Fiction and Political Fact

The political novel has always been an odd hybrid of fact and fiction. One of the genre’s originators, Benjamin Disraeli, the author of Coningsby (1844), was also one of the few writers who had genuine inside knowledge of the political world. But political novels usually deal with more than the intrigues of cabinet ministers and young men on the make. The boundaries of this genre are very hard to delimit. For some critics, the political novel is precisely the kind of book Disraeli, Trollope, and Henry Adams passed on to a few modern writers like Gore Vidal in Washington, D.C., Burr, Lincoln, and 1876: a novel focused, often satirically, sometimes historically, on the machinations of the political class—the men, usually men, with their hands on the levers of power. At the other extreme, postmodern theorists like Fredric Jameson in The Political Unconscious (1981) insist that the genre has no meaning, since “everything is ‘in the last analysis’ political.” To suggest that some works are political while others are not, Jameson says, is “a symptom and a reinforcement of the reification and privatization of contemporary life.”

Jameson’s point raises but also evades the issue that matters most to political fiction, the relation between private and public experience. The credo of many social and political novels was laid down by George Eliot in Felix Holt, the Radical (1866), when she remarked that “there is no private life which has not been determined by a wider public life.” Exploring that link is the sine qua non of good social and political fiction, a mission at once desirable and hard to bring off. American writers have found the challenge particularly elusive, at times almost insuperable. For novelists from Eastern Europe, Latin America, and South Africa, politics is part of the air they breathe, but the climate in North America must be very different. Scarcely any of our writers made the cut in Irving Howe’s seminal 1957 study Politics and the Novel, still the best book on the subject. Perhaps the blankets of oppression that smothered the political life of Czarist Russia, Soviet-dominated Eastern Europe, and South and Central America sharpened the political imagination of their writers, whether they lived in hope or in exile. But political fiction has also flourished in England, from Trollope’s great Palliser novels and Conrad’s near-hallucinatory tales of terrorism to the postwar novels of C. P. Snow and the multicultural flowering of literature by migrants from far-flung corners of the former empire.

If American novelists have rarely gone down this road with real success, it has certainly not been for want of trying or want of wanting. With every major cataclysm in our history, critics and pundits have invariably asked, Where are the novels—or the films—that will help us make sense of, say, Vietnam, or 9/11, or the war in Iraq? And when such works do come out, why do they so often seem shallow and journalistic, topical and transient, and why does the audience instinctively shrink from them? Are they too downbeat, too superficial, or do they simply feel warmed over, like yesterday’s papers or last week’s cable news, reminders of too many things we already know (and wish we didn’t)? We need good political fiction not to learn the basic facts but to go deeper, to cut through to the human reality behind the headlines, a wish too often thwarted by stories that trade in gossip and exploitation, not understanding. Except in rare times when public conditions take over our lives, as they have during crises such as the Depression and World War II, today’s headlines make a poor backdrop for tomorrow’s fiction. They feed easily into topical thrillers, not serious novels. History needs time to simmer before the novelist can digest it. It is extraordinary that Trollope could serialize Phineas Finn, which deals with the parliamentary maneuvering around the 1867 Reform Bill, that year, while those maneuvers were actually taking place, an astonishing example of the political novel as instant history. Crucially, Trollope filters this through a young Irish MP’s personal life, tracking how it becomes interwoven with his career.

Political novels work best when they show how history really affects the fate of individuals, and when their characters have the density, the contradictory fullness, of real people, instead of coming through as cardboard cutouts or historical ciphers. The writer can grasp this best perhaps twenty years or so after the fact, not when too much time has passed or when the events are still too raw. Don DeLillo’s reconstruction of Lee Harvey Oswald and the Kennedy assassination in Libra (1988) is one example. Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent: A Simple Tale was published in 1907 but set in the 1880s, when the threat of anarchist terrorism in London was at its peak. Philip Roth’s look back at late-’60s terrorism, American Pastoral, did not come out until 1997 (though Roth had begun it twenty years earlier), as the author shifted from his usual concern with individual lives to a wider view of American history since the war, especially his own formative years.

