Adams, Farrago, and Civic Exceptionalism
We have seen that Gulliver and Updike function as vehicles for critiques of national exceptionalism on both sides of the Atlantic. But exceptionalism also operates within national borders and among citizens and subjects negotiating local or domestic policy. National exceptionalism—particularly in English and US historical contexts—is largely a function of more local forms of exceptionalism that reinforce notions of the superiority of a system of governance, whether the legalistic republicanism of the early US or the “glorious freedom” of the English that Updike ridicules and Gulliver exposes as lacking. This chapter focuses on what we might call civic exceptionalism, or the popular belief that local systems of government and spheres of public political activity are inevitably and ultimately just, despite counterevidence.
Two eighteenth-century novels in particular adopt the quixotic exceptionalist motif to address civic exceptionalism through illustrations of political and economic tumult at home. Henry Fielding’s Joseph Andrews (1742) and Hugh Henry Brackenridge’s Modern Chivalry (1792–1815) engage explicitly with civic issues and problems—charity, poverty, social and legal order—on two sides of the Atlantic, though with a stark awareness of the interconnectedness of the Atlantic political economy in the eighteenth century. Fielding presents his quixote in Joseph Andrews, Parson Adams, as a representation of measure and sanity in an English society gone mad, a society in which the clergy have abandoned their charitable duties, and another parson mistakes Adams’s copy of Aeschylus for a pilfered sermon. In many ways, Adams’s England in Joseph Andrews looks a lot like Brackenridge’s US in Modern Chivalry, which features a similarly bookish quixote, Captain John Farrago, who struggles to understand why his crass, illiterate sidekick, a crudely stereotyped Irishman, Teague O’Regan, commands so much more respect among angry and unlettered US citizens than the effete and learned captain.
Adams and Farrago find their societies bewildering, largely because both men generate their expectations of political reality from exceptionalist myths. Adams expects a deeply moral, Christian society that cares for its poor and its young, whereas Farrago expects the high-minded, legalistic discourse that underwrites US founding documents to sufficiently curb excesses of self-interest and political fervor among the populace. Both quixotes respond to the bewilderment of mismatched expectations and experiences by adopting an exceptionalist outlook. As moral and political visionaries, they alone can forge a path to enlightenment, if only they can convince everyone else to follow along. The tragicomic fact that Adams and Farrago, convinced of their visionary qualities, nevertheless struggle to gain a following creates a scenario that forces readers to evaluate whether quixotism is a form of madness or of exceeding rationality in these novels.
Joseph Andrews and Modern Chivalry both foreground the problem of quixotism as a conflation of madness and rationality, a problem of how to tell whether madness is the exception, or the very rule that governs the societies Adams and Farrago occupy. Another way of understanding this problem is as a problem of fictionality, or of whether reading quixotic madness against societal madness in these novels can help us determine whether the quixotic worldview is meant to be antiquated fiction or an incisive reading of immediate societal realities.
This method of investigating the counterintuitive relationship between madness and rationality—a relationship structured like the counterintuitive relationship between exception and rule that Agamben illustrates—is certainly pertinent to Cervantes’s Don Quixote, whose ostensible madness is not without ample moments of reason and good sense. After having taken him home at the close of part 1, the priest and the barber evaluate a bedridden Don Quixote at the beginning of part 2:
He gave them a warm welcome, they inquired after his health and he provided a well reasoned and elegantly expressed account of his progress. And as the conversation developed they came to the subject that is sometimes called reason of state and methods of government, and they all corrected this abuse and condemned that one, and reformed one custom and forbad another, and each of the three men turned into a new legislator, a present-day Lycurgus or a modern Solon; and they subjected society to such radical reforms that anyone would have thought they’d taken it to a forge and brought away a different one; and Don Quixote spoke with such good sense about every subject they discussed that his two examiners reached the firm conclusion that he was fully recovered and of sound mind. The niece and the housekeeper were present at the conversation, and they were tireless in thanking God for having restored their master to his senses. (2.1.488)
Through this passage we can make sense of Fielding’s portrayal of Parson Adams, a sensible, educated, and socially engaged quixote who also appears mad and disconnected from his surrounding reality. That Don Quixote’s madness is so well disguised by his reasonable speech with regard to the well-being of the state—“correcting” and “condemning” abuses and “reforming” nation and custom—is pertinent in light of Adams’s quixotic efforts to reform the fallen society around him as a lone knight of moral fortitude. Notably, after his assessors deem him sane and rational, Quixote proceeds almost immediately to talk further of “His Majesty” proclaiming “all knights errant wandering in Spain must assemble in Madrid” to fight off the Turks, declaring ultimately, “A knight errant I shall be until I die” (2.1.490). Quixote continually defies hard definitions of madness and rationality, occupying the paradoxical state of rational madness that Fielding later picks up on in his rendering of Parson Adams. This brings us to a pivotal question: Are Adams’s moments of incisive, even visionary rationality a function of a prosocial form of quixotic exceptionalism, or are they the fictive dress in which Fielding disguises and mocks Adams’s madness?
