The Genre of the Political Novel: A Select, Annotated, Polemical Bibliography

John Whalen-Bridge, Assistant Professor of English, National University of Singapore

[Send your additions, disagreements, and suggestions to . Please provide complete bibliographical information for each item.]

Blotner, Joseph. The Modern American Political Novel, 1900-1960. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1966.

It attempts to recuperate the non-relativist sense of the genre that has become difficult if not impossible when approaching postwar American texts: "In order to keep the study from extending to all outdoors, `political' is here defined in a very literal and functional sense. The subject of these works, apart from a few on the fringe noted as such but illustrating particular themes, is also primarily political" (8). By this standard the political novel has a disadvantage as art. Blotner's "functional" definition actually excludes a number of interesting novels -- such as Sinclair's The Jungle (1906) and proletarian novels such as Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath (1939 --that are about politics and that function politically. . . . Like many students of the political novel who attempt an exact and exclusive definition, Blotner asks, "Why are there so few modern American political novels of any excellence? Why are there so many bad ones?" This sense of almost unavoidable disappointment is the natural consequence of any attempt to describe the American political novel from an apolitical vantage point.

Foley, Barbara. Radical Representations: Politics and Form in U.S. Proletarian Fiction, 1929-1941. Durham: Duke University Press, 1993.

A polemical, revisionist attempt to rescue the proletarian novel from the charges that political commitment on the part of writers affiliated with the Communist Party yielded only programmatic rhetoric rather than "literature" as the New Critics understood it. In this inclusive, remarkably well researched and argued study, Foley fights the remnants of New Critical faith tooth, nail, and footnote. Furthermore, Foley argues that literature is inherently political without discussing the Wall Street Crash as a "text." Radical Representations is skeptical about the radical skepticism of much postmodern literary theory, though it employs contemporary modes of interpretation judiciously, such as when Foley engages the complexities of narratology to show that the roman à thesis novel should not be regarded as "inadmissible evidence" in the court of literature. Foley's study defends categories such as "proletarian novel," thereby throwing the gauntlet down before today's literary fashions, especially when she argues that the neglect of proletarian fiction in postwar criticism directly parallels the disregard of proletarian realities in contemporary America.

Howe, Irving. Politics and the Novel. Rev. ed. New York: New American Library, 1987.

[Howe] envisioned the political novel in a more purely literary way (as it were) than did Rideout. Howe waved away the problem of precise definition as something for rigid scholastics to quibble over, opting, instead, to define the political novel in this way: "By a political novel I mean a novel in which political ideas play a dominant role or in which a political milieu is the dominant setting. . . . Perhaps it would be better to say: a novel in which we take to be dominant political ideas or the political milieu" (17). . . . Still, he provided no particular insight about why the political novel should be harder to define than other genres. . . . Perhaps as a strategy for avoiding the bias that political literature is by nature inferior, Howe consistently aestheticized politics, thus transforming the object of his criticism slightly.

Milne, Gordon. The American Political Novel. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1966.

Milne attempts to redeem the political novel from the limitation implied by Speare's emphasis on ideas alone. The political novel, according to Milne, is an emotion-laden form. . . . Perhaps to exonerate the genre from charges of inherent dullness, later critics such as Milne question the difference between the political novel and the non-political novel. This is done through an approach that is in some ways similar to Howe's: the political novel is aestheticized completely. The political novel can be emotional and exciting without seducing readers into actual political activity if we regard it as a kind of opera rather than as a form of activism. Milne's political novel is purely a spectator sport.

Reed, T. V. Fifteen Jugglers, Five Believers: Literary Politics and the Poetics of American Social Movements. Berekley: University of California Press, 1992.

Reed integrates "high theory" (which I take to mean post-structuralist, feminist, new historicist, and neo-Marxist writing that is very, very abstract) with close readings of a selection of socially engaged texts to "assist the project of convincing literary critics that their work is unavoidably political and needs to become more attuned to radically democratic social movements" (xi). . . . Reed's is unlike the kinds of studies that "say" politics while merely doing literature: he claims he cannot distinguish between the two--and then proceeds to illuminate political novels (and other "texts") in very interesting ways. While I am never convinced that a march on the Pentagon or other sort of public theater should be confused with the text of an actual writer, his approach is fruitful and interesting.