In their remarkably similar takes on events only recently past, these last two novels, brilliant as they are, can also be seen as damaged by their distance from their subjects, their very limited identification with their characters. Terrorism has proved a powerful draw for political writers: It is melodramatic, charged with social menace, literally explosive. With their commitment to direct action, even at the cost of their own lives, and their threat to public safety, terrorists feel like strange mutants in the body politic, outriders in the larger human community. The Professor, a bomb maker in The Secret Agent who walks the streets of London with his hand on a detonator, even taunting the police, is at once society’s nightmare—the loner with nothing to lose—and a picture of futility, who knows he could kill at best a few people at a time. “I depend on death,” he boasts, “which knows no restraints and cannot be attacked.” In the novel’s lurid conclusion, Conrad writes,

He had no future. He disdained it. His thoughts caressed the images of ruin and destruction. He walked frail, insignificant, shabby, miserable—and terrible in the simplicity of his idea calling madness and despair to the regeneration of the world. Nobody looked at him. He passed on, unsuspected and deadly, like a pest in the street full of men.

Even as it demonstrates the novelistic appeal of terrorism, The Secret Agent shows how treacherous a theme it can be. Conrad’s eerily prescient portrait of a potential suicide bomber still resonates. But by confining radical politics, especially anarchism, to hapless acts of terrorism, by making terrorism an expression of madness and despair, he ensures that this icy portrait, stunning in its controlled irony, will avoid anything resembling a serious idea. Yet one of the glories of political novels, especially those dealing with the romance of or the disillusionment with revolutionary movements (such as Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon [1940]), is that they are superb novels of ideas. Roth in American Pastoral follows Conrad in reducing radicals to benighted fanatics with no feeling for human life, opaque in their unfathomable madness. With Merry Levov, who bombs a small-town post office in rural New Jersey, and her cohort, Rita Cohen, who extorts money from Merry’s doting father, a local hero, Roth steps away from the real lives of such fugitives in the same way that Conrad demonizes yet ridicules the anarchists of the 1880s. In Conrad’s eyes, they are grotesque misfits whose indolent ineffectuality matches their pointless rancor against society.

Both Conrad and Roth have ramparts to defend, psychological zones of stability and security. For Conrad, it is England, his lifeboat, the privileged place where conservative inertia and the imperfect rule of law repel crackpot visions of human betterment. For Roth, it is an idealized memory of the more homogeneous world he grew up in, the postwar idyll he calls American Pastoral. If Conrad’s Secret Agent and Under Western Eyes (1911) are haunted by the specter of anarchy, American Pastoral upholds something more typically American: the sanctity of the private life. Swede Levov, the hero, is the very embodiment of the postwar world: admired athlete, suburban husband and father, successfully assimilated Jew, patriot who loves America, glove manufacturer beloved by his black workers, who keeps his factory in decaying, war-torn Newark even after the riots. Living out his version of utopia, this man instead becomes history’s plaything. Chaos enters his life in the form of his daughter’s political madness, “the indigenous American berserk.” “That bomb detonated his life,” says his brother, who mocks his passivity and lack of aggression. “His perfect life was over.” The ideal family, the epitome of postwar Jewish liberalism, has borne poisoned fruit. “What was the whole sick enterprise,” Swede thinks, “other than angry, infantile egoism thinly disguised as identification with the oppressed?” The nation itself has gone crazy.

American Pastoral provides a key to why Americans have written so few real political novels. Unlike Europeans and Latin Americans, we have always seen politics as a world elsewhere, something that unfolds in Washington or Albany or at election times. Our seats of government are cut off from the major centers of commerce and culture. Except in periods of national crisis, we feel that our real lives are private lives: Politics can only be an unwelcome intrusion, as it is for Swede. Many of Roth’s later novels dramatize just such a violation: the outbreak of radicalism in American Pastoral, McCarthyism and the blacklist in I Married a Communist (1998), political correctness in The Human Stain (2000), a native American fascism in The Plot Against America (2004), which disrupts another idyllic American family. After the privations of Depression and war, many writers after 1945 demanded an exemption from politics, a vacation from history. Unlike their Depression predecessors, they wanted to cultivate their private dreams and sorrows. Roth’s laudable turn toward public themes becomes, paradoxically, a defensive reaction to them, a resistance etched deep into the American grain.