Reading the politics of quixotism in such scenarios that demand consideration of whether the quixote or the society is truly mad is important in the context of eighteenth-century understandings of madness as a kind of social disease. Michel Foucault, for example, took particular interest in Don Quixote as a representation of early modern madness. “In the landscape of unreason where the sixteenth century located it,” writes Foucault, “madness concealed a meaning and an origin that were obscurely moral; its secrecy related it to sin.”1 Foucault understands Quixote’s madness as a kind of tragedy, an irredeemable sense of demise (in this sense, Quixote’s deathbed renunciation of his quixotism is simultaneously a pathetic and redemptive gesture). By the eighteenth century, for Foucault, understandings of madness in Europe undergo a shift, characterized by a returned association of madness with morality, and a fear of madness as a social disease capable of transcending the individual case: “The unreason that had been relegated to the distance of confinement reappeared, fraught with new dangers as if endowed with a new power of interrogation. Yet what the eighteenth century first noticed about it was not the secret interrogation, but only the social effects: the torn clothing, the arrogance in rags, the tolerated insolence, whose disturbing powers were silenced by an amused indulgence. . . . [T]his was the first time since the Great Confinement that the madman had become a social individual.”2 This characterization of madness as a social danger—an “arrogance in rags”—that announces itself in tatters recalls Cervantes’s description of Don Quixote, who appears battered and gaunt, especially after his more extreme bouts of quixotism result in physically destructive bouts with others (1.37.348; 2.64.928). Comparing the ragged appearances of quixotism and of extreme piety, Quixote describes the life of knight-errantry, from the experience of “[his] own sufferings,” as “hungrier and thirstier, more wretched, ragged, and louse-ridden” than the life of “a cloistered monk” (1.13.98). Quixote—himself the “Knight of the Sorry Face”—also apprehends a “madman,” the “Ragged Knight of the Miserable Face,” dressed in “a ragged suede jerkin” and “muttering words that were incomprehensible” (1.23.195–96). In eighteenth-century Britain, the quixotic narrative modified this image of the quintessential seventeenth-century madman, Quixote, to address perceived social ills associated with emergent fears of societal madness, which Foucault describes as “formulated in medical terms, but animated, basically, by a moral myth.” Concern over the social implications of madness created a desire for “a political and economic explanation . . . in which wealth, progress, institutions appear as the determining element of madness.”3
Adams is perhaps the quintessential quixote of eighteenth-century Britain, given that his madness is not only moral and social in its scope of concerns but distinctly religious as well (recalling Don Quixote’s comparison of the knight-errant and the cloistered monk). As Foucault notes, citing case instances from the Encyclopedie: “For a long time doctors were suspicious of too strict a devotion, too strong a belief. Too much moral rigor, too much anxiety about salvation and the life to come were often thought to bring on melancholia.”4 Adams’s religious quixotism presented as a form of madness, in his brooding over sermons and scriptural passages, preoccupation with classical texts as gateways into religious and moral learning, and tendency to understand his sermons in the way Don Quixote understands his chivalric romances: with the expectation that such myths are not the exception, but the norm.
Yet, as with Quixote, Adams’s mode of quixotic madness is especially unsettling because it is so frequently couched in the language of reason, understanding, and scripture. In this way Adams embodies a societal understanding of madness in eighteenth-century Britain that not only associated madness with questions of moral and religious well-being but was also vested in concerns about madness as social contagion. As Parson Adams wanders through the English countryside with sermons in hand and a command of language and classical scripture that appears foreign to his interlocutors, Fielding raises questions about the quixote’s liminal role as a figure of madness and, simultaneously, of moral fortitude. For this reason simple madness is not an adequate framework for understanding the impact of quixotes like Adams, who, in accordance with Smollett’s insistence that Quixote is no ordinary madman, set themselves up as exceptions to mad societies.
The societal madness and breakdown surrounding Fielding’s quixote have been a subject of considerable attention. Contending that “Joseph Andrews is about the absence of charity in eighteenth-century England,” Christopher Parkes demonstrates how Fielding conveys through characters like Lady Booby and Peter Pounce some troubling, if exaggerated, English notions of dealing with poverty, including putting the poor to pasture, as one would a horse, because of the abundant grazing fields and freshwater streams available throughout the countryside.5 Similar moments of absurdity and of victimization of the disadvantaged populate Fielding’s novel, from Joseph’s reluctance to give up his borrowed breeches at gunpoint before being beaten nearly to death on the occasion of one of multiple roadside attacks (as he would not be able to make good on his word to return the breeches to the original lender) to the macabre pursuit of Parson Adams by, as Fielding writes, “a great Hunter of Men” on horseback, in the tradition of ferreting out and hunting wild game.6
Though Fielding portrays Adams, in his “simplicity,” as outmoded and distant from the unquestioning perfidy of so many of those with whom he comes into contact on the road, the degree to which Fielding casts his English society as madly corrupt and uncharitable, if not at times sociopathic, renders Adams a figure of measure by comparison. Walter Reed calls Adams “a Quixote of ethical rather than aesthetic precept.”7 And Martin Battestin famously sees Adams as a “moral yardstick” for the times “in his bewildered exposure to the vanities of the age: the levees of great men, country hunting matches and horse races, drums and routs, beaus and coquettes.”8 But to avoid simply recasting eighteenth-century England in Adams’s moralistic terms, it is necessary to consider how socioeconomic developments reinforced Fielding’s portrait of English madness and disorientation.
