From Works on Political, Social, and Cultural Criticism of Imaginative Literature
(with an emphasis on the nature and role of propaganda)
(1953) Nelson Algren, Nonconformity: “We live today in a laboratory of human suffering as vast and terrible as that in which Dickens and Dostoevsky wrote. The only real difference being that the England of Dickens and the Russia of Dostoevsky could not afford the soundscreens and the smokescreens with which we so ingeniously conceal our true condition from ourselves.
“So accustomed have we become to the testimony of the photo-weeklies, backed by witnesses from radio and TV, establishing us permanently as the happiest, healthiest, sanest, wealthiest, most inventive, tolerant and fun-loving folk yet to grace the earth of man, that we tend to forget that these are bought-and-paid-for witnesses and all their testimony perjured….
“‘Whin business gits above sellin’ ten-pinny nails in a brown-paper cornucopy,’ Mr. Dooley decided, ”tis hard to tell it from murder.’
“But behind Business’s billboards and Business’s headlines and Business’s pulpits and Business’s press and Business’s arsenals, behind the car ads and the subtitles and the commercials, the people of Dickens and Dostoevsky yet endure…. The lost and the overburdened…are still torn by the paradox of their own humanity; yet endure the ancestral problems of the heart in conflict with itself. Theirs are still the defeats in which everything is lost, theirs victories that fall close enough to the heart to afford living hope. Whose defeats cost everything of real value. Whose grief grieves on universal bones.
“And it is there the young man or woman seeking to report the American century seriously must seek, if it is the truth he seeks.” …
(1953) Gilbert Highet, People, Places, Books: “Satire is just as valuable a type of writing as lyric poetry or fiction; but it is far harder to bring off…. In order to write satire of any kind, one has to have a number of special talents, and also a special attitude to the public…. The public usually does not believe that anything is deeply wrong with society, and it often thinks that satirist is a sorehead. It has grown up and found a job and got married and brought up its children in the existing social framework. Why should it believe that the whole thing is tunneled through by gangsters, and bought and sold by crooked politicians, and redesigned to give the biggest profits to the ruthless and the corrupt? No, surely not. Therefore the satirist, who believes these things, usually strains his voice shouting, to making the public hear; and then the public is even less inclined to listen…. They are very amusing and penetrating, these contemporary satires. The only trouble is this: they don’t seem to matter much…. This, I regret to say, is the mid-twentieth century. What we need is a satirist bold enough to attack the crooks who run national politics in many countries; the parasites who make vast fortunes by buying something on Monday and selling it on Tuesday, usually to the government; the idealists who ship five million families off to labor camps in order to make their theories come right; the soreheads whose pride was hurt once and who are determined to start a war to take care of the bruise: the rats in the basement, the baboons playing with dynamite. Satire will not kill these animals; but it will make clear the difference between them and human beings, and perhaps inspire a human being to destroy them.”
“They are very amusing and penetrating, these contemporary satires. The only trouble is this: they don’t seem to matter much. Miss McCarthy spends a lot of care and observation on proving that the Dandelion League colleges are eccentric, confused, and hyper-emotional. Mr. Waugh exposes the burial ceremonies of the Californians with an odd blend of charm and callousness, like sweet-and-sour sauce. But such subjects are not terribly important. This, I regret to say, is the mid-twentieth century.”
(1955) Joseph L. Blotner, The Political Novel: “In The Charterhouse of Parma the witty and urbane Stendhal says, ‘Politics in a work of literature are like a pistol-shot in the middle of a concert, something loud and vulgar yet a thing to which it is not possible to refuse one’s attention.’ His own work contradicts the great French novelist, yet his comment is perfectly accurate for many other novelists. Politics in some modern novels of political corruption, such as Charles F. Coe’s Ashes, do seem loud and vulgar, and in books like Upton Sinclair’s the reader may hear not one pistol shot but a cannonade. But this is not to say that the use of political material must disrupt a work of literature. The trick, of course, is all in knowing how. Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote an artistically weak, politically successful work in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, while Fyodor Dostoyevsky produced a politically unsuccessful, artistically enduring classic in The Possessed….