Not every American writer, even in the postwar years, has shown the same instinctive aversion to politics. Depressed by the poverty and misery around them, many ’30s novelists and poets were propelled into the kind of agitprop writing that soon became almost unreadable. Some did much better. As a polemicist, Mike Gold was the ultimate party hack, but his novel Jews Without Money (1930) keeps ideology in check: Turning his ghetto boyhood into a revolutionary fable, it burns with a rare personal intensity. Women writers like Tillie Olsen, Josephine Herbst, and Tess Slesinger, more comfortable with emotion than their male counterparts, also found political meaning in their own family histories. John Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy (1930–36) grew into a unique collage of real history, the lives of fictional characters, brief Whitmanesque biographies of illustrious men, and subjective fragments interpolated from the writer’s own life. Facing the challenge of melding the public and the personal, Dos Passos keeps them in separate narrative strands yet links them by association.

These different tracks demonstrate how hard it is for novelists to relate ordinary lives to the larger movements of history. Some Depression writers, such as John Steinbeck in Of Mice and Men (1937) and The Grapes of Wrath (1939), rejecting the ethic of competitive individualism, show victims of hard times banding together into supportive communities, abetted by the New Deal. Richard Wright’s early novels and stories are parables of entrapment, featuring men and women who make violent breaks with the limiting conditions of their lives. A few writers tried to dramatize the specter of a rising fascism, including Sinclair Lewis in It Can’t Happen Here (1935) and, in a different way, Nathanael West in A Cool Million (1934) and The Day of the Locust (1939). The same fear agitated war novelists like Norman Mailer and James Jones, who saw in the military itself a model for postwar authoritarianism and time-serving conformity.

Mailer was one postwar writer who maintained a fascination with politics and power. This comes through in the five novels from The Naked and the Dead (1948) to Why Are We in Vietnam? (1967), embracing subjects like violence, revolutionary conspiracy, the blacklist, the Kennedy era, and the Vietnam trauma. But Mailer’s political antennae were keener in his first-person journalism and idiosyncratic essays. Never very securely established in American fiction, politics was migrating steadily into journalism. This shift, like the alternating strands of U.S.A., illustrates the gap between private and public reality for American writers. Even a thoroughly political mind like Mailer’s could lose its way when it tried bringing politics into a fictional framework.

One notable postwar attempt was Lionel Trilling’s The Middle of the Journey (1947), a European-style novel of ideas. Despite his lifelong faith in the novel as a medium for mapping the complexity of our social lives, Trilling was not a natural novelist. Though he could be an acute observer of his characters’ feelings, such insights point us too often toward his own subtle mind, not their autonomous lives. Though weighed down with meaning, The Middle of the Journey has few ideas that are not more gracefully expressed in the essays collected in The Liberal Imagination (1950) and The Opposing Self (1955). Yet it is one of the few worthwhile American novels about intellectuals’ spoiled romance with Communism, besides documenting momentous shifts in the American mind in the years after the war, away from radicalism and toward an existential sense of personal accountability.

As a work that dramatizes the disillusionment with Communism, Trilling’s novel is not in a class with The God That Failed (the landmark 1949 collection of personal essays by Louis Fischer, André Gide, Arthur Koestler, Ignazio Silone, Stephen Spender, and Richard Wright), Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four (1949), or Milosz’s The Captive Mind (1953). But as argument—and it certainly is a book with an argument—The Middle of the Journey belongs not only with these works but with Arthur M. Schlesinger Jr.’s The Vital Center: The Politics of Freedom (1949) and Reinhold Niebuhr’s The Irony of American History (1952). Like them, it makes the case for a dark, tragic, almost metaphysically haunted liberalism in place of the progressive optimism of the liberal and radical left. It is well known that Gifford Maxim, the character who breaks dramatically with the party, was based on Trilling’s college friend Whittaker Chambers, though the book was published before Chambers broke into the news as Alger Hiss’s antagonist and a militant anti-Communist. In a new preface written shortly before his death in 1975, Trilling describes how the Chambers figure gradually took over the novel, perhaps because of his demonic intensity. The book is a morality play in which Trilling’s own surrogate, John Laskell, a mild-mannered intellectual who has just nearly died of scarlet fever, grows disenchanted with his progressive friends Nancy and Arthur Croom, while the conspiratorial Maxim, who was working underground, has fallen out with the party.

