People of the Book

Why have libertarians gotten more out of literature than conservatives have?


After gifting us with such lists as the top 50 conservative rock songs, this year National Review offered, under the guidance of political reporter John J. Miller, the "Ten Great Conservative Novels" of the postwar era.

Miller is a literature buff whose tastes are more inclusive of pop and genre fiction than were those of such highbrow conservative lit gurus as Irving Babbitt or T.S. Eliot. The novels NR selected, though, were all by reputable novelists, some with known conservative sympathies, some not. Their themes promote such modern conservative ideas as the evils of the Soviets, the counterculture's erosion of proper culture, and the technological destruction of human nature.

National Review presented them not to celebrate a recognized right-wing canon, but to promote works of likely interest for conservatives craving ideological sympathy. As Miller told me, "I do think conservatives respond to art in certain kinds of ways and certain kinds of messages resonate with them. I'm not talking about propaganda, but about insight into human nature and shared worldviews—and a sense when reading this book that you are among friends or someone you can learn from."

But when Miller sought suggestions for the list on his blog, various commenters protested that the project was unconservative in principle: Stalinists were the ones who had to categorize art politically. Someone who calls himself "Das" noted, "If a novel just plays out and lets life unfold I believe conservatives can claim it as a conservative novel. Why? Conservatives invest themselves in life not politics. … Conservatives don't grind axes in art, they just let life play out."

Now, it is true that conservatives have generally avoided the totalitarian temptation to squeeze everything into a political mold. But they have also managed to avoid the creative arts in the formation and shaping of their ideas—this despite their movement's self-appointed reputation as keeper of the canons of Western culture.

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