As Judith Frank observes, “Work on both the satire and the fiction of [the eighteenth century] has tended to focus on the transition from patrician culture to a culture dominated by the logic of the market, or what Michael McKeon has described as the tension between aristocratic and progressive ideology.”9 Recalling Fielding’s uncharitable clergymen, Parkes calls attention to the ways the workhouse movement and Poor Laws reform, aimed at systematizing care for and control over the poor, allowed clergy to abandon more localized charitable endeavors under the pretense that other state provisions were available.10
In addition to substantial changes in the handling of the English poor, the last decades of the seventeenth century and the first of the eighteenth century witnessed debates over the impact of financial markets (the “financial revolution” of William III, the nationalization of debt, and the creation of the Bank of England in 1694), debates over the shift from the land-based accumulation of wealth to credit-based speculation. Michael Gilmore describes this shift as the installation of “a system of public credit and national debt . . . created in order to underwrite commercial expansion and the wars with France,” which included, in the first two decades of the eighteenth century, the War of the Spanish Succession (1701–14), and, by the time of the publication of Joseph Andrews, the War of the Austrian Succession, including the transatlantic King George’s War (1740–48). Emphasizing the destabilizing nature of this shift, Gilmore writes: “While real wealth in land was taxed to pay off interest on the debt, stockjobbers and speculators were amassing fortunes by manipulating worthless paper. Scandals like the South Sea Bubble of 1720, when the stock climbed astronomically and then abruptly plunged, strengthened the conviction of the landowners that the new economic order was unstable, irrational, and a menace to civic health.”11
The early century rise of finance economies was an antecedent to a related but different phase of societal change, which emerged in the wake of Walpolian policies and the opposition to Walpole as representative of a legacy of materialism and self-interest. Contributing to this emergent sense of societal madness and cynicism in the 1730s was Walpole’s reputation for covering up corruption, and an attendant lack of trust in public figures.12 This notion of mistrust in the mid-1730s, leading up to the publication of Joseph Andrews, only compounded prior skepticism, generated from the fallout of the South Sea Bubble, about the direction in which British society was heading. Consequently, as Christine Gerrard writes, “larger patterns of deception, enticement, and moral metamorphosis” were behind what Walpole’s opposition believed were “people’s changed moral behaviour in Walpolian Britain.”13
Fielding was very much an active participant in the discourse of opposition to Walpole and adhered to the political view that, amid a morally deteriorating society, there were yet sly and powerful figures, like Walpole, who aimed to lead people ever-further astray. Curiously, one of Fielding’s satires on Walpole, published in the Champion on December 13, 1739, portrays Walpole as a magician who, lurking in a pastoral setting, lures passersby into complicity by taking them by the hand and giving them a “gentle squeeze” (a sinister image of the “invisible hand” decades before the publication of The Wealth of Nations).14 Parson Adams, hardly a Walpolian figure, is nonetheless something of a mystic in the eyes of the uneducated and uncharitable country masses in Joseph Andrews, his quixotism in a society gone morally awry contributing to his liminal status as both a sage and a dunce. Adams, a moral idealist critical of the idealization of self-interest, complicates the notion that when Walpole fell, cynicism reigned, idealism vanished from British society, and Britain entered, in the midcentury, an antiquixotic phase of national politics. The seeming “irrationality” and instability of financial markets, joined with marked shifts in the loci of personal versus social responsibility and the prominent Walpole-opposition’s notions of a regressive “moral metamorphosis,” make Adams’s England indeed a world of particular uncertainty.
As Battestin argues convincingly, and Fielding illustrates transparently in his portrait of Adams the parson, Adams is an “imitator of Christ.”15 Fielding drew his basis for Adams’s character from a series of homilies that stress “the depiction of the good man as hero.”16 Rendering Adams a quixote, then, fits into a lineage of quixote criticism that reads the quixote as the hero and protagonist of the quixotic narrative, and the surrounding “world of windmills” as the villain, or the object of quixotic satire.17 Adams’s relative sanity, stemming from his moral and ethical grounding, is perhaps the foundation of his quixotic heroism; though it is not necessarily, as we can observe, without its complications. His litany of comic overreactions, from flinging his beloved copy of Aeschylus into the fire at Fanny’s slightest disturbance to the entreaties to others in dire peril to “repose thy Trust in the same Providence, which hath hitherto protected thee,” depict a figure detached from and anachronistic within a mad society, yet neither wholly sane nor wholly heroic, thereby (122). Attentive to the world before his eyes, Adams recognizes exigent social problems and courageously attempts to engage them; yet his orientation, vaguely nostalgic, is also to a world very distant from the one he occupies, rendering his precepts for the most part ineffectual. The breakdown of stable notions of sanity and madness Adams exemplifies points to an important facet of quixotic exceptionalism: the line between visionary and revisionist. Again, is Adams’s way of perceiving the world around him an inventive fiction, or an incisive reading of a mad society?
