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Politics As Metaphor

ISSUE:  Winter 1979

The novel of American politics—by which I mean the novel which takes as its narrative subject matter the gaudy mechanics of the American electoral and governmental process—has traditionally been something of a poor relation in our country’s literary family: usually apologetic, sometimes a bit cringing, ever eager to defend its right to be included and heard. The reasons for this are manifold. To begin with, the literary subgenre which concerns itself with the workings of our democratic system has consistently been the first refuge of literary hacks. The “political novel” is, in the critical view, usually a sensational roman à, clef, written with an eye on the publishing industry’s big buck; and much of what is published every year fits this definition—e.g., the works of Alien Drury, Spiro Agnew, Gore Vidal, etc.

But beyond its poor reputation, the novel of the American political system poses unusual problems both for writer and reader alike, A faint air of unreality clings to the subject matter. One need only compare the average American “political novel”—which is likely to concern itself chiefly with a presidential contender’s sexual habits or marital problems— with the enormous achievement of European writers wrestling with political themes. Historically, however, it is easy to understand why American political fiction has taken a different direction than that of Europe, whose greatest contemporary works can be classified under George Orwell’s term of “concentration camp literature.”

Joseph Blotner, the most persistent student of American political fiction, explains the disparity:

From the time when the United States attained its independence until the end of the first quarter of this century, it possessed a relatively stable set or doctrines and frames of reference [compared to those existing in Europe] within which the individual led his political life. Although American parties rose and declined, although the Union was preserved, its borders expanded, and international responsibility accepted, this evolution was orderly and limited compared to that which occurred in Europe. The Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights provided a stable yet sufficiently flexible political framework. . . .[while Europe underwent] violent changes not only in theory but in the actual form of government. It is not unnatural then that American political novels range over a relatively narrower area, with their main emphasis on local or national subjects, while those of European authors delineate changing, conflicting, and radically different ideologies and resultant events.

Blotner evidently feels that this problem has been solved by the coming of the New Deal. But while his explanation gives the shape of the problem, it fundamentally misses the point. In fact, since the thirties, the official “set of doctrines and frames of reference” of American political life have not undergone fundamental revision. Just as before, our political system claims to be based directly on the magnificent documents which Blotner cites—and to say that these provide, or ever provided, a “stable yet sufficiently flexible political framework” for the nation’s political life seriously understates the perceptual problem involved in any attempt to see the American political system as it is.

It is this perceptual problem which underlies the curious failures and achievements of the novel of American politics; it is central not only to the understanding of our political literature but of our national life as well.

The problem arises because the United States remains unique among nations in that it was founded not on existing social and property relations, evolving into national or constitutional forms, but upon abstract ideas which have then been adapted to cover not one but several entirely new nations in the fullest economic, social, and geographical senses of the word. It does not arise solely out of the well-known fact that the United States, a nation founded on principles and laws, has grown into a continental and oceanic empire through a series of grossly illegal land and power grabs (beginning with the Louisiana Purchase, engineered by the old “strict constructionist,” Thomas Jefferson himself). Nor do the dimensions of the problem become fully clear through the well-worn incongruity of asking if either Jefferson or his Federalist adversary, Hamilton, would recognize his constitutional off-spring in the current federal giant which numbers among its creatures the Tennessee Valley Authority, the Consumer Product Safety Commission, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

The problem of perceiving the American political system over time is that the country has gone through at least four full-scale revolutions—the Jacksonian, in which the ideal of popular democracy first gained national ascendancy; the Civil War, in which the industrial culture of the North violently suppressed the competing agrarian civilization of the South; the New Deal, in which the laissez-faire state was abolished and replaced by the crude beginnings of a social democracy; and the racial, political, and social upheavals of the sixties, in which the future of American imperialism was violently disputed, with results still unassessable today.

Clearly here is a history into which the novelist of political themes can sink his teeth; year for year, it is as majestic, violent, and portentous as any in the world. Blotner to the contrary notwithstanding, American history offers the opportunity, at least, to “delineate changing, conflicting, and radically different ideologies and resultant events.”

Yet viewed from the angle of our political system a maddening mirage arises: all of these revolutionary changes have occurred within a political framework which has managed to appear miraculously undisturbed by their passage. From Jefferson’s time to the present, our system of political conventions, national elections, national legislature, and courts have preserved almost absolute continuity.

Of course, revolutionary change in American history has been accompanied (as it must always be) by blatant illegalities: Jackson contemptuously bidding the Supreme Court to enforce its own edicts, Lincoln disrupting and imprisoning the elected leaders of Missouri and Maryland, Lyndon Johnson rigging the 1968 Democratic Convention. But while the law has been broken again and again, what has not snapped is the supreme self-confidence of American constitutional institutions : each fresh outrage against law and principle has been immediately branded as an anomaly, then, in history’s mind, ameliorated, mitigated, explained, and finally forgotten, leaving the continuity of the constitutional tradition serenely undisturbed.

