Democracy and The Poor

In his truly remarkable novel The Princess Casamassima Henry James describes for us the trials and tribulations of a young man, illegitimate son of a prostitute and raised by a poor seamstress who pledges himself to the cause of the revolution that many were convinced was coming to England in the middle of the nineteenth century. The young man, a gifted bookbinder, is conflicted, but pledges his life to the cause only to meet and become close friends with the heroine of the novel who opens to him a world he had never known existed. As a consequence, he  begins to wonder if the revolution is worth the cost of the treasures of Western civilization. The long novel recounts the growing uncertainties of the young man’s early commitment to the revolution as, ironically, the Princess becomes increasingly committed to that ideal.

We might do well to recall that at the time England saw 10,000 people thrown each year into debtors prison because of their inability to pay their way — despite the fact that they were supposed to pay for their upkeep while in prison! It was, surely, a classic case of “Catch 22.” As many as 90,000 in London alone were estimated to be among the poor and destitute at that time. In any event, the hope of young men, like our hero, was the coming of socialism and democracy (the two were not carefully distinguished in the minds of such people). James describes for us the ruminations going on in the mind of his young hero, Hyacinth:

“What was most in Hyacinth’s mind was the idea, of which every pulsation of the general life of his time was a syllable, that the flood of democracy was rising over the world; that it would sweep traditions of the past before it; that, whatever it might fail to bring, it would at least carry in its bosom a magnificent energy; and that it might be trusted to look after its own. When democracy should have its way everywhere, it would be its fault (who else’s could it be?) if want and suffering and crime should continue to be ingredients of the human lot. . . . [at the same time] he was afraid the democracy wouldn’t care for the perfect bindings [of books] or for the finest sort of conversation. The Princess gave up these things in proportion as she advanced in the direction she had so audaciously chosen; and if the Princess could give them up it would take very transcendent natures to stick to them.”

The Princess, married to a man she had come to deeply dislike and rejecting a way of life she detested, was at this point committed even more deeply than Hyacinth to the revolution that was sure to come. She had given up her worldly wealth and lofty position and moved to the squalor of Soho surrounded by the poor she was determined to help release from their poverty. But the changes in her way of looking at and speaking about the world were palpable, and this is what the narrator refers to in this passage. But what is more interesting is the hope of such people for their deliverance at the hands of a democracy and an economic system that held up to them possibilities beyond their wildest imaginings.

We might also recall that de Tocqueville had visited America in the early part of the nineteenth century and had written his classic study of Democracy In America which was in large measure a contributing factor to the hopes and dreams of young idealists like our hero who were convinced that “the flood of democracy was rising over the world.” More to the point, it would erase poverty and crime and help humankind achieve true equality.

One does wonder, as we can now look back from our lofty perspective, what could possibly have gone wrong?