“A political novel written from a point of view favoring a particular faction is a political instrument in effect even if not in intent. A writer may sternly tell himself at the outset that he will be completely impartial, only to have reviewers note all sorts of bias, real or imagined, of which he may not have been conscious. This happened to Turgenev when he published Fathers and Sons, and it continues to happen every year. The intensity of the authors’ feelings varies from obsessive preoccupation to passing interest. The novels in this chapter were included because they contain definite opinions, sometimes appeals, on political subjects. Some of them never exhort the reader or seem to lead him by the hand to the author’s point of view. But each of them contains material capable of influencing the reader’s opinions about some phase of political activity. If a novelist gains a reader’s support for a cause, arouses his distaste for a course of action, or simply produces a reevaluation of previously accepted beliefs, his work has served as a political instrument just as surely as a pamphlet mailed by a national committee or a handbill stuffed into the mailboxes of a sleeping city.”
(1955) Ralph Ellison, “The Art of Fiction: An Interview,” Collected essays, 2003; Shadow and Act, 1964: “I recognize no dichotomy between art and protest. Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground is, among other things, a protest against the limitations of nineteenth-century rationalism; Don Quixote, Man’s Fate, Oedipus Rex, The Trial—all these embody protest, even against the limitation of human life itself. If social protest is antithetical to art, what then shall we make of Goya, Dickens and Twain? One hears a lot of complaints about the so-called ‘protest novel,’ especially when written by Negroes, but it seems to me that the critics could more accurately complain about their lack of craftsmanship and the provincialism.”
(1956) Walter B. Rideout, The Radical Novel in the United States—1900-1954: “Taken in its entirety, then, a half-century of the radical novel has had its effect on and made a contribution to American literature. It has also affected and contributed to American life, not just uniquely, however, but as part of the whole larger course of the novel of social protest, that tradition which has proliferated so variously in the troubled twentieth century and which extends back into the nineteenth through the early Hamlin Garland and the Utopians, through Mark Twain, in some of his moods, back to, and well before, Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose Uncle Tom’s Cabin did as much to change the face of the nation as, perhaps, all the proletarian novels put together. This tradition, which is certainly a great, though not the only one, the radical novel of the present century has helped to continue. Despite their orientation toward Marxism, the Socialist, the proletarian, the independently radical novelists have not been able to obscure the fact that in essential ways they represented yet another manifestation of the American middle-class conscience, which has been the major force behind the literature of social criticism from Harriet Stowe down even to the present day. Viewed as part of a developing process, the radical novel shares in the value of the whole, the value of protest against the still limited democracy that is an affirmation of the democracy that can be. For protest is valuable, quite as valuable as that acceptance without which no continuing social organization is possible. Whether wrong-headed or right, protest will always be essential in order to stir our civilization into self-awareness and thus prevent it from stiffening into an inhuman immobility. In the frequently unwise thirties this rather elementary final statement would have been assumed. That it must now be asserted indicates that the fifties have their own particular lack of wisdom…” [In the 1992 introduction, Rideout notes: “Rereading The Radical Novel in the United States for the first time in decades…it struck me as a reasonably good book…though I did wonder how I could have had the patience to get through so many awful novels in order to reach the fewer worthwhile ones…. In a few reviews, two linked objections emerged…: first, that I had too rigidly limited my subject by defining a radical novel as ‘one which demonstrates, either explicitly or implicitly, that the author objects to the human suffering imposed by some socioeconomic system and advocates that the system be fundamentally changed.’ Granted this definition required me to discuss many bad novels and not to discuss certain better ones; but even bad novels can be illustrative, and it seemed, and still seems, to me that such a sociopolitical definition enabled me to treat in some depth a specifically sociopolitical genre of fiction aimed at fundamental change rather than at reform which would improve the system but not change it basically. Better a limiting definition, I would argue, than one which might turn out to be imprecise and overinclusive.” “My point may be clearer if I move to a second objection, a corollary of the first, that I should have written about the much more extensive fiction of ‘social protest.’ Suppose I had written or tried to write the kind of book these reviewers had wanted me to instead of the one I did. Quite aside from the probability that the ratio of bad to good social protest novels would be about the same as bad to good radical ones, I would have been faced with two problems: how should ‘the fiction of social protest’ be defined, and how could I, or anyone, hope to cover thoroughly in a single volume a very large and disunified field? For really, in American fiction just of the first half of the twentieth century there were many different kinds of social protest going on….”
(1957) Irving Howe, Politics and the Novel: “This book is meant primarily as a study of the relations between literature and ideas, though a considerable part of it, I should say, consists of literary criticism. My interest was far less in literature as social evidence or testimony than in the literary problem of what happens to the novel when it is subjected to the pressures of politics and political ideology. In discussing nineteenth century writers I have employed more or less conventional methods of criticism, while in treating twentieth century writers I have found myself placing a greater stress upon politics and ideology as such; but this was not the result of any preconceived decision, it was a gradual shift in approach that seemed to be required by the nature of the novels themselves” (11).
