Diary: Christopher Benfey, Election Day

John Quidor, The Return of Rip Van Winkle (1849). Quidor was a friend of “Rip Van Winkle” author Washington Irving, and the painting captures the confrontational mood of Election Day as Irving described it. National Gallery, Andrew W. Mellon Collection

I’ve been teaching a course on nineteenth-century American literature this fall, via Zoom, for Mount Holyoke’s far-flung students. Along the way, I’ve been reminded that many of our enduring writers (especially white men, the only Americans who could vote before the Fifteenth and Nineteenth Amendments) were as obsessed with Election Day as we are. Some of them—Washington Irving, Herman Melville, and Nathaniel Hawthorne—set pivotal scenes in some of their greatest works on Election Day. The lives of others, like Poe, intersected oddly, and sometimes tragically, with national elections.

Everyone knows that Irving’s Rip Van Winkle falls asleep for twenty years and wakes up to a changed world. Some may even remember that he sleeps unwittingly through the American Revolution. The sign on his favorite tavern, previously depicting George III’s rubicund face, now displays, with minimal cosmetic adjustments, George Washington’s instead. But how many readers remember that Rip returns to his Catskills village on Election Day, and is immediately confronted about his party allegiance? “The very character of the people seemed changed,” Irving writes. “There was a busy, bustling disputatious tone about it, instead of the accustomed phlegm and drowsy tranquility.”

Another conservative-minded writer, Nathaniel Hawthorne, also invoked Election Day to lament the changes to American life. In the culminating chapters of The Scarlet Letter, the Reverend Arthur Dimmesdale, charged with giving the Election Day sermon, uses the occasion to reveal, shockingly, that he is Hester Prynne’s secret lover. In an aside, Hawthorne mentions that two hundred years after the events in the novel—he is writing in 1849—Election Day is still a festive occasion. Then, with his habitual gloom, he laments the decline in American leadership. In the old days, he writes, “primitive statesmen … elevated to power by the early choice of the people” had “fortitude and self-reliance, and, in time of difficulty or peril, stood up for the welfare of the state like a line of cliffs against a tempestuous tide.” Imagine what Hawthorne would say about our current leaders!

Hawthorne’s friend and disciple Melville took an even dimmer view of American political life. In his famous story an unnamed lawyer in trusts and estates discovers that his scrivener Bartleby—his human copy-machine— has been living in the law offices. As he heads back to his workplace on Wall Street after evicting Bartleby he encounters “quite an excited group of people” at the corner of Broadway and Canal:

“I’ll take odds he doesn’t,” said a voice as I passed.

“Doesn’t go?—done!” said I, “put up your money.”

I was instinctively putting my hand in my pocket to produce my own, when I remembered that this was an election day. The words I had overheard bore no reference to Bartleby, but to the success or non-success of some candidate for the mayoralty.

Bartleby, a homeless vagrant evicted on Election Day, is consigned to a prison where he dies miserable and alone, embodying the failure of a prosperous and supposedly democratic society to provide for its own populace. The question posed by the voices in the street—“I’ll take odds he doesn’t,” “Doesn’t go?—done!”—has a familiar ring in 2020.

Not only the works but the lives of past American writers sometimes intersected oddly with elections. “There is a gentleman, rather the worse for wear, at Ryan’s 4th ward polls, who goes under the cognomen of Edgar A. Poe,” according to an 1849 eyewitness report in Baltimore. Four days later he was dead. It has long been suggested that poor Poe had been lured, in exchange for drink, into a scam for voting—as our current President recently suggested his supporters do—early and often. The last profession listed in the San Francisco directory for Melville’s doomed son Stanwix is that of “canvasser,” a collector of votes.

Thoreau, appalled by the choices on offer by the major parties for the presidential election of 1848, went to jail for refusing to pay the poll tax. He thought a mere vote, with both candidates supporting slavery and the Mexican War, was insufficient protest against such abominations. “Under a government which imprisons any unjustly,” Thoreau wrote in “On Civil Disobedience,” “the true place for a just man is also a prison.” Thoreau urged his readers to “cast your whole vote, not a strip of paper merely, but your whole influence.” Only by such radical means could citizens escape what Emerson called, in “Self-Reliance,” “the prison-uniform of the party to which we adhere.”

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With my students Zooming in at midnight from Bangalore and Hanoi, I sometimes think of another disoriented Mount Holyoke student, writing to her brother in 1847, when she had just begun her classes. “Won’t you please to tell me when you answer my letter who the candidate for President is?” sixteen-year-old Emily Dickinson wrote.

I have been trying to find out ever since I came here & have not yet succeeded … Has the Mexican war terminated yet & how? Are we beat? Do you know of any nation about to besiege South Hadley? If so, do inform me of it, for I would be glad of a chance to escape, if we are to be stormed. I suppose Miss Lyon [Mary Lyon, the formidable founder of the school] would furnish us all with daggers & order us to fight for our lives, in case such perils should befall us.

Dickinson was a congressman’s daughter; her father had shared rooms in Washington with another Massachusetts Representative, Thomas Dawes Eliot, the brother of T. S. Eliot’s grandfather. When she referred to “the candidate for President,” she meant the Whig candidate, who turned out to be Zachary Taylor, the victor of the Battle of Buena Vista. Taylor had also been recruited, unsuccessfully, by the Democrats. The presidential election of 1848 was the same one that drove Thoreau crazy. Two years later, Congress passed, and Taylor’s Whig successor Millard Fillmore signed, the Fugitive Slave Act, making the North complicit in the horrific institution of slavery.

“By an act of the American Congress, not yet two years old,” Frederick Douglass wrote in his passionate 1852 speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?,” “slavery has been nationalized in its most horrible and revolting form.” Douglass added, just to seal the point: “There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of these United States, at this very hour.” If, as Walt Whitman suggested in a garrulous late poem of 1884, our elections, with their peaceful transfer of power (“a swordless conflict, / Yet more than all Rome’s wars of old, or modern Napoleon’s”), are a more sublime national treasure than Niagara Falls or Yosemite, the results, alas, are often appalling. And this time around the peacefulness itself is in doubt.

“I’ll take odds he doesn’t.” “Doesn’t go?—done!”

Christopher Benfey is a literary critic, teacher, poet, and scholar of nineteenth- and twentieth-century American literature. His most recent book is If: The Untold Story of Kipling’s American Years.

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