Thursday, 7 June 2012

The Group" drafted into the service of feminism" says MM

The Lasting Power of the Political Novel  (part 2)


FIRST, there are stories that engage in the highly political art of persuasion, aiming to convince a reader to take certain stands in a national or international debate - the simplest example is ''Uncle Tom's Cabin.'' But here ''The Book of Daniel'' may also be relevant insofar as, at one remove, it can affect a reader's attitude toward the cruise or Pershing missile. A second type of story deals with politicians, examples being ''The Last Hurrah,'' ''All The King's Men,'' Dos Passos' ''District of Columbia'' (whose weakness is to be biased), a good deal of Gore Vidal; I do not think this type is often found in combination with the first, since novels about politicians tend, like their heroes, to a worldly realism that would never change one's voting habits, except maybe to discourage one from voting at all. A third type ponders large political questions - essentially the nature and effects of power. The setting may be a village, a family house, a monastic community, a hospital, an air base, a hiring hall, an imaginary country such as those Gulliver visited or ''Animal Farm''; the politics may be in the play between man and Nature, man and the universe, man and God. This third type, too, being long-sighted, cannot coexist with the first, and not, I think, with the second either; a fascination with the corridors of power is always anecdotal, not reflective. Such anecdotes as appear in ''War And Peace,'' a supreme instance of Type Three, are there for illustrative purposes, to serve as examples in the ancient, rhetoricians' sense of the term. This third and noblest type may be fully represented in our fiction only by ''Moby Dick.''
From the film adaptation of Moby Dick - RIP the incomparable Ray Bradbury


What we find most often in American fiction, I believe, is the first type, though we may not recognize it or, when we do, call it propaganda, which for us is a negative word, without any of the original wholesome connotations of missionary work (de propaganda fide, spreading the faith) implicit for the Roman Church. Actually the great majority of novels in this country - maybe everywhere - have been faith- spreaders. Those are the ones we name when we are asked what books have influenced or changed us.
''Main Street'' was such a book, and ''Babbitt'' another. ''Babbitt'' was a generalized warning of what as an American one would not want to happen to oneself. (Type One, as I should have said, includes warnings - all sorts of wake-up calls, sirens, alerts.) When, with ''Elmer Gantry,'' ''Arrowsmith,'' and so on, Lewis ceased to issue those wake-up calls to his fellow-citizens and turned, instead, to cataloguing American social types by professions - preacher, scientist, businessman, social worker - he became a simple indexer, and nobody listened anymore. Surprisingly, though, years after ''Main Street,'' he came out with an explicit warning to the nation under the ironic title of ''It Can't Happen Here.'' It was Lewis doing his bit to alert his readers to the possibility of a native fascism, which of course would look different from Hitler's. The title was misunderstood even at the time, as a reassurance rather than the alarm-bell it was, which is perhaps a fate that lies in wait for such ironically titled, minatory books. Something of the kind happened with Burdick and Lederer's ''The Ugly American'' - a clear lesson in the Do's and the Don't's for the United States in Southern Asia. The ugly American of the title was a homely simple fellow who knew the right way to win hearts and minds; in other words, he was good. But by those who did not read the actual story and doubtless through contamination from Graham Greene's ''Quiet American,'' he was taken to embody the bad side of the U.S.A., to the point where the term ''ugly American'' became proverbial, meaning someone suspected of being a C.I.A. agent or finally just any American on neocolonial soil.
       
Is it an exaggeration to call ''Main Street'' and ''Babbitt'' propaganda? Certainly in 1921, when ''Main Street'' came out, it was understood as a rejection of the values of Main Street, seen as narrow, rectilinear, conformist, deadly dull. And along with that was a notion that Main Street was a mistake, made with good intentions, which could be corrected, or repealed, like the Volstead Act - a product of just such prairie towns. Main Street could not be eternal, written in the natural order of things; thanks to Lewis and his readers, it could be just temporary. It is the underlying sense of something to be corrected in the American heartland that tells us that Lewis's novel is political, in comparison, say, with ''Tess of the D'Urbervilles.'' The wrongs done to Tess by the world surrounding her are infinitely greater than any injury done to Carol Kennicott in ''Main Street,'' who at worst could be said to be suffering from a slight personality impairment due to cultural deprivation. Tess is not a social fact, capable of multiplication to give a satirical picture, but the plaything of a cruel destiny. She is hanged at Winchester, like any common murderess, yet our knowledge that she is an uncommon, even a superior, person cannot let us fall on the book as a condemnation of capital punishment (see ''The Executioner's Song''), though that could be a side-effect on certain readers of a passionate response to the book. That she is not changed - coarsened - by her misfortunes (as in real life she almost surely would be) is the clue to the suprapolitical dimension of Hardy's story. Politics, the art of the possible, hopes to change the rules of society (or restore a former good order in the place of a bad); at the same time, it induces change - for worse as well as better - in individual subjects viewed as samples.
NATURALLY, the propaganda that works on us through fictions does not effect conversions (i.e., transformations) in ways that can necessarily be charted. If our vote on E.R.A. or a nuclear- power amendment is changed by a novel we are reading, that is only the tip of the iceberg. Probably in the 20's there were more converts made to hedonism than to any other faith, and that still may be the ''message'' of the most influential fiction of today, from Mailer to Updike and back, even when the evangel of self-expression is relayed through fears of getting cancer (Mailer) from bottling oneself up. But to go back to 30's fiction, it can be said, surely with truth, that Cesar Chavez's grape and lettuce pickers unions were helped, though with a delay of two generations, by ''The Grapes of Wrath.'' But the Joad family, ''Of Mice and Men,'' even the less accessible ''In Dubious Battle,'' had already had consequences for the national psyche in a less evidently causal way.
That American novels can be and often are political is demonstrable. There was Mailer's second novel, for instance, ''The Barbary Shore,'' laid in Brooklyn with an F.B.I. man for the villain. Not to mention the ''proletarian novels'' of the 30's, or Upton Sinclair, not to mention ''Mr. Sammler's Planet'' and ''The Dean's December.'' Or Bellow's first book, ''Dangling Man,'' the ''alienated'' cry of a character waiting to be drafted. Or his second, ''The Victim'': Isn't any novel about anti-Semitism political and almost any novel about race? Maybe novels about the lot of women, such as ''A Lost Lady,'' were ''domestic'' at the time of writing, but they have been drafted into the service of feminism, along with their modern sisters, ''Fear of Flying,'' and ''The Group.''