This perceptual problem has a curious effect on the serious novelist, whose peculiar task it is to seek the truth about individuals and institutions which lie about and to themselves. On the one hand, he or she sees the magnificent lawless brawling spectacle of American civil society; on the other, the unassailable truths which we hold to be self-evident, the sonorous abstractions on which our republican life professes to be based. The two are alleged to be directly, organically related; they are not. One claims to govern the other by a system of laws and principles comprehensible to any eighth-grader with a state-approved civics textbook; it is a false claim. Like the character out of song and story who sets out to find America, the novelist seeking the truth about our political life can never reach his goal by following the approved intellectual channels. He finds instead a congeries of diverse, conflicting communities, living by their own organic laws, while over them all, bright and insubstantial as Noah’s rainbow, arch the mighty, meaningless words of the Republic’s founders, at once all-important and irrelevant to the lives beneath.

The resulting cognitive dissonance can prove for the novelist frustrating or tremendously exciting. Many of those who perceive the divorce between the mechanics of our political system and the reality of our national life simply turn away from use of the political system in their works—e. g. , John Dos Passos, America’s greatest political novelist, who considered the electoral and legislative systems almost unworthy of inclusion in his first and greatest attempt to portray American civil society. In the U. S. A. trilogy, despite Dos Passos’s descriptions of war, class conflict, and economic, social, and technological change, the political system itself appears only briefly, and in burlesque form.

Others react to the split by succumbing to the false glamor of American politics, which is precisely its appearance of being a delightful pastime totally divorced from civil society. These writers create from political subject matter a sort of American fantasy world with no more substance than the Old World stories of elves and leprechauns. A premier example of this genre is Edwin O’Connor’s The Last Hurrah, a charming and occasionally moving story of the fall of an old-style political boss based loosely on Boston Mayor James Michael Curley. The book in the end fails to affect the reader deeply because the author portrays an election in which nothing is at stake beyond the obvious simple question of who shall be mayor, who shall ride in a police-escorted limousine, who shall appoint the fire commissioner and greet jazz musicians with keys to the city. This is the level of perception of the average newspaper reader. To succeed in transforming political subject matter into serious fictional achievement, the novelist must perceive, or, equally valid, invent, meanings more profound for the events he describes.

Another similar failure, at once more abject and on a grander scale, is the series of Washington “novels” by Alien Drury beginning with Advise and Consent.Drury has a rudimentary grasp of narration and characterization (although as his series progresses, his Cold War paranoia overwhelms his meager literary skill, rendering the later books pathetic and unreadable). But he fails utterly to perceive that the Washington scene he describes in such encyclopedic detail bears any relation at all to any actual American society beyond the District borders. Thus, despite Drury’s elaborate show of taking us behind closed doors, into secret conferences, and finally even into the very cerebral arteries of the President of the United States, the reader puts down a Drury novel with no new perception of the nation’s capital, the nature of power, or the human drama of American government.

But despite the long string of failures, and the apologetic air which hangs over the genre, a case can be made that the workings of the American political system provide ample and unique opportunities for the serious novelist to exercise his skills, and that there continues to be a healthy tradition of high fictional achievement by those writers who have chosen to meet head-on the perceptual difficulty outlined above.

The serious novel of American politics, in one way or another, takes as its jumping-off place exactly this confusion about American politics—the fact that our political system, as outlined by civics textbooks, newpapers, and television, does not in fact constitute a system for the actual exchange of power, but a metaphor, an almost artistic construct, overlaid on, and used as explanation for, real power transactions which occur in the civil society and are then given ex post facto Constitutional sanction. Lincoln’s defiance of habeas corpus,Johnson’s subversion of the political system to further an illegal imperalist war, may form the realities of our political life; the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gulf of Tonkin Resolution are the more seemly appearance. This ability to reconcile brutal reality and fastidious appearance is the peculiar genius of the American political mind, and offers a partial explanation for the admirable durability of our constitutional system.

Similarly, exploration of the gap between appearance and reality—in whatever form it may commend itself to the literary artist—is the genius of the serious novel of American politics. Our political system is, in fact, already a literary device—a metaphor, based on a document—and the novelist has full power to use it as a metaphor for anything he chooses, whether his concerns be political, moral, philosophical, or spiritual.


Henry Adams used the frantic corruption of the Gilded Age as a metaphor for a drama of manners and morals and in the process constructed a satire of post-Civil War Washington which is the parent of both the Washington novel and the larger genre of novels of politics.Democracy tells the story of Mrs. Madeleine Lightfoot Lee, widow of a Northern member of the “Virginia Lee” family.”American to the tips of her fingers,” Mrs. Lee moves to Washington following her bereavement, “bent upon getting to the heart of the great American mystery of democracy and government.”

