Wednesday, 6 June 2012

The Lasting Power of the Political Novel - part 1

 January 1, 1984
 Mary McCarthy

SOMEONE said the other day that the American novel was, of course, not political: By comparison with the European novel, say Zola and the Russians, our home product was primarily domestic, unconcerned with public affairs. It was a surprise to me to learn that this strange notion was taken for granted - a truism - by common opinion; to me it was a new idea. At once a contrary list sprang into my mind, ''The Bostonians'' and ''The Princess Casamassima'' lining up with Henry Adams's ''Democracy''; behind them Mary McCarthy, the novelist and essayist, most recently published ''Ideas and the Novel.'' marched ''Uncle Tom's Cabin'' (''did much to hasten the American Civil War'' - Oxford Companion to English Literature) and ''The Blithedale Romance,'' Hawthorne's satire on the Brook Farm experiment in communal living; ahead were Dos Passos' ''U.S.A.,'' ''For Whom the Bell Tolls,'' right up to Norman Mailer's ''Why Are We in Vietnam?''

Indeed, Americans, I think, tend to get their political education through fiction - occasionally through poetry, though this is becoming rarer. Today a novel such as E.L. Doctorow's ''The Book of Daniel,'' currently a film, seems to have no other design than to excite a belief in the innocence of the Rosenberg couple or to reinforce a disbelief already held as to the charges against them. I do not know whether the Doctorow book changed anybody's mind on this subject - how could it, seriously, being fiction, deal with a concrete instance of fact? - but fictions do sway us to the right or left, and Americans, I suspect, more than most.
I can cite a case - my own - of a young person's being altered politically by a novel, but I cannot explicate the process, let alone explain it in terms of the author's intention or literary strategies. I believe there is often something accidental in these things, as with love, which gives them a feeling of fatality.
When it happened to me, at the age of 20, it was the first time. I was probably not very susceptible politically; the year I was 15 I had read an entire set of Tolstoy with no effect that I recall on my belief system. I was an atheist, a romantic, and an arch-conservative (except at elections, when I was a Democrat); none of this could have come to me from Tolstoy. The first real dent on my Cavalier- period armor was made in my senior year at Vassar in Miss Peebles's course in Contemporary Prose Fiction, where we studied ''multiplicity'' and ''stream of consciousness'' and were assigned ''The 42nd Parallel'' by Dos Passos as an example of those trends. I fell madly in love with that book - the first volume of the trilogy
that was going to be ''U.S.A.
' No doubt the fervor of emotion - an incommunicable bookish delight - had been preparing in me for some time through other ''social'' books, just as two mild bee- stings may prepare you for a third that is fatal. I had been telling my friends, and believing, that in politics I was a royalist - an impractical position, I knew, for an American, since we did not even have a kingly line to restore. At the suggestion of one of those anxious friends, I had read Shaw's ''The Intelligent Woman's Guide to Socialism and Capitalism,'' but it rolled right off me, water off a duck's back. Then came ''The 42nd Parallel.'' Though I did not yet realize it, it was the Book of Lancelot for me: ''Quel giorno pi u non vi leggemmo avante'' (That day we read in it no farther) or, putting it in Manzonian terms, ''La sventurata rispose'' - I responded. It was the title, I think, that captured me because I did not understand at first what the author meant by it. Then there was the unusual weaving of forms: the biographies, the newsreels, the Camera Eye (who was the author but treated in a wry, slightly embarrassed manner that I found very sympathetic), and finally the individual stories themselves: Mac, Eleanor Stoddard, J. Ward Moorhouse, Eveline Hutchins. . . . The one I most took to was Mac, who became a Wobbly or at any rate a socialist and was killed young. Best of all, I loved Debs, among the biographies, and disliked J. P. Morgan most.
I do not remember what I thought about a figure like Big Bill Haywood, the I.W.W. leader who finished in Russia; I do remember what I did. I went to the library and looked up every line that Dos Passos had published that was in the card catalogue. I read them all. 
 The last was a pamphlet on the Sacco- Vanzetti case, which I found and read in the library basement, feeling tremendously stirred by Vanzetti's famous words, brand- new, of course, to me, and by the whole story. But we were in 1933, I realized, and they had been executed in 1927. So there was nothing to be done. But I was moved to read up on the Tom Mooney case (he at least was still alive) and to become aware of The New Republic. One thing leading to another, soon after graduation, I was writing little book reviews for The New Republic, then for The Nation, and I never looked back. Like a Japanese paper flower dropped into a glass of water, it all unfolded, magically, from Dos Passos, though he would have been saddened in later years to hear what his energy, enthusiasm, and sheer unwary talent had brought about.
So what do we mean generally when we speak of political novels? Some people - Marxists - will say that all novels are political, especially those, like Jane Austen's, that avoid the subject, thus lending tacit support to the status quo. This may be true, insofar as no experience (even the solitary dialogue with the self) is without a political dimension, and to ignore this is to tell a falsehood. But awareness of that dimension varies greatly from person to person and no doubt from one civilization to another. I would guess that ours, democracy-haunted, equality- haunted, was especially sensitive to the political (i.e., the power games) in personal relationships: See ''The War Between The Tates'' or ''Portnoy's Complaint'' and compare Moravia's ''Io e lui.'' As a nation of lawyers (Tocqueville), we would be bound to have a talent for injustice-collection. But if one forgets these quibbles and thinks of political novels in the common ordinary sense of the word - meaning political parties, voting, legislation, courts of justice, armies - one will nevertheless find that the term ''political'' can refer to several distinct types of story.

To be coninued