In the narrowest sense, the political novel is a work of fiction that deals with politicians and the political process. In this category, Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men (1946) and Sinclair Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here (1935), and the work of British novelists such as Benjamin Disraeli and Anthony Trollope, are paramount examples of fictional narratives that attempt to re-create the business of politics—the speech making, campaigning, lobbying, and governing (both in public and behind-the-scenes). Although such works may derive from historical figures and events (Huey Long is the model for Willie Stark in All the King’s Men), these novels remain in the realm of the imaginary because they posit outcomes that are hypothetical.
Another form of the political novel is historical fiction. Gore Vidal’s Burr (1973) and Russell Banks’s Cloudsplitter (1998)—a novel about John Brown that is narrated by one of his sons—deal directly with the historical record, inventing a voice for their protagonists and portraying a part of history that eludes historians for lack of evidence. These rather traditional political and historical novels have been challenged by postmodern uses of history and politics in works such as Robert Coover’s The Public Burning (1977), half of which is narrated by an eroticized Richard Nixon, and Ishmael Reed’s Flight to Canada (1976), featuring nineteenth century figures, including Abraham Lincoln and Harriet Beecher Stowe, who inhabit an anachronistic world of inventions that coexist with slavery. E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime (1975) represents a similarly playful and unconventional use of history.
Still another kind of political novel is ideological. Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged (1957) is a full-scale attack on collectivist societies similar to those established in the Soviet Union and other communist states. An uncompromising individualist, Rand created the future as a dystopia, in which the...
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