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Issue No. 73 (August 1, 2005) -- Mark Satin, Editor

Ten Best American Political Novels, 1945 - 2000

Summer beach reading you'll remember

This summer, many Americans are heading off to the beach with trendy political novels such as Tom Wolfe’s latest, I Am Charlotte Simmons (Nov. 2004), and I certainly don’t want to stand in their way.

But there’s a whole other genre of political fiction in this country -- equally gripping -- but timeless, endlessly insightful, philosophically engaged, often difficult to bear (because brimming with challenges to the reader’s assumptions and values).

And if you think of yourself as a social change agent, I suspect you’ll enjoy that brand of fiction, “great” political fiction, a lot more than the pop fiction we read to feel in-the-know.

What makes a “great” political novel?

Only a couple of great political novels appear in any one decade. And -- I admit this up front -- most great political novels are not radical middle in orientation. Many are radical, period; others are quite conservative.

But if you can't recognize them by the politics they espouse, you'll know them when you see them. (Fyi, among my five published books is a political novel, Confessions of a Young Exile, Toronto: Gage / Macmillan of Canada, 1976, so I have a hard-won appreciation of the form.)

If you'd like to be more analytic about it, you can say great political novels score exceptionally well on three criteria:

(a) literary quality,

(b) narrative power, and, most important,

(c) historical / political / metapolitical insight.

By these criteria, prominent American political novels like Allen Drury’s Advise and Consent (1959), Joe Klein’s Primary Colors (1996), and Tom Wolfe’s Bonfire of the Vanities (1987) fall short of greatness. For all their excellences, they are primarily middlebrow entertainments rather than piercing analyses of our political condition.

The books below, for all their defects, will take you beyond -- way beyond -- what you can get from even the best pop fiction:

Top ten list

1. Harvey Swados, Standing Fast (1970) -- Nine couples of varying ages, temperaments & ethnicities spend the years from the Hitler-Stalin Pact (1939) to the John F. Kennedy assassination (1963) in and out of the New Party, an idealistic quasi-Trotskyist sect. Everyone’s behavior is so mortifyingly real you’ll see yourself there too and know why we haven’t created a better world yet.  Swados, a respected radical writer in the 1950s and 1960s, died at the age of 52, two years after this novel was completed -- one of the great tragedies of American literature. How we needed him over the next 30 years!

2. Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (1952) -- More on why we haven’t succeeded yet, and on what it will take for us to have a fighting chance.  Ellison’s Black narrator is not just “invisible” but nameless (to us), and ends up living in a floodlit cellar. But, psst, Blacks see him no more clearly than whites do, and many whites in this novel appear to have some Black in them (and vice-versa) -- two reasons Ellison was seen as an “Uncle Tom” by a generation of Black and white militants.

3. Marge Piercy, Dance the Eagle to Sleep (1970) -- Vividly captures the motivations, fantasies, fears, and dreams of young Sixties radicals, and reminds us what’s worth keeping from that time.

4. Robert Penn Warren, All the King’s Men (1946) -- On one level, about 1930s Louisiana Gov. Huey Long and his acolytes; on another level, more about the rest of us than you ever really wanted to know.

5. Clancy Sigal, Going Away (1961) -- A grown-up’s On the Road, by the model for the “Saul Green” character in Doris Lessing’s The Golden Notebook. Radical who’d spent the 1940s and 1950s fighting for truth & justice travels across the country visiting his old friends & comrades, and doesn’t like who they’re turning out to be.

6. Ayn Rand, Atlas Shrugged (1957) -- Unforgettably argues that our real heroes are our businessmen (and businesswomen), and that if we don’t become an unabashed meritocracy ASAP we’ll go down the toilet.

7. Ernest Callenbach, Ecotopia Emerging (1981) -- Although Callenbach is better known for his ecological utopia, Ecotopia (1975), this how’d-they-do-it sequel much better captures who we at our best can be.

8. Saul Bellow, Mr. Sammler’s Planet (1970) -- Great anti-1960s novel, but lacks sufficient empathy for any of its 1960s characters (except for a black pickpocket partly modeled on Bellow’s friend Ellison, above).

9. Howard Fast, The American (1946) -- On one level, a portrait of John Peter Altgeld’s journey from abused child, to reform-minded Illinois governor (c. 1892), to radical-minded governor who identifies with “The People”; on another level, a glorious intimation of who The People could become.

10. Philip Roth, American Pastoral (1997) -- Not just a great anti-1960s novel (with exact same flaw as Bellow’s novel, above), but a nuanced defense of the American middle-class way of life.

Moral(s) of this list

What can be said about this list that illuminates great political fiction in our time? Three things, I think.

First, all these books raise big questions -- questions that go way beyond the hypocrisies of Senate protocol (Advise and Consent) or the nuances of Bill’s relationship with Hillary (Primary Colors). What kind of world do we want for ourselves? How can we possibly achieve it? What does it mean and what does it take to be a decent / responsible / effective human being in a world brimming with interpersonal cruelties and social injustice? These questions are asked in all the books above, regardless of their political orientation.

Second, all these books were well-received, at least in certain circles. It is not true that the authors of great political novels are grievously ignored. Earth to struggling writers / activists: There is not a conspiracy against greatness or political engagement in literature:

  • Bellow won the Nobel Prize for Literature six years after Mr. Sammler’s Planet was venomously attacked by left reviewers;
  • Invisible Man won the National Book Award in darkest 1953!;
  • All the King’s Men and American Pastoral won Pulitzers;
  • Atlas Shrugged is the “second most influential book for Americans today,” if you believe a joint survey by the Library of Congress and the Book of the Month Club (the most influential book is supposedly the Bible);
  • Fast’s novels sold over 20 million copies, albeit mainly to socialists and Communists abroad;
  • Piercy has a huge feminist following, Callenbach has a large green following, and Swados and Sigal are beloved among activists once deeply engaged in “the workers’ struggle.”

Third, although few if any of these novels are “radical middle,” there is a way in which they are collectively radical middle. Arguably, three of them are conservative, two moderate, five radical. It is hard to imagine that anyone could read and enjoy them ALL, though, without ending up with a sensibility that’s both deeply visionary and deeply cognizant of human nature -- i.e., radical middle.

And that’s true even if you read them on a hot, crowded beach in mid-July.


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