At the novels’s beginning, Mrs. Lee’s knowledge of the American system roughly approximates that of our hypothetical eighth-grader:

Certainly she could not have repeated the list of Presidents in their order, but she knew that the Constitution divided the government into Executive, Legislative, and Judiciary; she was aware that the President, the Speaker, and the Chief Justice were important personages. . .,

But she is soon embroiled in the far more complex reality, and finds it “a maze of personal intrigue, [a] wilderness of stunted natures where no straight road was to be found, but only the tortuous and aimless tracks of beasts and things that crawl.” Indeed, so confusing and dangerous is Gilded Age political reality that Mrs. Lee finds her own virtuous self in danger of being sucked into the marsh and made a corrupt player in the political game.

The agent of Mrs. Lee’s near-damnation is Sen, Silas P. Ratcliffe, a grand and memorable fictional type of the Gilded Age spoilsman. Scholars speculate that Ratcliffe was modeled on Rep. Thaddeus Stevens, Sen. James G. Blaine, or Treasury Secretary G. S. Boutwell; whatever his ancestry, in Adams’s hands he is rendered impressive, amusing, and thoroughly unprincipled.

Ratcliffe himself provides a succinct summary of one of the book’s major themes, the question of how democratic principles have survived the century since their enunciation. He is reproached by a critic who invokes the incorruptible memory of George Washington, and Ratcliffe briskly replies that things have changed:

If Washington were President now, he would have to learn our ways or lose the next election. Only fools and theorists imagine that our society can be handled with gloves or long poles. One must make one’s self part of it. If virtue won’t answer our purpose, we must use vice.

As Adams knew, things had indeed changed since Washington’s day: the mammoth upheaval of civil war had shaken American society and left no part of it unchanged, and the American constitutional state had survived only because leaders like Abraham Lincoln had shown no reluctance to break and mangle its most sacred laws when need arose.

This conflict is illustrated by Ratcliffe’s frank explanation to Mrs. Lee of the origins of his remarkable ethical flexibility, As Governor of Illinois during the war, he explains, he found himself faced with the prospect that the state’s electoral vote would go to the peace ticket headed by Democratic Presidential candidate George McClelland, “by fraud, as we thought, although, fraud or not, we were bound to save it. Had Illinois been lost then, we should certainly have lost the Presidential election, and with it probably the Union.”

Ratcliffe’s response to the crisis, he explains, was simply to falsify the election returns, thus—in his self-serving explanation—clinching Lincoln’s reelection. He defies Mrs. Lee to censure him; she cannot, nor, seemingly, can Adams. However, given this glimpse of the conflict between liberal principle and the demands of civil society, Mrs. Lee is drawn into a moral relativism which places her own personal future in peril. Having abandoned the pristine image of George Washington as the ideal statesman, she finds herself, to her own surprise, magnetically attracted to the unscrupulous but dynamic Ratcliffe. He, for his part, determines that she would make a superb asset in his planned run for the Presidency, and determines to win her hand by fair means or foul.

She is saved from a disastrous marriage by the doomed virtue of John Carrington, who, as a defeated rebel, symbolizes the vanished purity of George Washington and the other Virginians who helped found the Republic. Carrington provides Mrs. Lee with documented proof that Ratcliffe has sold his Senate vote for personal gain.

Confronted with this evidence, Ratcliffe replies with an impudent parody of his defense of vote-stealing in time of Civil War: the bribe money was needed for the Republican party; had it not been forthcoming, the postwar election might have been lost, the party of the rebels elected, and the gains of the Civil War lost. Mrs. Lee realizes that he has passed beyond the extraordinary moment when radical action is needed, retaining not his principles, but only his ability to justify law-breaking for any end, personal or political, and that she herself has nearly been drawn into his web of self-serving delusion. She refuses him and leaves America to explore the Old World, concluding that “she had got to the bottom of this business of democratic government, and found out that it was nothing more than government of any other kind.”

Democracy is a brilliant exposition of the theme of the innocent in politics, and punctured for its time the self-righteous constitutional cloak of the lawless growth of postwar American society. Yet it does not end as a condemnation of American democracy, for Adams tells the reader that, despite the ghastly flaws he has depicted in our constitutional system, “on this plank, which experience and religion long since condemned as rotten, mistake or not, men have thus far floated far better by its aid than the popes did with their prettier principle; so that it will be a long time yet before society repents” of the democratic experiment.


John Dos Passos was the next great innovator of the American political novel. As previously noted, he found the gaudy theatrics of the electoral system almost completely unworthy of inclusion in his masterpiece, the U. S. A. trilogy. But in District of Columbia, his sprawling second trilogy covering the Depression and Second World War years, he does turn to the pageant of the political system. The metaphorical use here is two-fold; for Dos Passos, politics at once reflects the changes then taking place in American civil society—the conflict of classes, the struggle against Fascism, and the rise of the flawed social democracy of the New Deal—and serves to illuminate the personal and moral dilemmas of his characters.