Crucial to our understanding of Adams’s moral function in Fielding’s novel is the way Adams avails himself of quixotic exceptionalism both to position himself as an objective onlooker above his society and to cast his surrounding society as mad and unscrupulous, despite his own anachronistic worldview.18 In this way Adams collapses his liminal position into a fundamentally quixotic position, his quixotism effectively obviating the problem of difference (and distance) between himself and the characters he encounters on the road and ultimately justifying his function as a humorous, at times ironic, but not unserious critic of the provincial worlds he passes through. That is, the difficulties Adams encounters are never enough to puncture his quixotic worldview or his belief that he understands the path to righteousness more clearly and acutely than anyone else, such that his comic and aberrant behavior is wholly justified.
Being too literate to be accepted and understood by even the magistrates and clergy with whom he comes into contact, Adams understands himself as an exception to the rule of moral and societal decay. From this position, the likes of Joseph and Fanny, however skeptical at times of his seemingly irrational moral fastidiousness, nonetheless consider that Parson Adams must be possessed of a higher-order understanding.
The sidekicks who accompany Adams are not beholden to his worldview and moral outlook merely out of duty or class-based obligation (despite the fact that Joseph and Fanny are both of the servant ranks, they are not Adams’s servants), but because they place some degree of faith in his moral precepts and his conduct as an exemplar of charity, justice, and good sense. Adams’s quixotic ability to draw Joseph and Fanny into his ways of thinking and acting—even when immediately harsh and dire circumstances give them pause—is predicated on his characteristically quixotic eloquence, learnedness, and convincingness as a quixotic visionary. He can rope Joseph and Fanny into his way of seeing the world by claiming a position of intellectual and moral superiority, which, for the young couple amid the throes of love and adventure, is especially compelling.
Nonetheless, the class difference between Parson Adams and his sidekicks is not irrelevant to the dynamic between these characters, nor is it irrelevant to Adams’s quixotic claim to exceptionalism. Adams’s learnedness relative to Joseph and Fanny is largely a function of his social rank as a member of the clergy, just as the class and social roles of Joseph and Fanny demand that they maintain a degree of humility and respect for the likes of Adams. This makes both doubly susceptible to Adams’s quixotism. Though Sancho Panza is something of a picaresque figure—an opportunist—who sees in Don Quixote a means toward a better (or at least more exciting) life, with promises of land, riches, and political power, Joseph and Fanny are morally involved sidekicks to a morally preoccupied quixote. Adams’s quixotic exceptionalism flourishes in this scenario.
After wagging his finger at Joseph and Fanny for their violent reactions to situations of real danger, questioning their excessive passion and attachment to worldly things and finding their faith in divine will insufficient, Adams struggles to practice as he preaches. In the most pronounced example of Adams’s exceptionalism in this regard, he begins to “stamp about the Room and deplore his Loss with the bitterest Agony” while under the (false) impression that his son has drowned (270). This is the cruelest joke Fielding puts Adams through, though it reflects the exceptionalist logic by which quixotes see themselves as superlative adherents to the path of justice while finding errors in the comparable behavior of others.
Quixotic narratives often end with scenes of mixed resolution that ostensibly restore quixotes to comfortable and respectable places in society, though only after they realize and take responsibility for their follies and renounce their quixotism. Both Gulliver and Updike undergo quixotic conversions of their own, though with mixed results. At the end of Joseph Andrews we find Adams endowed with a solid annual salary and joyously marrying Joseph and Fanny, though in the final few pages of the novel Adams remains the butt of Fielding’s jokes, accidentally spurring his horse and being thrown from it, chastising Mr. Booby and Pamela at the wedding for “laughing in so sacred a Place, and so solemn an Occasion,” and overindulging in so much “Ale and Pudding” as to have “given a Loose to more Facetiousness than was usual to him,” remaining at the novel’s close a kind of comic anachronism (300–302). The ambiguity created by writing the quixote as both a comical figure for readers to justifiably mock and a sympathetic figure whose behavior and worldview raise questions about the surrounding society with which the quixote is largely incompatible is part of a narrative strategy that enables writers to make subtle and multifaceted social critiques through quixotes.
Though Fielding’s treatment of Adams is not without irony in the novel’s closing moments—the parson is still shown preaching solemnity to guests at the wedding who simply wish to share in the joy of the occasion—we also get the sense that, even for his quixotism, Adams is vindicated in marrying the two beleaguered young lovers. In the primarily comical and upbeat final scenes of Joseph Andrews, the microcosm of British society over which Parson Adams loosely presides is indeed, as Ruth Mack attributes to Arabella’s vision in The Female Quixote, “a better reality,” a harmonious and virtuous segment of a nation portrayed otherwise as burdened by social and financial waywardness.19 That Adams ultimately avoids conversion from his moral quixotism by the novel’s end vindicates his exceptionalism while leaving open the question of its broader efficacy.
