Over at Washington Monthly, Chris Lehmann, an editor at Congressional Quarterly and an occasional Reason contributor, tours the far reaches of American political fiction and concludes that such literary natterings are as disappointing as the pols they're based on:
For all the impact of novels of advocacy, we have consistently failed Whitman's prophecy in [the essay "Democratic Vistas" in] one crucial respect. America has almost never produced a serious novel addressing the workings of national politics as its main subject. Indeed, it's hard not to read Whitman's own rueful characterization of his own literary generation–a "parcel of dandies and ennuyees" usually just "whimpering and crying about something, chasing one aborted conceit after another, and forever occupied in dyspeptic amours with dyspeptic women"–and not remember many of the scribes churning out the modern American political novel. The genre is as distressingly flat and uninvolving as it was when "Democratic Vistas" was published.
Whole thing, well worth reading, here. Bonus points for letting some of the gas out of the overrated All the King's Men and recovering Bill Lee Brammer's 1961 novel of Texas politics, The Gay Place, which sounds absolutely fascinating.
A piece as detailed and wide-ranging as Lehmann's leaves plenty of bones to pick and I disagree with him on more than a couple of scores. Let me ride one personal hobbyhorse for a moment: Like virtually all critics of American letters, he dismisses Washington Irving as a political lightweight who "hymned homely virtues, heartfelt romances, and unsophisticated accents." In fact, as I argued in a doctoral dissertation written a long, long time ago in a galaxy far away, I argued that Irving
remains one of the most politically engaged writers that America has produced. He participated in Aaron Burr's defense during the latter's 1807 treason trial, served as a Colonel in the New York militia and as aide-de-camp to Governor Daniel Tompkins, was offered a position as undersecretary of the Navy in 1818, appointed secretary of the legation at London (1829) and served as ambassador to Spain. His writings for The Morning Chronicle, The Corrector, Salmagundi and Analectic dealt explicitly (and satirically) with the political landscape and he helped transform contemporary copyright legislation….He criticized Andrew Jackson's Indian policies and, in his life of Columbus, denounced mistreatment of the natives, commenting "it is the imperious duty of the historian to place these matters upon record, that they may serve as warning beacons to future generations"
More to the point, much of his fiction, including his satire of Jefferson in The History of New York and many of the stories in the collections Bracebridge Hall and especially Tales of a Traveler is clearly political. This is less a criticism of Lehmann's essay than of mid-20th century American literary critics who wrote Irving out of serious discussion largely because his ideas–and his commercial success–rendered him less Romantic a writer than Hawthorne and Melville.
And speaking of Hawthorne, The Blithedale Romance–which I recommended to the very president of these United States just this summer–is a great political novel in its way. And so is Nathaniel West's unfairly ignored Cool Million, which is in many ways the American version of Candide. I've always assumed that Cool Million goes unread largely because there is no safe harbor in it for ideology of any sort.
But I'm picking nits here. Or rather, Lehmann's essay is precisely the sort of conversation starter literary criticism properly should be.