The first novel of District of Columbia, Adventures of a Young Man, does not deal with the political system in action; but its brilliantly told story of the exemplary life and sacrificial death of Glenn Spottswood, labor organizer and renegade Communist, provides the moral framework against which the remaining two volumes, Number One and The Grand Design, have their fictional movement. Glenn is a fighter for people and principles, who champions the cause of the working class and Communism in the face of brutal state repression, but he proves unable to trim his conscience to fit the mercurial wishes of the Party’s Stalinist masters. Expelled from the CP, he volunteers to fight against Fascism in Spain. Instead, he is arrested by his own side as “Trotsky-Fascist,” sent unarmed against Fascist guns, and killed.

Number One, the story of the rise and fall of a populist demagogue modeled closely on Huey Long, also tells of the personal disintegration of Tyler Spottswood, Glenn’s cynical older brother, who is unable to find the moral center to which his brother adhered for better or worse. Dos Passos returns in this novel to the kind of formal experimentation which made U. S. A.such an influential work of American literature; he intersperses his narrative with italicized sections sketching the lives of ordinary Americans experiencing the rapid changes sweeping society in the early thirties. Chief among the changes he cites is the rise of radio broadcasting and its attendant national marketing and public-relations structure as an economic, cultural, and political force; Number One concerns itself in large part with the ways in which broadcasting had changed the reality of the political system while leaving the appearance intact.

Radio is the crucial element in the career of Dos Passos’s Huey Long figure, Texas Sen. Homer “Chuck” Crawford, a brilliantly ambiguous political figure. He rises from obscure Congressman to Presidential contender by brilliant showmanship, using the techniques of American buncombe artists from P. T. Barnum to Father Coughlin.

Crawford is a consciously archaic Southern politician in style, not for reasons of personal preference but because he has mastered the very contemporary business of public relations and media manipulation on a national scale. As Tyler Spottswood explains to the press during Chuck’s Senate campaign:

We are putting on the most colorful campaign in years and we are going to all this trouble putting on the oldtime stuff just to give you guys something to write about. I expect you to break the story in the New York papers.

And Crawford himself, while sweet-talking a blonde night-club singer, explains in all sincerity that they have much in common: “Sister, if I hadn’t gotten messed up in servin’ the public I’d a most likely been a nightclub entertainer myself.”

Like Long, Crawford is involved in corrupt dealings; but even here the motif of politics-as-show-business is clear. He steals state oil leases, not primarily for personal gain, but to buy a radio station which will spread his gospel of “Every Man a Millionaire”—a share-the-wealth program with which he hopes to be elected President.

The best feature of the novel is Dos Passos’s success at showing the tension within Crawford’s character between a genuine impulse toward social reform and an ugly egotism and ambition. Although he sets out with a highly sophisticated concern for social justice (Dos Passos permits him to drop his Bible-quoting corn-pone act long enough to discourse knowingly about Marx and Henry George), as the story progresses he degenerates into gangsterism, graft, and a protofascist mentality, until at the story’s end he is riding around in a Chicago-style bulletproof limousine, denouncing the New Deal as a “Jew peddler’s ragbag of theories and pretenses.”

Tyler Spottswood is at once attracted to Crawford as a reformer and repelled by his bullying and corruption. Although it is Tyler’s intellectual ability which provides the theoretical underpinning for the “Every Man a Millionaire” program, Crawford abuses Tyler, humiliating him publicly, forcing him progressively into the roles of errand boy, valet, pimp, and bagman. Unable to break away from the stronger man, Tyler disintegrates into alcoholism. At the book’s end, Crawford has skillfully set him up to take the blame for the crooked oil deal. But when he is offered the chance to repudiate Crawford before a federal grand jury and save himself by destroying his boss, Tyler is unable to break his feeling that he still might, in doing so, be “selling out” the populist cause and the possibility of genuine reform.

Heavy in Tyler’s mind is the example of his brother, whose last letter from Spain asks Tyler to take up the cause of “not letting them sell out too much of the for the people and by the people part of the oldtime United States way.” Set against Glenn Spottswood’s sacrifice, Number One is a devastating indictment of the American electoral process as a hollow charade. This theme is most incisively stated by a reporter watching the national political convention at which Crawford makes his debut:

Give me the World’s Series any day. They are both in the bag, but at least a ballgame is good clean fun.

As befits its title, The Grand Design is the most ambitious of the District of Columbia trilogy. Appearance and reality conflict again as Dos Passos contrasts the high stated ideals of the New Deal with what he saw as the bitter political and bureaucratic infighting and shoddy, coercive social policies behind them.