Further, without attention to Adams’s quixotic exceptionalism—how Adams as a liminal figure in relation to the surrounding society he aims to critique is fundamentally quixotic—we can easily lose sight of the fact that Adams’s moral bearing is not only a “yardstick,” as Battestin suggests, demarcating the dated from the new, but an idealistic vision, or a quixotic attempt to reinstitute the moral codes of the past. As a quixote, Parson Adams is, likewise, an imitator of the past, a misplaced romantic, and a driving force of precisely the kind of pious self-regulation that is to the inhabitants of Adams’s provincial England what chivalry is to those who mock Don Quixote for scrupulously sitting vigil over his arms before he is to be “knighted” by the confounded innkeeper (1.3.36). Readings that minimize the quixotic risk missing connections of this sort, connections that can alter our understanding of well-studied motifs—morality, charity, chastity—in well-studied novels like Joseph Andrews.
Hugh Henry Brackenridge’s rambling Modern Chivalry is, like Joseph Andrews, a commentary on issues of explicitly public political concern, including, as in Joseph Andrews, issues of perceived societal madness, civic well-being, and government reform. Published initially in two parts in 1792, Modern Chivalry was eventually revised to include two more parts (in 1793 and 1797, respectively), a revision in 1805, and a final revision in 1815. Brackenridge’s ranging narrative, closer in length to Cervantes’s Don Quixote than the other early US quixotic narratives, features a bookish statesman-quixote in Captain John Farrago, who departs from his Pennsylvania farm to travel on horseback throughout the frontier. Captain Farrago’s Sancho Panza is an Irish immigrant, Teague O’Regan, whom Brackenridge illustrates as a rough, heavily ethnicized stereotype of a servant-rank Irishman. In their travels throughout the frontier, the educated and articulate Farrago attempts to persuade a series of uneducated frontier mobs of his political philosophies and recommendations for good governance and an engaged and productive citizenry, while Teague takes an entirely different approach to public life. As Farrago struggles to gain popularity with the citizens of the frontier on account of his high-mindedness and patriotic idealism, the uneducated, incurious, and unceremonious Teague eats, drinks, and womanizes his way into the hearts and minds of frontier settlers, schoolmasters, clergy, and politicians. Teague is eventually elected to Congress, which Farrago takes as a heavy slap in the face.
While its explicit treatment of domestic political concerns makes it unmistakably Fieldingesque, Modern Chivalry engages more directly with questions of representative democracy than does Joseph Andrews. The first of the expressly quixotic narratives in the early US, Modern Chivalry emerged during a period in which the US underwent something of its own quixotic phase in its efforts to build and justify narratives of American exceptionalism.20 The US in the late eighteenth century looks strikingly similar to Parson Adams’s early eighteenth-century England.
Like eighteenth-century England, the early US was influenced by Walpolian financial ideas, mainly through the intermediary of Alexander Hamilton, the first US secretary of the treasury. Linking aspects of Hamiltonian economics with economic trends in Augustan England, Gilmore describes “a kind of social madness in which ‘imagination governs the world’ ”; thus, parts of Modern Chivalry satirize “the epidemic of fantasy produced by Hamilton’s financial program,” portraying the early US as “the very antithesis of a sane society.” The transatlantic financial currents that brought a brand of financial economics to the US also roused more than a modicum of Oppositional spirit in Brackenridge, whose Modern Chivalry aligns significantly, in its US context, with the sentiments of an English landed gentry who opposed Walpolian programs that heavily taxed their land to finance national debt.21 Only for Brackenridge in Modern Chivalry, Hamiltonian economics represented both a failure and abandonment of popular sovereignty, in that irrational, mob thinking among the populace was responsible for electing the wrong leaders, who in turn failed to serve the best interests of the people.
Approximately a half century after quixotic narratives began to flourish in Britain, alongside comparably radical social and political changes, the post-Revolutionary US embraced the quixotic narrative. Calling attention to the transatlantic potency of “imitative genres,” Eve Tavor Bannet writes:
The publication of successive translations, imitations, abridgements, and adaptations of Cervantes’ early sixteenth-century novel throughout Europe and on both sides of the Atlantic made quixotism itself a transatlantic and transnational genre. In this respect, quixotism was comparable to the circulation and adoption in different parts of Europe and America of other genres, such as the romance or the sentimental novel. Quixotism itself therefore bears witness to the importance of genre, and of its diverse methods of transplantation in making Atlantic literary cultures more alike.22
Picking up on the transatlantic relevance of the quixotic narrative and, perhaps more importantly, reconstructing the character models of Cervantes, Fielding, and Swift to create a quixotic narrative for the early US, Brackenridge was also attuned to the role of imitation in the nascent republic’s relationship with Britain. Modern Chivalry imitated British imitations of Don Quixote as a means of addressing and engaging the early republic’s considerable set of transatlantically informed challenges, intervening in early US discourses of growth, prosperity, and national self-fashioning and producing a quixote in Captain Farrago whose quixotism attenuates the force of his social insights.