Rideout, Walter. The Radical Novel in the United States, 1900-1954. Cambride: Harvard University Press, 1956.

Rideout discerned that there were differences between the literary and political uses of language, but he refused to cooperate with any sort of categorical apartheid. The Cold War climate did not prevent Rideout from completing and publishing his study, but he had to work against the anti-political prejudice constantly to fashion his book: the radical element in fiction is "extrinsic" to the pure matter of literature and perhaps ought to be "contained" elsewhere. Since "strict" literary history would effectually gerrymander the political novel out of existence, the study of political fiction itself became a kind of impurity.

Schaub, Thomas. American Fiction in the Cold War. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1991.

A good example of the way in which a focus on the politics of criticism displaces the reading of political literature. Schaub presents his donné with admirable clarity: "This book is about the discourse of revisionist liberalism--what was then called `the new liberalism'--as it appears within the discussion and practice of fiction in the United States during the forties and fifties." In its unmasking of this liberalism, the book leaves us with a Foucauldian sense that the Revisionist Liberal discourse was somehow inescapable. Each chapter develops the political consequences of innovations supposedly following the `end of ideology,' but Schaub's critique of the post-war "anti-ideology" does not really operate from outside of that ideology. We can see this in a general way in the preferential treatment he gives to supposedly apolitical or anti-liberal writers such as John Barth and Flannery O'Connor, and his way of reading becomes especially cramped when he discusses an unrepentantly political novelist such as Norman Mailer.

Speare, Morris Edmund. The Political Novel: Its Development in England and in America. New York: Oxford University Press, 1924.

The academic study of the political novel begins . . .with [this] founding study. He wrote about both English and American political novels but was concerned to show the differences between these traditions as well as their similarities. . . . Speare never apologizes for exploring the political novel, a form that soon becomes inherently questionable. . . .Speare's recognition of the partisan nature of political fiction is presented in a disarmingly direct fashion. Contemporary readers who are so quick to find in Speare quaint signs of class privilege overlook the ways in which this reader from 1924 is ahead of today's culture contests, wherein it must be continually reasserted that political struggle is an appropriate end of art. . . .Speare's study is . . . the last one published in the United States to speak of the political novel without apology.

Siebers, Tobin. Politics of Skepticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1993.

The best book on the interrelations between politics and literary criticism as they interrelate in the Cold War era. . . . Siebers is refreshingly direct about the interrelations between politics and literature: "Politics demands that we risk taking a position, that we stand somewhere, that we decide, and that we accept as part of the political process the possibility that our positions, stances, and positions may go horribly wrong, nowhere, or miraculously right. This is the only form of arbitrariness, a favorite term of skeptical criticism, worth talking about and with which it is important to live. The possibility of arbitrariness and risk in the political process is the only good rationale for binding ourselves to skepticism (viii)." In discussing such critics and theorists as W. K. Wimsatt, Monroe Beardsley, Stephen Greenblatt, Paul de Man, Jane Tompkins, and Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Siebers demonstrates the intricate and manifold ways in which Cold War criticism (some of which refers to political struggle and claims to struggle politically) flees from genuine political risk. Politics depends on a sort of belief that has been ruled inadmissible by New Critics and post-structuralists of various stripe, critics who have all avoided the defining risks of political activity. . . . He also claims that "literary criticism needs to take account of what politics really is," that it must not resort to "reinventing politics as a trope of negative freedom," and that literary criticism involves life-affirming principles and, therefore, must respect our inner lives. This last recommendation is, for Siebers, very much part of making a home in the world: "Literary critics who abandon their fondness for storytelling, beauty, aesthetic pleasure, language, and human talk about them willfully estrange themselves from a large part of the world in which they live" (156-57).

Trivedi, Haris. "Defining the Political Novel" in The American Political Novel: Critical Essays. New Delhi: Allied, 1984. 3-15.

Both thorough and witty.

Whalen-Bridge, John. Political Fiction and the American Self. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1998.

[Would anyone like to provide a capsule review? GPL.]

Wilding, Michael. Political Fictions. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1980.

Wilding's own study is valuable for its willingness to question overly-certain boundaries between political and supposedly non-political fiction (he discusses Huck Finn alongside conventionally recognized political novels such as The Iron Heel and Nineteen Eighty-Four), but the need to present himself as a literary-liberator has distorted his reading of previous critics.

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