“The greatest of all political novels, The Possessed, was written with the explicit purpose of excommunicating all beliefs that find salvation anywhere but in the Christian God. ‘I mean to utter certain thoughts,’ wrote Dostoevsky, ‘whether all the artistic side of it goes to the dogs or not…even if it turns into a mere pamphlet, I shall say all that I have in my heart.’ Fortunately Dostoevsky could not suppress his ‘artistic side’ and by the time his book reaches its end it has journeyed through places of the head and heart undreamed of in his original plan. But whatever else it does, The Possessed proves nothing of the kind that might be accessible to proof in ‘a mere pamphlet.’ For while a political novel can enrich our sense of human experience, while it can complicate and humanize our commitments, it is only very rarely that it will alter those commitments themselves. And when it does so, the political novel is engaged in a task of persuasion which is not really its central or distinctive purpose. I find it hard to imagine, say, a serious socialist being dissuaded from his belief by a reading of The Possessed, though I should like equally to think that the quality and nuance of that belief can never be quite as they were before he read The Possessed.
“Because it exposes the impersonal claims of ideology to the pressures of private emotion, the political novel must always be in a state of internal warfare, always on the verge of becoming something other than itself. The political novelist—the degree to which he is aware of this is another problem—establishes a complex system of intellectual movements, in which his own opinion is one of the most active yet not entirely dominating movers. Are we not close here to one of the ‘secrets’ of the novel in general?—I mean the vast respect which the great novelist is ready to offer to the whole idea of opposition, the opposition he needs to allow for in his book against his own predispositions and yearnings and fantasies. He knows that his own momentum, his own intentions, can be set loose easily enough; but he senses, as well, that what matters most of all is to allow for those rocks against which his intentions may smash but, if he is lucky, they may merely bruise. Even as the great writer proudly affirms the autonomy of his imagination, even as he makes the most severe claims for his power of imposing his will upon the unformed materials his imagination has brought up to him, he yet acknowledges that he must pit himself against the imperious presence of the necessary. And in the political novel it is politics above all, politics as both temptation and impediment, that represents the necessary.”
“[…] The criteria for evaluation of a political novel must finally be the same as those for any other novel: how much of our life does it illuminate? how ample a moral vision does it suggest?—but these questions occur to us in a special context, in that atmosphere of political struggle which dominates modern life. For both the writer and the reader, the political novel provides a particularly severe test: politics rakes our passions as nothing else, and whatever we may consent to overlook in reading a novel, we react with an almost demonic rapidity to a detested political opinion. For the writer the great test is, how much truth can he force through the sieve of his opinions? For the reader the great test is, how much of that truth can he accept though it jostle his opinions?” (22-24).
(1957) Ben Shahn, The Shape of Content: “Some critics consider any mention of content a display of bad taste. Some, more innocent and more modern, have been taught – schooled – to look at paintings in such a way as to make them wholly unaware of content…. But again, we must look upon form as the shape of content…
“…form is the right and only possible shape of a certain content. Some other kind of form would have conveyed a different meaning and a different attitude. So when we sit in judgment upon a certain kind of form – and it is usually called lack of form – what we do is to sit in judgment upon a certain type of content.”
“While I concede that almost every situation has its potential artist, that someone will find matter for imagery almost everywhere, I am generally mistrustful of contrived situations, that is situations peculiarly set up to favor the blossoming of art. I feel that they may vitiate the sense of independence which is present to some degree in all art…. One wonders how Cézanne would have progressed if he had been cordially embraced by the Academy. I am plagued by an exasperating notion: What if Goya, for instance, had been granted a Guggenheim, and then, completing that, had stepped into a respectable and cozy teaching job in some small – but advanced! – New England college, and had thus been spared the agonies of the Spanish Insurrection? The unavoidable conclusion is that we would never have had ‘Los Caprichos’ or ‘Los Desastres de la Guerra’….
“Thus, it is not unimaginable that art arises from something stronger than stimulation or even inspiration – that it may take fire from something closer to provocation, that it may not just turn to life, but that it may a certain times be compelled by life. Art almost always has its ingredient of impudence, its flouting of established authority, so that it may substitute its own authority, and its own enlightenment.”