In passing through death—first the death of his fiancée, then his own long illness and convalescence—Laskell, a reformer rather than a radical, has come into a tragic awareness that no utopianism can accommodate. Committed to their own vision of a bright future, the fellow-traveling Crooms appear to see death as “politically reactionary.” They’re appalled by their friend Maxim’s defection from the party. Like Chambers, he has taken on an apocalyptic worldview, a new moral absolutism, not entirely different from his former ideology. Neither his conspiratorial temperament nor his tropism for power has changed. Caught between Maxim and the Crooms, Laskell rejects them both, choosing the less dramatic course of militant moderation. Unfortunately, this resolution comes through more as an idea than in the give-and-take of novelistic action.

An extraordinary number of political novels, especially those dealing with terrorism or conspiracy, can be traced back to a single source, Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed (1871). The Secret Agent and Under Western Eyes are early examples, though Conrad, with his withering irony, resisted any identification with his characters. Yet this is just what gives Dostoyevsky’s work its mesmerizing power. To Irving Howe, Conrad’s books were perched uneasily between two masters, Dostoyevsky and Henry James; Trilling’s novel, though not in this league, is divided in the same way. Holding every character, every gesture, up to close scrutiny, sensitive about his masculinity, Laskell belongs to the world of James, while Maxim, like his real-life model, is an interloper from the tormented universe of Dostoyevsky. This duality echoes Trilling’s stance as a critic: He wore the mask of moderation yet had a feeling for extremity, an ambivalent affinity for modernism.

As a chastened liberal and a Freudian, Trilling was in a good position to confront the cherished innocence that keeps American writers from thinking politically. For so many of our writers, and perhaps for Americans in general, politics has been a tainted realm, not an arena in which to achieve honorable ends. They see electoral politics as sullied by corruption and compromise, with ideological politics poisoned by fanaticism and violence. Henry Adams’s 1880 novel, Democracy, begins as a Baedeker to Washington politics, an insider’s guide to how democracy in America really works. But it ends with a sweeping moral retreat, a sense that politics can lead only to contamination, an “atrophy of the moral senses by disuse.” America saw itself as the great exception, free of the corruptions of a decadent Europe, but found that only one’s private life could serve as such an oasis of innocence.

This age-old dream, which postwar “realists” tried to explode, explains why children appear with surprising frequency in political fiction. The best thing in The Secret Agent is the half-witted boy, Stevie, who is used to plant the terrorist bomb but blows himself up instead; his grief-stricken sister, Winnie Verloc, then stabs her husband, the double agent who put him up to it. Stevie’s innocence inspires not only pathos but a rare moment of liberal sympathy in Conrad, when the boy recoils viscerally from a cabman whipping his horse (“Bad! Bad!”), only to realize that the driver and his horse are equally wretched and destitute (“Poor! Poor!”). An emblem for the novel as a whole, the scene represents Conrad’s deepest understanding of radicalism as a response, though a futile one, to society’s cruelty and indifference. In Stevie’s primitive reaction, the narrator notes “the anguish of immoderate compassion was succeeded by the pain of an innocent but pitiless rage.” This is American Pastoral in a nutshell.

