The Political Novel Analysis


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

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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Politicians and the political process

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Both Sinclair Lewis and Robert Penn Warren focused on American forms of fascism that threatened to undermine American political institutions and to bring into disrepute the very nature of democracy. Lewis’s It Can’t Happen Here forecasts a nation so disheartened by the Depression that the calls for the equal distribution of wealth result in a kind of centralized police state. Liberal politicians such as President Franklin D. Roosevelt are unable to effect rapid change so the public turns to more radical solutions—just as the Germans, Italians, and Spaniards had done in Europe. Lewis’s protagonist, Doremus Jessup, the liberal owner-editor of a small-town newspaper, heroically tries to resist the new dictatorial regime, but he is also part of the problem. Liberals are slow to heed the onset of evil, Lewis suggests.

In the novel, the country has to suffer a curtailment of liberty before it begins to right itself. As Joseph Blotner observes in his comprehensive study of the political novel, Lewis concludes that it is not outside forces that will subdue American democracy but rather a failure of will from within, of the “conscientious, respectable, lazy-minded Doremus Jessups who have let the demagogue wriggle in, without fierce enough protest.” Liberals did not believe a dictatorship could form in the United States—that fascism could prevail in America—and Lewis set out to show just how wrong they might be.

Warren analyzed...

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The historical novel of politics

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Perhaps no novelist has devoted more careful attention to the lives and politics of political figures than has Gore Vidal. In Lincoln (1984) and Burr he not only creates vivid portraits of historical figures, he also shows them in political combat, so to speak. Thus, Thomas Jefferson becomes, in Aaron’s Burr’s narrative, a shifty, untrustworthy ally—much more of an opportunist than most historians and biographers are willing to concede. Burr becomes a perceptive dissenter free of the cant that Jefferson and his followers use to cloak their crude desire for power. Vidal’s other political novels include Washington, D.C. (1967), 1876 (1976), Empire (1987), and Hollywood: A Novel of America in the 1920’s (1990).

Postmodern novels go beyond Vidal’s approach of reinterpreting history by also offering alternative scenarios and clearly fictionalized plots that nevertheless attempt to strike at the heart of what certain historical periods signify. Thus, in Robert Coover’s The Public Burning, convicted American spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg are publicly burned rather than executed in the electric chair because Coover believes their trial and conviction are part of the paranoid atavistic mood of 1950’s America. During this time, tales of communist subversives planning to take over the free world are the equivalent of seventeenth century tales of witchcraft that led to the burning of dissenters or “witches” at the stake. From Coover’s perspective, Nixon’s anticommunism becomes a projection onto the Rosenbergs of his own perverted desires that he cannot acknowledge but must somehow express. Nixon craves what he condemns.

The ideological political novel

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The works of André Malraux and Ayn Rand represent two extremes of the ideological novel, the former seeking in Marxism and collectivism a more just, democratic world based on collective principles (what is best for humanity as a whole), and the latter arguing that human freedom depends on the unfettered energy and creativity of individuals. Unlike Malraux, who portrayed individuals as highly confused about their own natures and lacking in self-knowledge, Rand posited supremely confident individuals who not only knew their own minds but resisted the modern world’s tendency to subject powerful minds and achievers to some kind of socially determined core of values. The individual in Rand’s view could live only in and for him- or herself. Only by doing so did individuals contribute to the development of the world. So powerful was her notion that the modern world was attempting to enslave its greatest minds that Rand created in Atlas Shrugged a colony of superachievers that divorces itself from the world and attempts to create a new one based solely on the desires of its members to work (as artists, businessmen, and industrialists) for their own benefit.

Malraux’s most important novel is La Condition humaine (1933; Man’s Fate, 1934; also known as Storm in Shanghai and Man’s Estate). Set during the Shanghai revolution of 1927, the story features an impressive array of characters of different nationalities and ideologies in conflict with themselves. Rather then seeing an intellectual, objective way out of this confusion—as Rand does in her portrayal of heroic individuals—Malraux sees in Marxism a vision of human solidarity, a fraternity of selves that collectively hold out at least the possibility of fighting for a fairer, more egalitarian world. Individuals cannot prevail; indeed the state of individuality is equated with solitude in Malraux’s novels, and hence the need for a commitment to a cause greater than oneself.

The underground political novel

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

In The Princess Casamassima (1886), Henry James explores the coterie of revolutionaries residing in late nineteenth century London. Hyacinth Robinson’s grandfather died on the barricades in the French Revolution, and Hyacinth has been educated by a man involved in the revolutionary French Commune of 1871. Feeling the pressures of radicalism—a fervent desire to fundamentally change the world—Robinson vows to continue the cause, but then he is smitten by Princess Casamassima and as a result begins to question his devotion to revolution. The idea of obliterating the world the princess represents appalls him and eventually—unable to reconcile his conflicting feelings—he kills himself. James points out the way revolutionary politics tends to obliterate individual rights, even though revolutionaries argue they are fighting for a better, more equal world.

Similarly, in The Birds Fall Down, Rebecca West focuses on Kamensky, a double agent who works for a czarist aristocrat but also for the revolutionaries. Based on the case of an actual double agent known as Azeff, West’s novel explores the conflicting claims of status quo (tradition) and revolution (change). Individuals torn between the two sides reflect the novelist’s own ambivalent attitude about how best to improve the world while also preserving those aspects of government and society that remain essential to securing individual liberty and freedom of conscience. Joseph Conrad heavily influenced West. Her decision to set The Birds Fall Down shortly before the Russian Revolution aligns her with her illustrious predecessors, whose novels about the conflicting emotions of revolutionaries seem, in retrospect, prophetic of the confused and ultimately self-defeating ideology that led to the rise and fall of communism and of the Soviet state.

The Cold War espionage novel

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Like John le Carré, Charles McCarry uses his characters’ biographies to encompass much of twentieth century political history. McCarry, a former employee of the CIA, has published a series of novels about spy hero Paul Christopher, a handsome Yale graduate and a poet. His father also was a spy; he was killed in Berlin in a setup by the Soviets. Christopher’s mother, a courageous German woman against Nazi ideology, who aided many Jews to escape the Third Reich, was sent to a concentration camp during the war and then vanished. Each novel is a revelation, delving into Christopher’s background and the widening network of contacts that implicate him in the major events of the Cold War. To read the sequence of the Paul...

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The political novel and historical process

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

In Darkness at Noon, Arthur Koestler set the pattern of the postwar political novel that examined the trajectory of twentieth century history. The novel is the story of Nicolas Rubashov, an old Bolshevik (a true believer in the Russian Revolution). He has been schooled to believe that the communists are on the right side of history. His Marxism preaches that there are laws of history that the Communist Party follows no matter how they contradict an individual’s ideas and convictions. The party, not the individual conscience, rules. Rubashov struggles to maintain his faith even as he himself is incarcerated, a victim of the Stalinist purges, and awaits a public trial for crimes he did not commit. However, Rubashov has...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Blotner, Joseph. The Political Novel. 1955. Reprint. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1979. Dated but comprehensive and important study of the genre, with short sections on significant political novels published since the eighteenth century. Also focuses on the role of women and on moral problems and values, international communism, proletarian literature, and imperialism. Bibliography divided into sections on American, English, Italian, German, French, Russian, and South African novels.

Boyers, Robert. Atrocity and Amnesia: The Political Novel Since 1945. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985. Chapters on Graham Greene, V. S....

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