Friday, March 16, 2007

The Lasting Power of the Political Novel

January 1, 1984

omeone 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...


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