Why American Political Novels Suck (Veiled Argument for Washington Irving)


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.

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  1. Nick Gillespie,

    I’ve often wondered about the prejudice against Irving; thanks for the info. 🙂

  2. Since I have nothing of value to say on the topic, aside from a hearty second to the Nathaniel West shout-out, I’ll just mention that it always amuses me to see market purists use terms like “overrated” and “underrated.” I do it too, but it’s funny.

  3. Phil,

    Cause, like, we are individuals, not pod people. 🙂

  4. Nice to see Gore Vidal get a positive mention, even if Lehman gives him only sentence and seems to consider him an honorary European. His novels are much, much, much, much better than his recent political writing.

  5. Yes, Gary, but in a free market for literature, there’s no such thing as “underrated” or “overrated.” Just “rated.”

  6. Is Ana Marie Cox the government name of Wonkette? My government name is not Herrick, but I use it on Hit and Run and at Steamworks bath house.

  7. Phil,

    You must be reading different free market literature than I am. 🙂

  8. Phil,

    More to the point, you are like a theist who claims that morality must come from a God. That’s not true of course, and neither does one have to have a government mandated rating system to have opinions on art, literature, etc.

  9. a government mandated rating system

    Where did that part come from?

  10. Rich Ard,

    Well, clearly Phil is arguing that in order to have an opinion on something it must be grounded in some objective, non-market authority. I’d thought I would cut to the chase and simply name what that likely was.

  11. Rich Ard,


  12. I was glad to see the shoutout to Burr, too, Daze. That is one terrific book.

  13. That’s not true of course, and neither does one have to have a government mandated rating system to have opinions on art, literature, etc.

    What the hell are you talking about?

    Let me make it a little clearer for you:

    “Good” = “I like it.”
    “Bad” = “I don’t like it.”
    “Overrated” = “Other people like it more than I do.”
    “Underrated” = “Not enough people like things I like.”

    If you’re claiming that the latter two have some real meaning other than that, you’re the one arguing that there’s some external, objective standard.

    Tell me this: 1) What’s a piece of “overrated” literature? 2) What makes it “overrated?” 3) How rated, exactly, should it be?

    Well, clearly Phil is arguing that in order to have an opinion on something it must be grounded in some objective, non-market authority.

    Well, clearly, no, I’m not. Let me decide what I’m arguing, and you keep the Kreskin act for kids’ birthdays and so forth.

  14. Here’s a passage of Whitman quoted by Lehmann:
    The country’s “most fundamental want,” Whitman wrote, was “the clear idea of a class, of native authors, literatures, far different, far higher in grade than any yet known, sacerdotal, modern, fit to cope with our occasions, lands, permeating the whole mass of American mentality, taste, belief, breathing into it a new breath of life, giving it decision, affecting politics far more than the popular superficial suffrage, with results inside and underneath the elections of Presidents or Congresses?radiating, begetting appropriate teachers, schools, manners, and, as its grandest result, accomplishing, (what neither the schools nor the churches and their clergy have hitherto accomplish’d, and without which this nation will no more stand, permanently, soundly, than a house will stand without a substratum,) a religious and moral character beneath the political and productive and intellectual bases of the States.”

    Jeezus F. Christ! And here I thought I was guilty of using too many commas. I guess I’m just a “man of letters” and didn’t know it.

  15. By the way, conspicuous by their absence from Lehmann’s article are the various ‘spy thrillers’ by Clancy, Ludlum, etc. I would argue that these are the real modern-day “political novels” and reflect the prevailing modern view of the federal government as some sort of super-competent, vaguely sinister force, which struggles daily to keep us one step ahead of disaster.

    Which is mighty humorous to anyone who has ever dealt with the federal bureaucracy…

  16. “Clearly”? No fair putting words in other people’s mouths, Hakylut.

  17. Nick Gillespie:

    Thanks for giving Irving his due, both here and long long ago and far far away. My students, who always come to Irving thinking he’ll be awful, are constantly surprised by what a lively, incisive social critic he is.

    Somwhat more surprisingly, many professors of literature have the same reaction if you can actually make them read some of his work.

  18. I’m going to throw out “Primary Colors.” That was a pretty good novel about politics.

  19. Regardless of his other triumphs, I for one will never forgive Irving for inflicting the nonsense that Columbus proved that the world was round to a disbelieving populace on humanity for the past 160 years. I mean, Christ, they had Aristotle. And even if they hadn’t, any sailor could have put that notion to rest right off.

