Sunday, August 2, 2009

What is America's great political novel?

Since I’m trying to write a somewhat political novel, I thought I could profit from rereading a few of them. It’s been fun.

Some I knew well from early exposure: "The Last Hurrah," "Roscoe," "The Fly On the Wall." Others were either lost in the mists of memory or, perhaps, never really read that closely the first time.

Top of that list is "All the King’s Men," a Pulitzer winner for Robert Penn Warren that is (as its cover prominently reminds us) “generally considered the finest American political novel.”

And while it is indisputably a fine novel, here’s the thing I don’t understand: it doesn’t seem like it’s mainly about politics.

Political developments in this novel just happen, apparently emerging full grown from a backstory we never get to see. Things are not arranged, or constructed or negotiated. Except for exceptionally fortuitous scandals The Boss’ muckraker pulls out of his pocket whenever needed, there’s not much rhyme or reason for Willie Stark’s remarkable ability to capture votes and compel cooperation from a legislature we’re told is controlled by his fiercest opponents.

"All the King’s Men" is about force of personality more than anything else, a detailed portrait of the man who navigates from rural, Deep South poverty to the pinnacle of power in his unnamed state. We see him charm and bend and use people repeatedly, but catch only fleeting glimpses of him actually practicing politics.

I’m not finished rereading the book this time around. I’m a slow reader and this is – let’s be honest – a slow story. I’m worried now that my own work is way too once-over-lightly; some of Warren’s central themes have already been explored a half-dozen times in the first couple of hundred pages.

I remember "The Last Hurrah" as a masterpiece about campaigning. "Roscoe" deals a fair amount with actually governing (or at least assembling a machine to govern). "All the King's Men: seems to be portraiture and texture.

But just what is the great American political novel?

All suggestions (especially accompanied by arguments) greatly appreciated.

9 comments:

Suzanne said...

What about Joan of Arc by Mark Twain

dan said...

Great political novels always have journalists as major characters. So I nominate (not the best but incredibly good) "The Fly on the Wall" by Tony Hillerman...

George said...

I'll second "All the King's Men" -- and nominate some honorable mentions, like Gore Vidal's historical-political novels (including Burr, Lincoln and 1876) and even though it wasn't a novel, I always liked "The Best Man" -- Gore's play that became a film about a JFK-like character (played by Henry Fonda) and a Nixon character (played by Cliff Robertson) locked in a close nomination battle at the circa-1960 Democratic National Convention. And on a contemporary nonfiction level, I still have a warm space in my heart for Timothy Crouse's "The Boy's on the Bus."

Susan Pruden said...

The whole "Advise and Consent" series by Allan Drury. Set in a very different time, to be sure. But since I first read it in 1973, it has stayed with me.

Robin said...

This is a great question. Sounds like you're asking for a novel in which characters /do politics/ -- not just in which politics is a colorful backdrop.

The first thing I think of -- it's not a novel -- is "The Candidate."

"The Boys on the Bus" is a good call, b/c it's written so much like a novel anyway. Maybe that's the trick? America's great political novel is a work of journalism?

mugwump2 said...

The style may seem a bit mannered today, but no one novelist ever brought a keener eye to the exercise of politics and power than Henry Adams does in Democracy.

jnm said...

I read All the Kings Men as a 15 year old (44 years ago!) and still think it the best book I have ever read. Can you forget "Man is conceived in sin and born in corruption"? Or Willie Stark "You wanna know what my platform is? Here it is. I'm gonna soak the fat boys and spread it out thin." Populism never will(or ever should) lose its appeal. The basic point of the book - that even the finest men are flawed - is good tonic for anyone tempted to worship a politician.

There is another book genre no one has yet mentioned - books from the cold war era. Seven Days in May and Fail Safe. (And if you include movies, don't forget about Dr Strangelove.)

Mike Eaton said...

As mugwump2 said, Henry Adams' "Democracy." Literary, topical then (created a stir when it was published anonymously) and still very readable after 150 years. And very much about American politics ...

Keith said...

Howard, my money is on Allen Drury's "Advise and Consent".