination they must be thought of as marking that moment at which, in the excitement which accompanied the Spanish War, the nation suddenly rediscovered a longer and more picturesque past than it had been popularly aware of since the Civil War. The episode was brief, and most of the books now seem gilt where some of them once looked like gold.

Mitchell’s novel appeared a decade after the close of the Spanish-American War, yet during the years when its less acknowledged Philippine offspring continued. The sort of nationalism that Theodore Roosevelt and Henry Cabot Lodge used to advocate for war with Spain lived on in the hearts of some for years afterward. In Mitchell’s view, the United States can do no wrong if it is guided by the sensible elites, even if they be French.

Posted in American Literature, Realism.

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