  20. You know who else is better than she’s given credit for? Agatha Christie. I picked up one of her books, thinking it would be a fun, junk food type read, but she actually showed me something.

    I think it’s the genre she wrote in, and the fact that she was a woman, that leads people to dismiss her as a hack.

  21. I’m going to throw out “Primary Colors.”

    So did I.


  22. I haven’t read that much political fiction, but I do remember liking The Last Hurrah by Edwin O’Connor, about Boston politics back in the day. I should probably read it again, because I can’t remember that much, but I do recall enjoying it quite a bit.

  23. for “best” American political lit I’d offer up O’Tooles’ “Confederacy of Dunces” and Chester Himes’ “The Primitive.” (I kept waiting for the former to come up in light of recent events, but never happened.) “Bob Dylan’s 15th Dream” isn’t bad either.

  24. Quoting from memory: “Politics, in a novel, is like a gunshot in a crowded theater: something crude from which it is impossible to withhold one’s attention.” Stendahl wrote that, or something very like it.

    Not caring much for the machinations of actual politics, I note that I haven’t read very many political novels. The only Drury I’ve read, for instance, is the first volume of his Akhnaten series. Political, yes; but not exactly what one thinks of when one things of “political novel,” eh? But then, I prefer Gore Vidal’s “Creation” to the bulk of his political novels about America, excepting “Burr” and “1876” (these are very, very good). Perhaps the span of eons allows me to tolerate a grim subject better. Ancient politics gains a patina over the vast span of years.

    Lehmann’s “case” against Adams’s “Democracy” strikes me as rather weak. Yes, Adams had a fastidious moral point of view, one that condemned most politicians. But this moral point of view is hard to abandon without embracing enormities and evils that politicians of that day and ours promote with corrupt glee.

    Take a clearer case: the corruption of politics in “Honest John Vane,” a political novel rightly championed by a former Reason man, Bill Kauffmann. Success in American politics is most often identified with Thinking Big in terms of deceitful and even unconstitutional “Internal Improvements.” And the author, J.W. De Forest, relentlessly pursues that theme.

    Lehmann’s appeal to the Federalist for a more worldly view seems — in the face of such political enormities as John Vane’s con-job proposal, “The Great Subfluvial,” or the actual pork spending of the current united government — little more than rah-rah crowd nonsense, the kind of thing we should expect of teachers of Civics courses, not literature.

    Surely, the actual workings of politics do not impress decent people. Shall I trot out Mencken’s thought on the subject?

    No need. But Lehmann could have used a Menckenian perspective better than a Whitmanesque one, to survey the sad fields of American political fiction.

    Last year I read a very odd American political novel, from the same period as “Democracy” and “Honest John Vane.” It was “An American Politician” by F. Marion Crawford. Critics of his day lashed at it, saying that it had a European feel, that it posited a conspiratorial approach to political power that had little to do with American politics as actually played. I have the feeling that Vidal, were he to deign to read and defend a minor romancer like Crawford, would laugh at the naivety . . . of Crawford’s critics. There are conspiracies everywhere in politics, and democracy is certainly not immune from them. Indeed, we have every reason to think that the citizens are always and everywhere “being played.”

    The trouble with “An American Politician” was not that it posited a behind-the-scenes conspiracy. But that the author viewed such a thing as a good. Benignly.

    Oh, and he ended his book with a long, long speech by his hero. There’s something in Romantics that call up long speeches, when it comes to politics. Ayn Rand had that trouble too. (And isn’t “Atlas Shrugged” a political novel, of a sort?) Longwinded speechwriting is not exactly the height of the novelist’s art, is it?

    The gunshot of politics in a novel is the sound of crime happening. It seemed crude to Stendahl, perhaps. It was a staple with Trollope. It is part of everyday life. The reason Americans are so poor at it is that too many of them get caught up in the rah-rahing for The American System, as they conceive it. Whatever it is, whatever it does. And if the system goes against their ideas, they . . . tend to madness, then. Too much strain on their own, private constitutions.

    It appears that many people want government to do all sorts of impossible things. So it should not shock us that one trouble with political novels is that they too often get corrupted by the authors’ own absurd desires.


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