       



In a different vein, we have had the Boston pols of ''The Last Hurrah'' and their descendants in George V. Higgins. Good heavens, I was nearly forgetting ''Gone With the Wind.'' On the conservative side, too, there was Cozzens' ''By Love Possessed'' - a goyish Mr. Sammler. Robert Penn Warren's ''All The King's Men'' was a political novel if there ever was one, being a highly recognizable picture of the career of Huey Long. If Updike's ''Couples'' was decidedly ''domestic,'' what about ''The Coup,'' his study of an African leader? And ''Bech: A Book,'' where literary politics is never far from the other kind.
Most of our war novels have been pacifist in their general slant - enough to count as political. I am not sure of ''The Red Badge of Courage'' or ''A Farewell to Arms,'' but there is no doubt of ''Three Soldiers,'' ''The Naked And The Dead,'' ''From Here to Eternity,'' ''Catch- 22''(!). And the many works of Vietnam veterans such as ''Dispatches'' by Michael Herr.
Anyone who is in the mood can continue the list. To make the point there is no need to seek to prove (as some academic recently did) that ''Moby Dick'' is an allegory of capitalism. What is interesting is that so many of the novels I have been naming have been high on the best-seller lists. The political novel in this country is certainly no fringe phenomenon. And it strikes me that we have almost more than our share of them, in comparison with England and Western Europe, just as we have had more war novels (in fact, a notable case of Type One) than our allies or adversaries, and this despite the fact that we entered both World Wars late and were never exposed to mainland attack or invasion.
In the First War, the English had war poetry, and the Germans had ''All Quiet on The Western Front''; the French had part of Roger Martin du Gard's ''Les Thibaults,'' Henri Barbusse's ''Under Fire,'' and a film, ''La Grande Illusion.'' Out of that war, the English, as far as I remember, produced only a single novel, though that was a masterpiece, first published, in expurgated form, as ''Her Privates We'' and written in fact by an Australian, Frederic Manning. It was reissued uncut a few years ago as ''The Middle Parts of Fortune.'' A curious aspect of this pure and beautiful work, dealing with trench warfare and behind- the-lines billet life on the Somme in 1916, is the absence of politics from it, as remarkable in its way as the same absence in ''The Iliad,'' and I mean politics of any kind - there is neither glorification nor condemnation of war, still less of ''our'' side in contrast to the enemy beyond the barbed wire, and, most unusual of all, no idealization of the class of privates as opposed to the officer class that made up the basic politics of American war fiction. We will not find that neutrality in our war literature, which has a strong accusatory ring; none of our soldier-authors could have written these two sentences (from the prefatory note to ''Her Privates We,'' 1929): ''War is waged by men, not by beasts, or by gods. To call it a crime against mankind is to miss at least half its significance; it is also a punishment for a crime.''
 
EVEN Faulkner's ''A Fable,'' written toward the end of his life, after he received the Nobel Prize, but going back to the First War, is not dispassionate but, rather, hyperbolic about the redeeming mutiny it describes; with a silent admonitory black cross placed by Random House on the jacket, it is a pacifist parable, with funny echoes of ''A Tale of Two Cities,'' on the one hand, and of ''Hinky-dinkey parlay-voo'' (alias ''Mademoiselle from Armenteers, She Hasn't Washed in Forty Years'') on the other. Even though it is not fiction, one ought to mention E. E. Cummings's ''The Enormous Room,'' recounting his imprisonment, with Slater Brown, as a suspected spy in a French internment camp - a peak of imaginative prose writing by an American about the First War. ''A Fable,'' in fact, was Faulkner's third try at rendering some angle of that war; ''Soldier's Pay'' and ''Mosquitoes'' had to do with veterans, a political problem since Caesar's time.