Once again, italicized sections are intercut with the main narrative to delineate American society as it passes through a full-scale social revolution under the leadership of Franklin D. Roosevelt. To the people, FDR is a serene presence at political rallies, a supremely soothing voice on the again-ubiquitous radio:

the patroon voice, the headmaster’s admonishing voice, the bedside doctor’s voice . . .‘You and I, ‘the warm voice purred . . . ‘You and I, ’ the kind voice repeated . . . ‘But recovery’— the insinuating voice coaxed—‘means something more . . . you and I. . . .

But the reality Dos Passos saw behind the headmasterly image is shown in the far-ranging narrative sections, which center around two idealistic young men, Millard Carroll and Paul Graves, who come to Washington to work for the New Deal. Their boss is Walker Watson, an ambitious, erratic, mystically-inclined agriculturist transparently modeled on Agriculture Secretary and later Vice-President Henry A. Wallace.

Carroll and Graves eagerly accept the reigning assumptions of the incipient New Deal bureaucracy. But they find that the New Deal cannot deliver on its promises, The clean geometric plans drawn up at the upper levels become muddy and confused in the messy reality of American society. Paul Graves, who administers a loan program designed to save the family farm, tours agricultural areas carrying in his mind “a great blueprint for the American future.” But the people of the farm belt defy planning. In one district he finds that a carefully-designed set of guidelines for picking loan recipients has produced results less favorable than simple random selection. In another, he encounters an old woman who has abandoned her own methods of home preserving in favor of the new methods taught by federal workers but has found herself unable to eat any of the fruits and vegetables she has canned because “they’re too purty.”

As the nation lurches into war, Paul leaves his farm program half-finished to join Millard, who has become head of the Economic Scarcities Commission and is involved in planning war production.

Once again, clean geometric blueprints are drawn up, this time on a global scale. As an influential “brains truster” explains to Millard:

The mobilization of wealth at your command will be so overwhelming that it will make it possible for you to impose American standards of wages, working conditions, labor relations, etc., all over the world. . . . The sort of thing we managed to do on a national basis under the NRA codes. . . .

But the “global New Deal” is quickly sacrificed to domestic politics and international realpolitik.The bitter nature of the Washington infighting is shown when Paul denounces a war-profiteering fellow bureaucrat:

Anyway we’ve got a war to fight. But it turns out we’ve got two wars to fight. . . . One against all our various and assorted enemies and one against Jerry Evans and his allies in the State Department.

But at almost the same moment, across town, a top Communist leader is explaining that although the Party supports the American war effort,
We’re fightin’ two wars in this town. In the shortterm war we’re allied to the Squire of the White House and his big business friends but in the longterm war they are our most dangerous enemies.

Throughout The Grand Design runs the familiar theme of politics as radio showmanship. Herbert Spottswood, father of Glenn and Tyler, emerges into prominence as an anti-fascist radio commentator, who devises a strange whispering vocal style after studying FDR’s fireside chats, “Proper delivery has always been the secret of the President’s magic,” he concludes. Herb Spottswood also serves to reassert the moral context established by Glenn Spottswood’s sacrifice, and in conjunction with the earlier story, it becomes apparent that, to Dos Passos, the New Deal is a grotesque failure, a triumph of style over substance, led by a President who not only forged coercive social institutions at home but also bungled on a global scale, “revamped geography/and divided up the bloody globe and left the freedoms out.”

Dos Passos supplies the reader with another context by which Roosevelt’s performance is to be judged by salting the novel with thematic references to that other American social revolutionary, Andrew Jackson. There can be no question that, in the author’s opinion, FDR does not measure up; from the pages of The Grand Design emerges the picture of a man (always offstage) cynically manipulating events and men, coercing the nation through a bureaucratic revolution from above and then leading it into a brutal war which advanced neither its own principles or the cause of world freedom.

Much has been written about the “change” in Dos Passos’s attitudes: from the I. W. W.-sympathies of U. S. the seemingly conservative sensibility of District of Columbia.In truth, Dos Passos seems not to have changed at all, but simply to have carried his anti-interventionist, anarcho-syndicalist principles into the era of totalitarianism, government planning, and global war.

Most contemporary readers and critics are political and intellectual offspring of the New Deal and Second World War era; to us, Dos Passos’s conclusions seem wrong-headed and reactionary today. There can be little question that this is one major reason why literary fashion has been less kind to District of Columbia than to U. S. A.But despite its literary flaws District of Columbia is a work of consummate literary craftsmanship, with descriptive and narrative power in some ways superior to the earlier work. The result is a troubling work of literature, for Dos Passos brings to bear a powerful moral intelligence which challenges the reader’s assumptions about our recent past.