As with Joseph Andrews, Modern Chivalry confronts the question of whether quixotic behavior is visionary or revisionist by positioning the mad quixote against an even madder society. Occupying a society that is “the very antithesis of sane,” Captain Farrago, despite his quixotism, can actually appear rational and deliberative. Joseph Harkey urges us to note that “the frontier society, not Farrago, is mad in Modern Chivalry.” Similarly, between Captain Farrago and his servant Teague, in contrast to Don Quixote and Sancho, the captain represents the “rational minority,” while the servant is, like the mass public, fickle and “impetuous.”23 Farrago goes to lengths to remove himself from the opinions of the masses—“it is of little, or perhaps no consequence to me, what my stile is amongst men”—and spends much time in the novel in distant observation and reflection over mob scenes, tarring and feathering, and chasing and shouting, all of these quite often surrounding the exploits of his servant Teague, whom Davidson rightly calls “the id” to Captain Farrago’s ego, “provid[ing] most of the adventures which keep the novel going.”24
Nonetheless, in situations in which the quixote can seem more rational than his attendant, or than the society that sets the standards for his madness, notions of rationality-by-degree are particularly difficult to pin down. Farrago rationally sees danger in the frontier mob mentality, yet it is the impetuous Teague who, unlike Sancho Panza, capitalizes on mob tendencies. And as Teague appears to learn something from his exploits—that his behavior is capable of producing favorable results—Farrago works himself into endless frustration over his inability to fruitfully assess the people with whom he comes into contact on the road, as well as his uneducated footman’s continual success. Teague initially struggles to make sense of Farrago’s elegant philosophical pronouncements, though he barely concerns himself with them; and this is the very attitude that makes him more successful in his political operations than his learned employer. In this sense, Teague is himself an ambivalent figure, lacking the first-instance skepticism and general common sense of Sancho Panza, yet politically shrewd in his own way.
Farrago treads a similar line. Wendy Martin identifies his strange “inversion of values,” by which the mad quixote represents and identifies with “sanity in a society where profit takes precedence over knowledge.”25 In a moment of radical self-awareness similar to Launcelot Greaves’s defense of his own brand of quixotism, Farrago makes a claim to his sanity by way of his own madness, bemoaning: “I am shut up here as a mad man, in a mad place, and yet it appears to me that I am the only rational being amongst men, because I know that I am mad” (385). In complicating his quixote’s relationship to the society he occupies, Brackenridge, like Fielding, opens up space for a double-edged satirical critique: the politically elusive and ambivalent Brackenridge pillories not just the uninformed, unreflective mob but also the pedantic and distrustful Farrago, all while undermining the general credibility of rhetorical claims about madness and sanity.
As with Parson Adams, Farrago’s liminal position between sanity and madness relies upon a play of relativity. Despite Farrago’s attempts to socialize Teague, to dress up his person and his manners in the image of a gentleman before he is to assume a government post, Teague appears obstinately antimimetic. When Farrago has a serendipitous encounter with his former servant after having let him go so that he may take up his newly acquired government position, Teague has bartered away the horse that Farrago had given him (Teague having been no longer a footman) for a watch, despite that Teague does not know how to tell time.26 Teague’s decision to trade the horse for the watch is a mark of his general disinterest in adopting the oft-mounted Captain Farrago’s means of travel, and with that Farrago’s knightly and gentlemanly visage. It also bespeaks Teague’s appreciation of the surface-level requirements associated with political success, a property that distinguishes him from Farrago in an important way: the rational and practical Farrago lends his former footman a horse for transportation—the gift equivalent of an unglamorous but necessary political pronouncement—and Teague exchanges the horse for an object of no practical use to him, other than to give him what he understands as the appearance of an important political figure. Moments later, in stark contrast to his apparent social advancement, Teague is ready to strike Farrago’s replacement servant, Duncan, with his cudgel, forcing Farrago to pacify the two.
Teague, a crudely stereotyped Irishman not altogether different from his Scottish counterpart Duncan, embodies all that is appetitive, impetuous, ignorant, and hot-tempered—a polar opposite of the refined, calculating, and articulate Farrago. Yet where Farrago’s words ineffectually wash over his interlocutors and observers (as do Don Quixote’s in his many moments of pontification), Teague proceeds through the novel in episodes of relative success, effortlessly winning the favor of both crowds and women. Teague’s success frustrates Farrago, who is continually confounded by it. As Bannet writes: “In Modern Chivalry, complete unwillingness to imitate either classical or English models is used to characterize the Pennsylvania backcountry. Brackenridge ironically dramatizes Franklin’s dictum that America is ‘the best poor man’s country in the world,’ by showing Teague . . . being offered every manner of opportunity in the new world. Meanwhile, his master, Captain Farrago, repeatedly tries to distract attention from Teague to himself by explaining to local communities what he has learned from books.”27
The diametric distinctions between the captain and his servant operate against the backdrop of Brackenridge’s fictional frontier society—a society much more like Teague than Farrago—and are critically significant beyond the terms of the disparate relationship between Farrago and Teague, quixote and sidekick. To the extent that Farrago lays claim to sanity by his relative thoughtfulness and measure, he is, as he laments, a madman shut up in a mimetic world, a world in which the impetuous circuitously mimic one another. Farrago’s reluctance to participate in this mimetic cycle renders him, rather than Teague, the antimimetic figure, or perhaps the wrongly mimetic figure.
