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Men of Letters in the Early Republic

Cultivating Forums of Citizenship

Catherine O'Donnell Kaplan

Cloth: 978-0-8078-3164-9 ($73.95)
Paper: 978-0-8078-5853-0 ($28.95)

Copyright 2008
University of North Carolina Press

In the aftermath of the Revolutionary War, after decades of intense upheaval and debate, the role of the citizen was seen as largely political. But as Catherine O'Donnell Kaplan reveals, some Americans saw a need for a realm of public men outside politics. They believed that neither the nation nor they themselves could achieve virtue and happiness through politics alone. Imagining a different kind of citizenship, they founded periodicals, circulated manuscripts, and conversed about poetry, art, and the nature of man. They pondered William Godwin and Edmund Burke more carefully than they did candidates for local elections and insisted other Americans should do so as well.

Kaplan looks at three groups in particular: the Friendly Club in New York City, which revolved around Elihu Hubbard Smith, with collaborators such as William Dunlap and Charles Brockden Brown; the circle around Joseph Dennie, editor of two highly successful periodicals; and the Anthologists of the Boston Athenaeum. Through these groups, Kaplan demonstrates, an enduring and influential model of the man of letters emerged in the first decade of the nineteenth century.

About the Author

Catherine O'Donnell Kaplan is assistant professor of history at Arizona State University.


Catherine O’Donnell Kaplan brings into focus the social and literary worlds of the American Republic’s first generation of intellectuals. Her lively portraits of Elihu Hubbard Smith, Joseph Dennie, and the Boston Anthologists depict how their elite cultural aspirations at once complemented and conflicted with their varied commitments to the public good. Anyone interested in the birth of American national literature should read (and enjoy) this excellent book.

--Ruth Bloch, University of California, Los Angeles

Briskly readable, well researched, and informative, Men of Letters gives us a fresh and vivid story of the emergence of a literary public in early national America.

--Michael Warner, Yale University

Kaplan captures the essence of what it meant to write imaginative works in the first decades of the new nation, and this accomplishment leads to another. Men of Letters brings alive the story of those men and women who first used poetry, fiction, drama, polite conversation, and song to test priorities in the American experiment of democratic living.

--Robert Ferguson, Columbia University

Kaplan has discovered the moment when capital-C Culture was invented in the United States and its original structural form. This book will become a standard work in the cultural history of the new Republic and a classic on the origins of the American intellectual class.

--David S. Shields, University of South Carolina

A dazzling success. . . . Anyone interested in the history of high culture, literature, citizenship, or national identity in America will delight in Kaplan's nuanced and insightful work.

--Maryland Historical Magazine

Will be valued for its imaginative and nuanced insights into post-Revolutionary literary culture.

--Journal of Southern History

[A] tightly constructed and well-written book. . . . [Kaplan's] close reading of printed and manuscript sources subtly teases meaning out of often opaque material.

--The Historian

Forces us to move beyond a national framework and to foreground the local and regional networks at work in the post-Revolutionary era.


[A] treasure trove of remarkable insights. . . . Kaplan's brilliant work deserves wide readership for the way in which it reveals how various Federalists invented a version of citizenship predicated on social and cultural rather than poltical bonds.

--The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography

A thoughtful and well-researched book.

--The New England Quarterly

[A] thoughtful book.


Presents . . . theoretically sophisticated arguments that are nevertheless grounded in well-researched historical material contexts. . . . Brings substantive historical research to bear on our ways of thinking about literature and the public sphere in the early U.S.

--College Literature

Makes . . . significant contributions to the evolving cultural history of the eighteenth century. . . . Well-researched and well-written. . . . The best historical monograph on Shaftesburian literary communities in the post-Revolutionary period.

--Eighteenth-Century Studies

Insightful. . . . Subtly nuanced. . . . Delineates the mutable character of, and complex relationship between, those broad political and cultural concepts . . . that some scholars of eighteenth-century America tend to deploy rather loosely or monolithically.

--William and Mary Quarterly