No more striking example of the different uses to which the same political metaphor can be put exists than the contrast between Dos Passos’s Number One and Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, the most popular, and arguably the greatest, serious novel of American politics ever written. Where Dos Passos finds in the story of Huey Long a metaphor for the changes sweeping American society in the thirties, Warren uses it to express questions about the nature of time, God, reality, and the human soul. Indeed, despite its narrative of the rise and fall of a populist-dictator closely modeled on Long, All the King’s Men is not, in fact, a political novel at all. Warren’s deepest concerns are philosophical, and the “political” story he tells is no more than a diversion, a Potemkin village, designed to allow him to explore his philosophical themes in a uniquely compelling setting.

At the heart of this riveting novel is the question of human knowledge: how can a human being know history, or God, or another person, or even himself? Jack Burden, Warren’s memorably cynical hero, has at the book’s opening arrived at one answer:

What you don’t know don’t hurt you, for it ain’t real. They called that Idealism in my book when I was in college, and after I got hold of that principle I became an Idealist. I was a brassbound Idealist in those days. If you are an Idealist it does not matter what you do or what goes on around you because it isn’t real anyway.

Warren uses the story of Governor Willie Stark to discredit Jack’s idealistic philosophy. For Jack Burden witnesses very real events, and learns that what he doesn’t know can hurt him. He is educated in reality by a uniquely, sublimely real teacher, one of the most memorable creatures of American literature, Willie Stark.

Stark is more real than other people; everything about him is more precise, more vivid, than life. He partakes somehow of the basic reality of the universe, of God Himself. Jack’s first meeting with Stark takes place in a kind of null-space speak-easy, the back room of Slade’s saloon, a void where “the general impression is that you are alone with the Alone and it is His move.” And His move is very definitely Stark’s entrance:

Fate comes walking through the door, and it is five feet eleven inches tall and heavyish in the chest and shortish in the leg and is wearing a seven-fifty seersucker suit which is too long in the pants so the cuffs crumple down over the high black shoes, which could do with a polishing, and a stiff high collar like a Sunday-school superintendent and a blue-striped tie which you know his wife gave him last Christmas ana which he has kept in tissue paper with the holly card (“Merry Xmas to my Darling Willie from your Loving Wife”) and a gray felt hat with the sweat stains snowing through the band. It comes in just like that, and how are you to know?

Jack, using the “crude eye of the homme sensuel,” does not recognize Willie Stark as what he is to become. Neither does Tiny Duffy, a two-bit politico who treats Willie contemptuously and thereby alters his destiny forever:

Not that I much blame Duffy. Duffy was face to face with the margin of mystery where all our calculations collapse, where the stream or time dwindles into the sands of eternity, where the formula fails in the test tube, where chaos and old night hold sway and we hear the laughter in the ether dream.

Willie, who is capable of acts of “pure perception,” arrives at his destiny by realizing the truth about himself and his place in the universe. He discovers that he has been hood-winked by the crooked politicians and has made a fool of himself by undertaking a hopeless run for Governor which will hurt the very people he thinks he is helping. After his own moment of truth, he becomes a reality tutor to those around him. He teaches Duffy about the world by humiliating him and then capriciously elevating him to Lieutenant Governor and thence, after Stark’s death, to Governor. And he teaches Jack that life is real by sending him on a hunt for knowledge which teaches him who he is and forces him to strip away the lies in his own self-perception.

During the course of the novel, Jack, the truth-hunter who does not believe in truth, uses every imaginable technique to uncover the truths Stark sends him for; he is by turns academic historian, newspaper reporter, private detective, and even spiritualist. The truths he uncovers are, in the end, about himself: he learns that his childhood mentor, Judge Irwin, a high-principled opponent of Stark’s corrupt machine, once himself behaved corruptly while in office. At Stark’s behest, he uses the knowledge to blackmail Irwin and learns after Invin’s suicide that the Judge was his real father.

As Jack’s path to self-knowledge unfolds, Warren’s narrative style manipulates time itself with cavalier brilliance, until causation and even mere sequence seem as elusive to the reader as truth is to Jack Burden. From the book’s opening scene, which shows us the unmoving clock face in the square of Willie Stark’s home town, All the King’s Men unfolds in feverish simultaneity, jumbling and juxtaposing events separated by minutes, months, years, and centuries. The muddle is Jack’s, for he cannot discriminate between past and present and is unable to recognize them in their proper living relationship. Like many other Southern protagonists, Jack must come to terms with his past, both historical and personal, and he finally does so by experiencing the brutal reality of Stark’s assassination.

All the King’s Men succeeds so brilliantly in pushing the metaphor of American politics to its limits—philosophical and personal—that for the past 30 years it has dominated the genre. The novelist who chooses to write about American politics must either admit its greatness and adopt many of its conventions or forge entirely new narrative structures and metaphorical uses for his material.