Though quixotes are imitators of a given model (and in many cases flawed imitators whose readings are too literal), they are also, paradoxically, antimimetic in relation to the “sane” worlds that they inhabit. Teague resists Captain Farrago’s attempts at socialization, believing (perhaps correctly) that his demeanor, as well as his ability to mimic the mobs, is the foundation of his success. Captain Farrago’s measured distance from the crudely mimetic world around him is central to his quixotism. Once he develops a taste for a given model, the scope of his mimesis is stubbornly narrow. He is mad in his inability to mimic a model that would bring him success (like that which his footman enjoys), yet in that same inability he is also sane, possessed of an understanding that if all were to fall into the mimetic cycle in which the mobs participate, the country could not survive, much less get off the ground.
Farrago is, like Parson Adams, part visionary who sees beyond the fray of profiteering and unenlightened self-interest, and part revisionist whose precepts seem no longer applicable to rapidly changing social landscapes. It is this mode of quixotism—the reasoned aloofness, the visionary outlook—set against the semi-fictional background of a “mad” midcentury Britain or early US, that makes Joseph Andrews and Modern Chivalry such compatible narratives for understanding how quixotism operates within public discourse. It is important to note, once again, that this form of aloofness is an essential precondition for quixotic exceptionalism, in this case the elevation of the quixote above the very concrete social problem of his obsolescence. For Farrago, reticence in the face of a seemingly ill-advised mob populism—an antimimetic quality—demonstrates one of the primary ways that quixotes preserve quixotic idealism, despite social forces acting to bring the quixote back to the reality that others practice. Quixotism entails the obstinate belief in one’s own approach and worldview, despite concrete evidence of its falsehood or inadequacy.
In the case of Modern Chivalry, Farrago’s ambivalent yet steadfast belief in the myth of American exceptionalism reflects much of Brackenridge’s own political career, as well as the complicated stakes of Brackenridge’s politics. Brackenridge, born in Scotland in 1748 and transplanted with his family to Pennsylvania as a child in 1753, was among the most legally and politically engaged of the prominent early US writers. He attended the College of New Jersey (present-day Princeton University) with the poet and polemicist Philip Freneau and the coauthor of the US Constitution and fourth US president, James Madison, where the three founded the American Whig Society, a group of playful polemicists established to counter the Cliosophic (Tory) society. Though Brackenridge was himself an especially complicated political figure, evinced by his bipartisan efforts and negotiations to end the Whiskey Rebellion in 1794, his evenhandedness in critiquing both mob mentality and detached plutocracy in the early republic, his career as a highly respected and politically savvy judge, and his affiliation with Madison and the Princeton Whigs reflect his seminal role in shaping the guiding principles of US governance in the eighteenth century.
By the turn of the nineteenth century, during the period in which Tabitha Gilman Tenney wrote Female Quixotism and the partisan divide between Federalists and Democratic-Republicans heated up, Madison and Thomas Jefferson were aligned against the Hamiltonian Federalists with a brand of republicanism that Brackenridge, Freneau, and Madison helped shape at the College of New Jersey. Brackenridge would go on to practice law and serve as a magistrate and a justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. He was also the founder of the Pittsburgh Academy (present-day University of Pittsburgh) and the Pittsburgh Gazette (present-day Pittsburgh Post-Gazette). This diversified background of legal and political involvement, educational stewardship, and experience on the western Pennsylvania frontier primed Brackenridge to make Modern Chivalry one of the early republic’s most ideologically capacious and subtle quixotic narratives.
As I have suggested, Farrago’s quixotism, in many ways responsible for his lack of social and political success, takes the form of an aloofness—an especially reasoned, learned, even patrician approach to political dialogue—that frequently resembles the quixotism of Fielding’s Parson Adams in its ambitions to alter the political and moral landscape of his surrounding society. Farrago’s experiences call into question the myth of American exceptionalism in ways analogous to how Parson Adams ruptures easy notions of a morally upright, Christian England. Brackenridge coauthored, with Philip Freneau, a 1772 version of “The Rising Glory of America,” a poem that trumpeted American exceptionalism in the years approaching the Declaration of Independence.28 Farrago is a quixotic visionary in the mold of John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, and to an extent Brackenridge himself, an educated and legalistic proponent of the notion that US exceptionality is a function of its culture of letters.