The conclusion of Trilling’s novel also turns on the death of a child, partly triggered by the brutality of his father, a handyman whom the Crooms idealize as a rough-hewn specimen of the common man. Trilling uses the actual innocence of a child to indict the culpable innocence of grown-ups, casting them rather heavy-handedly as political naïfs. But the best use of children in a modern political novel can be found in E. L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel (1971), which brilliantly fictionalizes the Rosenberg spy case and the couple’s execution by filtering it through the eyes of their orphaned children. In exploring the vast personal impact of historical events, Doctorow bridges the divide between the ’30s documentary approach of Dos Passos, which keeps individuals locked down, rendering their lives flatly in the style of factual chronicles, and the more inward novels that followed World War II, which luxuriate in private traumas and personal destinies. While borrowing some details from the actual lives of the Rosenbergs’ sons, Doctorow takes even more from the Jewish Bronx of his own childhood. When the kids run away from the children’s shelter and try to get home, he vividly recaptures the sights and smells of the neighborhood streets, just as he catches the Popular Front accents of Jewish progressives and the lugubrious complaints of the children’s aunt Frieda. Bottled up in the sorrows of her own meager life, she is loath to take them in and makes them miserable when she does. (“She was not mean, neurotic, self-serving, insensitive or miserly. She was limited.”) Doctorow personalizes history by being unashamedly personal.

In The Book of Daniel, the children, “alone in the Cold War,” are as much on trial as the parents, and everyone else is judged by how well they do by them. Caught up in their own passion play, the martyred parents sacrifice their children to their unbending purity of intention. Their well-meaning but desperate lawyer tries hard to shield the children and find a home for them, while destroying his own health. The couple who adopt the children give them a loving and perfectly ordinary life but cannot ward off the past as it comes back to haunt them.

As adults, Daniel and his sister, Susan, become crazed in different ways, she as a waif of the ’60s counterculture who becomes completely unhinged, he as a ’60s radical—but also scholar, husband, and father—always on the edge of violence, on the verge of exploding. His nervous energy electrifies the whole book, especially its style. Where The Secret Agent and American Pastoral make madness the core of radical discontent, in The Book of Daniel, it is a measure of the damage inflicted by history on individual lives. Here history is a genuine agent, not simply the cardboard set before which we play out our personal dramas.

Following the example of Dos Passos, Doctorow leavens The Book of Daniel with bits of history: an impeccable analysis of the Rosenberg case, showing how the government used the death sentence as an “investigative procedure”; discourses on the Old Left, McCarthyism, and the ’60s counterculture, complete with bibliographical references. But where Dos Passos keeps history apart, like a rushing stream in which his people try to swim, Doctorow, by choosing characters whose very marrow has been infiltrated by their political fates, makes them emblems of their time. Beginning with the Popular Front and the cold war and ending with the 1968 Columbia student uprising, the novel charts the gradual decimation of the American left and its ’60s revival, a fable of two generations.

At Kenyon College, Doctorow studied with one of the founders of the New Criticism, John Crowe Ransom; in fine New Critical fashion, he makes his novel an echo chamber of motifs. Along with childhood and madness, it is knit together by death, from a gruesome accident on a Bronx street to confinement as slow death. As the story shifts between the first and third persons, the author dots the text with allusions to earlier forms of imprisonment and execution, with a quicksilver fluidity that belongs to Daniel’s own mind. Doctorow infuses the vitality of the thriller and the poignant realism of the psychological novel into political fiction. He shows how politics can take over our lives, not as a disruptive intrusion (as in American Pastoral), not as a moral undoing, but as part of the unfolding of history.

So many other postwar novels with political themes keep history at bay. Even Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952), whose Brotherhood chapters reflect the author’s own adventures with the Harlem Communists, in the end treats politics simply as one of the imposed identities that limit a young man’s autonomy. Robert Coover in The Public Burning (1977) transforms politics into ritual and spectacle, or sacrificial farce, while Kurt Vonnegut in Slaughterhouse-Five (1969) depicts history as a murderous blight, a maw that consumes individual lives, a bit of meaningless madness. “The novel is a dream release,” DeLillo wrote in 1997, “the suspension of reality that history needs to escape its own brutal confinements.” We have numerous novels that allegorize or burlesque politics, few that convey it as a calling, a complex process demanding to be understood, or the means by which individual hopes and destinies, promises of social improvement, might be frustrated or fulfilled. The most valuable American political novels are yet to be written.

Morris Dickstein is Distinguished Professor of English at the CUNY Graduate Center.