One post-Warren novelist who has solved this problem brilliantly is Richard Condon, an indefatigably prolific popular writer whose best book, The Manchurian Candidate, makes a profound and highly original contribution to the novel of American politics.

The book is a bitter parable about the McCarthy era, that terrifying time of national schizophrenia. Condon explores— and ultimately explodes—its paranoid anti-Communist mythos by the paradoxical device of accepting it totally, turning it inside out, and using it as the basis for a convincing and yet absurd story in which the governing metaphors are drawn from the unconscious mind, both national and individual.

In the shadow-world of Freudian psychology, the dirty secrets of the Oedipal trauma, Condon found the ideal vehicle for conveying the unreal terror of the McCarthy era. Condon takes this fear to its limit by giving us Raymond Shaw, a Korean war “hero” who is in reality a helplessly brainwashed mental prisoner of the Communist Chinese, hypnotically trained to kill on command without knowing or remembering that he has done so,

Condon is dealing with deep national fears of the post-Korea, post-McCarthy era. His master hynotist, Dr. Yen Lo of the People’s Republic of China, is a chillingly hilarious evocation of that durable nightmare-figure of the Western imagination, the Yellow Peril; Yen Lo’s “entire expression was theatrically sardonic, as though he had been advised by prepaid cable that the late Dr. Fu Manchu had been his uncle.”

Captured by the Chinese, helpless under the Oriental spell of their Communist captors, the men of Raymond Shaw’s infantry unit are commanded to believe that they are witnessing, not a Red staff briefing, but a ladies’ flower show. But in the mind of the commanding officer, Ben Marco, the image fades and splits, mirroring with painful precision the nightmare double-vision of the fifties, when subversion was thought to lurk in the most unlikely places:

[Marco] knew they were waiting out a storm in the Spring Valley Hotel, twenty-three miles from Fort Monmouth, New Jersey, and that they had been lucky indeed to have been offered the hospitality of the lobby, which, as everyone knew, in the off season was reserved almost exclusively on Wednesday afternoon for the Spring Valley Garden Club. . . . Yet he sat among them distorted by the illusion that he was facing a lieutenant general of the Soviet Army, three Chinese, five staff officers, and six civilians who were undoubtedly Russian because the bottoms of their trousers were two feet wide and the beige jackets seemed to have been cut by a drunken chimpanzee. . . .

When the unit, brainwashed into believing that Raymond is a hero, returns to the United States, Condon mixes political nightmares with personal ones. Raymond’s American control is his own mother, a wickedly comic epitome of the castrating female Mom of American male nightmare. She is the brains behind Raymond’s stepfather, United States Senator John Yerkes Iselin. Here again Condon uses fifties paranoia in inverted form, for Iselin is a mordant, closely-drawn parody of the late Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy. Raymond is to be used to put Iselin into office as an American Fascist dictator—who, though avowedly anti-Communist, is secretly pledged to do the Kremlin’s bidding.

Set within this convoluted political parable is the personal story of Raymond Shaw, a likeable young man betrayed by his own psyche into murder, madness, and death. As presented by Condon, Raymond is a textbook schizoid personality:

Through arrangements beyond his control, Raymond had developed into a man who sagged fearfully within a suit of stifling armor, imprisoned for the length of his life from casque to solleret. It was heavy, immovable armor, this thick defense, which had been constructed mainly at his mother’s forge, hammered under his stepfather’s nose, tempered by the bitter tears of his father’s betrayal.

Yet as an unforeseen by-product of his hypnotic conditioning, Raymond is briefly able to break through the armor, pursue and win the girl he loves, and exist for a moment as an autonomous human being. But though we rejoice at his happiness, Condon snatches it away from him and us: Raymond is crushed by the weight of his conditioning, forced to destroy with his own hands his chances for happiness, until, in a searing climax, he betrays his programming by assassinating his mother and stepfather and killing himself.

It is this brief interlude of happiness which gives The Manchurian Candidate its unique emotional charge. Condon allows Raymond to engage our emotions in a way which few characters in the thriller genre (including those in Condon’s own later works) ever approach. Because of this, and because of the precise elegance with which it demolishes the entire demonology of the McCarthy era, the book is a unique triumph, a tour de force which demonstrates again the fertility of the gap between appearance and reality as a metaphor in the novel of American politics.

Another post-Warren novelist who remained very much within the tradition established by All the King’s Men was the late William Brammer, whose The Gay Place is a richly comic evocation of Texas politics in the late fifties. Brammer, a top aide to then-U. S. Sen. Lyndon B. Johnson, used his employer as a very close model for his grand, flawed hero, Governor Arthur Fenstemacher. Like Warren, Brammer used politics and political concerns as a metaphor for the spiritual dilemmas of his characters. But where Jack Burden is unable to come to terms with the past, Brammer’s protagonists are unable to reach any arrangement with the present.