John Adams advocated this very notion of American exceptionalism in a project that prefigured the “triumph of the West” attitudes expressed in Freneau and Brackenridge’s “The Rising Glory of America.” As Michael Warner observes, John Adams took an opportunity amid the rising tide of Revolutionary spirit in 1765 to pen a “history of the West” in the Boston Gazette. “It tells modern history as a story of human self-determination rising through reflection,” observes Warner; “its history of self-determination yields a protonationalist consciousness of America; its history of reflection takes the form of a history of letters.” Warner’s account of this early, adept, and successful attempt at national mythmaking is telling in its two crucial observations: first, that John Adams wrote an account of Western history, including US history, specifically to answer the challenges and uncertainties of a tumultuous time, a history in which “the Puritan colonists emerge as the heroes in a political history of enlightenment”; and second, that this work takes as central an intellectual history, a history of “reflection,” or “a history of letters.”29 This notion of intellectual reflection is of particular importance in the case of Fielding’s and Brackenridge’s quixotes, both of whom fashion themselves as aloof, reflective, and ultimately visionary, a pair of quixotic exceptionalists who derive their senses of exceptionalism from the source-texts of national exceptionalist mythology (for Parson Adams, scripture, and for Captain Farrago, the founding documents of the US republic).
We should also note that Farrago travels along the margins of the early republic, through frontier towns and among people constituted as marginal in relation to political elites concentrated in cities like Benjamin Franklin’s Philadelphia, in states like Thomas Jefferson’s Virginia, or in regions like the Northeast, the Federalist stronghold of John Adams. Farrago avails himself of the freedom to venture between and around these iconic sites of dominant US historical narrative, primarily encountering not the statesman types whose erudite writings, potent rhetoric, and patriotic idealism Farrago takes for his own dominant narrative of US political progress, but temperamental frontier mobs. Farrago derives his quixotic idealism in large part from “classical” notions of early US political identity, traveling as such to discover an idealized early republic and preach idealism where it is lacking.
Like Parson Adams and Updike Underhill, Farrago is caught in a dilemma over social and political trends that diverge from his quixotic understanding of an ideal society, forced to contend with the fact that as a reformer he looks more like an anachronism. He cannot effect change as he would like because the datedness of his precepts, manners of communication, and means of relating to those around him render him a confounding and disquieting figure in the eyes of others. In short, the change the quixote would like to see has already passed him by. Parson Adams desires a society that resembles a willing and able congregation that adheres to less cynical religious models—charity, chastity, piety—but applies Enlightenment notions of rationality, whereas Farrago wants to inject the order and relative stability of the colonial US into the post-Revolutionary US project of self-governance. The former laments the descent of rationality into a philosophical justification for the naked pursuit of self-interest. The latter, whose sense of a more refined, reflective, and “gentlemanly” social order is decidedly pre-Revolutionary, is constantly stymied by the Revolutionary fervor of frontier mobs.
The quixote’s claim to exteriority—for Don Quixote, to be in the business of knowing everything; for Parson Adams, to understand the roots of wickedness in his society but not in himself; for Captain Farrago, to distinguish himself from his peers through his measured and sane realization of his own madness—is a central distinction between the quixote and the picaro, or the exceptionalist and the delinquent. Responding to changes around them without adopting compatible (that is, new) models to imitate, and having to navigate their liminal positions as outmoded visionaries, Parson Adams and Captain Farrago illustrate a fundamental feature of quixotic exceptionalism. Their insights are based on aberrant (in this case antiquated) models, and their inability to signal and adapt to changes—their quixotic refusal to mimic, as Bannet argues, the right models—binds them to the political realities of the societies in which they live, their visionary qualities notwithstanding.
Brackenridge’s choice of the quixotic narrative for a social critique of the mythical claims of early US self-fashioning emphasizes the quixotic tendency toward aloofness and visionary status, and its prominent role in the construction of national identities and myths. The quixotic narrative framework itself gives authors like Brackenridge the model for a quintessentially Cervantic authorial distance, enabling them to address performatively the very process of myth construction, or of layering stories upon stories to the point at which the originator—the author—has become buried beneath the layers. This quality of the quixotic narrative has made it an attractive form for writers engaging expressly with political themes, and produces in the quixotic narrative as such its own mimetic appeal. Further, the quixote, a figure whose exceptionalism engenders both a disconnectedness from broader society and a consequently visionary tendency, is well equipped to be a purveyor of myths, intentionally or otherwise.
Cathy Davidson reads the duality of both Brackenridge’s objects of critique and Farrago’s inability (an inability often shared with Parson Adams) to practice as he prescribes as a prime example of “the double perspective of the picaresque and its reliance on contradictory rhetorical strategies.”30 Yet here what is perhaps more illuminating than the picaresque (polyvocal, rambling, contradictory) qualities of these novels, or the correlatives of these qualities in nationalist discourses, is the quixotic, idealistic claim to aloofness and to sanity in relation to a world gone mad, a claim, in other words, to exteriority and to a transcendent truth. The discursive correlative of this claim lies at the heart of mythmaking in the early US, through the emergence of a class of quixotic elite, like John Adams, whose skillful rhetoric was tailored to cut through US polyvocality and produce an exceptionalist national identity, a “history of the West” that emphasized triumphs of Christianity, rationality, legalism, and liberalism. The aloof and morally resolute Parson Adams, observing injustice and iniquity all around him, could well have become John Adams’s Puritan colonial hero had he tired of wayward England and boarded a ship to the US. The equally aloof Captain Farrago, by contrast, is aware of the instability of his own footing and is as such the early republic’s discursively disruptive figure par excellence, Parson Adams’s US foil.