“I believe that if the university’s fostering of art is only kindly, is only altruistic, it may prove to be also meaningless. If, on the other hand, the creative arts, the branches of art scholarship, the various departments or art are to be recognized as an essential part of education, a part without which the individual will be deemed less than educated, then I suppose that art and the arts will feel that degree of independence essential to them; that they will accept it as their role to create freely – to comment, to outrage, perhaps, to be fully visionary and exploratory as is their nature.
“Art should be well-subsidized, yes. But the purchase of a completed painting or a sculpture, the commissioning of a mural – or perhaps the publication of a poem or a novel or the production of a play – all these forms of recognition are the rewards of mature work. They are not to be confused with the setting up of something not unlike a nursery school in which the artist may be spared any conflict, any need to strive quite intently toward command of his medium and his images; in which he may be spared even the need to make desperate choices among his own values and his wants, the need to reject many seeming benefits or wishes. For it is through such conflicts that his values becomes sharpened; perhaps it is only through conflicts that he comes to know himself at all.
“It is only within the context of real life that an artist (or anyone) is forced to make such choices. And it is only against a background of hard reality that choices count, that they affect a life, and carry with them that degree of believe and dedication and, I think I can say, spiritual energy, that is a primary force in art. I do not know whether that degree of intensity can exist within the university; it is one of the problems which an artist must consider if he is to live there or work there.”
(1957) Wimsatt and Brooks, Literary Criticism: A Short History: “In Czarist Russia of the mid-19th–century, a didactic theory of literature was strongly invited not only by political and social conditions but by the actual pre-eminence of a generation of socially conscious novelists…. The greatest Russian literary figure to participate in the 19th-century complex of socio-realistic theory and the writer whose pronouncements on art have impinged with most authority on the English literary mind, was undoubtedly Tolstoy—‘the conscience of Russia’ in his time, ‘the conscience of the world’ ‘the conscience of humanity’…. He was in his middle age a violent convert to a kind of Christian thinking. A period of furious tractarian activity followed the production of the great novels. And it is a religious theory of literature that near the end of his life issues in his thunderously deliberate denunciation of all that he himself and all that European artists for 300 years had created…. The destruction of the idea ‘art for art’s sake’ and the reconstruction of art as a monitor and propagandist for the social process is the gist of Tolstoy’s preachment, and this has been also the monotonous burden of subsequent Marxist criticism in Russia and the instructed echoes of this in English and American writing which sounded in the later 1920’s and the 1930’s… In America the idea of a socially activist literature appears during the first decades of the 20th century with the ‘muckraking’ movement (of which Upton Sinclair’s Mammonart, 1924, may stand as the sufficient symbol) and after that in the overtly Marxist criticism of the later twenties and the thirties—the work of such writers as Michael Gold, editor of the New Masses, Joseph Freeman, editor of the anthology Proletarian Literature in the United States, 1935, and V.F. Calverton, editor of the Modern Quarterly….” [Ignored here, among others, W.E.B. DuBois, editor of Crisis] “A major monument was Vernon Louis Parrington’s three-volume Main Currents in American thought (1927-1930)…. Marxism and the forms of social criticism more closely related to it [V.L. Parrington, et. al.] have never had any real concern with literature and literary problems. In this country the cause enlisted some keen journalistic and literary minds. But a number of them, like Max Eastman as editor of The Masses, avoided sociology in their literary criticism. Eastman shied away from doctrinal and scientific claims for literature and worked up a theory of vivid sensory realization that belongs rather in the tradition of art for art’s sake. Edmund Wilson in Axel’s Castle, 1931, made gestures acknowledging the social responsibility of the artist but only as if in atonement for his having dwelt at such length among the mysteries of symbolism. As early as the anthology acclaiming Proletarian Literature in 1935, the editors of the Partisan Review were observing a flow of ‘gush’ and ‘invective,’ in place of analysis, and the exercise of Marxism as a ‘sentiment’ rather than a ‘science.’ James T. Farrell’s A Note on Literary Criticism, 1936, is a critique by an ‘amateur Marxist’ of the party-line simplifications. By 1939 it was possible for the Partisan editor Philip Rahv to write an essay under the title ‘Proletarian Literature: A Political Autopsy.’ Marxist naturalism persists in American letters today less as a proclaimed cause than as a deeply rooted sympathy (A Gnostic utopianism) ready with each shift in political or literary dialectics to exert itself in a new stratagem” (460-471).
Bibliography – 1800s to 2003
Critical Excerpts – 1883 to 2003
Social and Political Novel
Social and Political Literature