The Gay Place encompasses three related novellas, “The Flea Circus,” “Room Enough to Caper,” and “Country Pleasures.” In each, a protagonist finds himself unable to answer the question of why he should go on in life rather than surrender to the entropic influences of aimlessness, alcoholism, and despair.

Roy Sherwood, a wastrel legislator, Neil Christiansen, a fledgling U. S. Senator, and Jay McGown, an oft-cuckolded Fenstemacher aide, move in a political wilderness of drifting human hulks, unable to concentrate on anything except their own giddy social whirl of parties and oddly chaste love affairs. Fenstemacher alone proceeds across the landscape with some seeming sense of where he is going and why. About him are the aspects of divinity, and he is able, like the grace of God, to save two of Brammer’s protagonists from their own self-destructive influences; the third, by refusing to help himself, destroys himself and Fenstemacher.

To Roy Sherwood, a Zen dilettante, Fenstemacher appears in the aspect of a “corn-pone Buddha” to teach him the secret of motivation in a pointless political world:

I tell you boy . . . There ain’t nothin’ else but power an’ change an’ improvement. The rest—an’ I think I misquote some English socialist on this—is all a mere middle-class business. . .

Fenstemacher rescues Sherwood from an acute state of personal, political, and sexual ambivalence, schooling him in the ways of power until, by the end of “The Flea Circus,” he himself has taken on some of Fenstemacher’s divinity and is able to handle a political crisis unaided and—perhaps—even learn to begin to straighten out his own muddled emotional life.

To the symbolically-named Christiansen, Fenstemacher is not Buddha, but God the Father, arranging for the crucifixion and resurrection of his own political son over an Easter weekend in Austin. Appointed ten months earlier by Fenstemacher to fill a vacant seat, Christiansen is unable to decide whether to seek a full term on his own. He aspires to be a liberal hero, “Adlai Stevenson with hair,” but the political process seems too brutal and random, and his own marital difficulties too complex, and he is about to leave the field to a crew-cut redbaiting demagogue until Fenstemacher steps in, quoting the Prophet Isaiah and scheming schemes within schemes.

First he tempts Neil by offering him power; but when this temptation seems to be failing, Fenstemacher arranges to leak information about Neil’s wife and dead brother to his opponent, whose below-the-belt attacks anger the young man into entering the race. In due course, through the machinations of Fenstemacher, he wins the primary, and although his marital problems are not resolved, he ends “Room Enough to Caper” with a tentative new lease on life, having partaken of Fenstemacher’s joy, “sorrows and joys oddly approximated by the incredible fact of success.”

But for all his divine power, this Texas Jahweh-Buddha figure is unable to save his aide Jay McGown or himself when he runs up against another American deity, the Hollywood sex-goddess. In “Country Pleasures,” Jay’s wife Vicky has left him to become a famously promiscuous film star, while refusing him a divorce by threatening to forbid him visitation rights to his daughter, Victoria Anne. In Texas for a film shooting, she meets the Governor’s official party: Arthur Fenstemacher, his wife Sweet Mama Fenstemacher, his brother Hoot Gibson Fenstemacher, Jay, and Sarah Lehman, an innocent young aide with whom Jay has been trying to overcome the scars left by his marriage to Vicky.

Vicky McGown is a recognizable descendant of Faulkner’s Eula Varner. Using her larger-than-life, irresistible sexuality, she shatters the equanimity of the entire Fenstemacher pantheon.

She confuses McGown and lures him away from his duty to Fenstemacher and Sarah Lehman. Her “crackling sensuality” also unhinges Sarah Lehman, who loses confidence in herself as a woman. As for Fenstemacher, he is not directly seduced by Vicki, but the corrupting force of her sexuality lures him into a perverse liaison with Sarah which leaves him dead of a heart attack during the bedroom exertions and drives her into mental collapse from terror and shock. Jay, who at the end is given custody of his daughter, is left to contemplate his hollow victory in the wreckage.

Despite its unquestioned debt to All the King’s Men, The Gay Place is a significant and original contribution to the genre of the novel of American politics. Brammer’s musical prose style and elegant characterization also recall Fitzgerald, and his delineation of a small political universe is detailed, loving, and memorable.

The foregoing are a few salient examples of significant fictional achievement in the novel of American politics. There can be no question that, over the years, the serious works in the genre have been far outnumbered by the products of the Drury-Knebel-Vidal school, By now the latter have developed a system of conventions more rigid and hackneyed than those of the conventional mystery story or space-opera. But serious writers have continued to dare the subject matter and will continue to do so. For in the post-Vietnam, post-Watergate era, American politics represents as fertile a field as ever for the exploration of myth and reality, appearance and truth. We remain a country rounded on ideas honored in the breach, of principles successfully violated; a society lawless and constitutional, authoritarian and democratic. Whatever the perils of literary fashion, the material is too good to resist.


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