From Works on Political, Social, and Cultural Criticism of Imaginative Literature (with an emphasis on the nature and role of propaganda)
(1964) “American writers have repeatedly been worried, confused, or angered—rarely amused—by the irreconcilability of American ideals and American experience, and one result of this sense of the gulf between the way things should be and the way things are, has been a readiness to regard the novel as a political instrument. English reform movements have tended to be dominated by intellectuals, whose preferred media have been the essay and, occasionally, the problem play. In seeking to achieve radical alterations in society, they have not directly sought mass support; in fact, much of their attention has been directed to the problem of restraining popular unrest and of guiding it into the most profitable channels. …the novels of Ignatius Donnelly, Edward Bellamy, William Dean Howells and many others were the often unsubtle but nonetheless powerful advocates of a wide variety of political doctrines and Utopian dreams. At the end of the nineteenth century, writers such as Gustavus Myers, Jacob Riis, and Lincoln Steffens showed that straight reporting might in certain circumstances be more effective than fiction, but Jack London and Upton Sinclair, more doctrinaire in their approach to social problems, continued to preach socialism through the medium of the novel—presumable because it was wider in its circulation, simpler in its appeal, and less hampered by the discipline of observable fact.
“In addition to these narrowly political writers there have been the many novelists of social protest. Early in the century there were the ‘muckrakers,’ such as Winston Churchill, William Allen White, Robert Herrick, and Ernest Poole; later came Anderson, Dos Passos, Steinbeck, the ‘proletarians,’ and Norman Mailer. For all the differences between them, such novelists of social protest have at least one thing in common: They approach society not in a responsive or sensitive way but with their minds already made up; they come armed not only with their talents but with a theory. It is of the essence of the novelist’s job that he should impose a pattern upon his material, but these novelists impose a pattern not of art but, in the broadest sense, of politics. “[…] It can be argued that the delineation of society as such is a dubious undertaking for any artist. Again and again the material takes charge, as it does in Dreiser; or the political intention takes charge, as in so many of the novelists of social protest; or there is a tendency for the social material, the ‘information,’ to become separated out from the ostensible action of the novel…. The proper function of social description in a novel must be to define and illuminate the human predicament. This is something which English novelists seem almost automatically to have accepted. Many American novelists have not accepted it, and they have often squandered their powers as a result” (196-200).
“In the last analysis, what we ask of the social novelist is not so much that he should reflect our view of society, but that he should make us see society his way” (205) and that such novelists “look beyond [the national experience] to the universal human experience of which it is inevitably a part” (212). “In admiring the novels of George Eliot, we need to remember that what seems to us the accuracy of her social observation is in some degree an indication of her greatness as a novelist, of her power to make us accept the image of society she presents. It matters little whether or not William Faulkner’s novels give an ‘accurate’ picture of the South; what matters supremely is that Faulkner presents his South, the world of Yoknapatawpha County, solidly and vividly, both as a setting and as a conditioning environment…” (205).
–Michael Millgate, American Social Fiction
(1965) “It can be said at once, I should think, that we are all agreed upon the most important point: that morality as shown through human relationships is the whole heart of fiction, and the serious writer has never lived who dealt with anything else. And yet, the zeal to reform, which quite properly inspires the editorial, has never done fiction much good. The exception occurs when it can rise to the intensity of satire, where it finds a better home in the poem or the drama.”
–Eudora Welty, “Must the Novelist Crusade” (1965), in The Eye of the Story (1978)
(1978) “A study of the writer as a critic of society that ends with science-fiction fantasies and anti-war novels such as A Clockwork Orange, Fahrenheit 451, Slaughterhouse 5 and Catch-22 had better acquire what academic respectability it can by starting with the ancient Greeks, with Plato in fact. In Plato’s Republic, that early blueprint for a benevolent dictatorship and first example of Utopian fantasy, no place can be found for the imaginative writer. In justification Plato gives three reasons. The poet, he argues, deals with reality at two removes. He tells lies about the gods and heroes, a complaint that is not difficult to translate into terms that would be applicable to any modern dictatorship. And he appeals to emotions, when he should appeal to man’s noblest faculty, the reason. ‘We shall,’ says Plato ‘bow down before a being with such miraculous powers of giving pleasure; but we shall tell him that we are not allowed to have any such person in our commonwealth; we shall crown him with fillets of wool, anoint his head with myrrh, and conduct him to another country’ (Republic, Book 10). Regretfully, because Plato is certainly not unaware of the sublime powers possessed by the inspired poet, but firmly and magisterially, this stern moral puritan dismisses the poet from his ideal state. Here, then, in Plato’s Republic, we have the first memorable statement of the clash between two ideals of order: the inspired order of the artist and the imposed order of the state, an opposition that permeates Romantic and post-Romantic literature. And in exiling the artist from his ideal state, Plato is the first to create for him that very modern role, the Outsider….
“The successful critic of society, it may be suggested, is the writer who learns the wisdom of indirection. He is the writer who learns to combine instruction with delight, without in any way compromising his integrity of blunting the force of his social criticism. Some literary forms are especially suited to methods of indirect attack: satire, for example. From the time of the Greeks onwards, satirists have invented a variety of ways to maintain apparent detachment and the indirect approach, while pressing home their attack. The three commonest forms are the beast fable, the imaginary journey, and the Utopian fantasy. The beast fable has been used by the Greek dramatist Aristophanes in the Frogs, by Chaucer in the Nun’s Priest’s Tale, and by George Orwell in Animal Farm. Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels provides a model for the imaginary journey, while the history of literary utopias stretches—to take it no further—from More’s sixteenth-century Utopia, to Butler’s Erewhon (1872), Morris’s News From Nowhere (1891), and Huxley’s Brave New World (1932). It is essential for the satirist’s purpose to shock us into seeing our own familiar world through unfamiliar eyes; some radical change of perspective is therefore absolutely necessary. Each of the three devices, the beast fable, the imaginary journey, and Utopian fantasy achieves this end” (1-2).
–John Colmer, “The Writer as Critic of Society,” Coleridge to Catch-22: Images of Society
(1983) “If we refer to the nineteenth century as the Age of Ideology, then it seems even more appropriate to regard the present century as the Age of Propaganda…. The relationship of literature and art to propaganda is not at all straightforward, and would in any case be dismissed as insignificant by many modern critics, whose evaluative criteria would lead them to make a distinction between ‘real literature’ and ‘tendentious’ writing. Even so, George Orwell, who stated that ‘all art is to some extent propaganda’…, was probably closer to the truth than Hitler, who on one occasion was heard echoing the popular view that ‘art has nothing to do with propaganda’…. Not the least of ironies contained in these seemingly contradictory statements is the fact that Hitler’s remarks were addressed to Josef Goebbels who, as head of the Reich Ministry for Popular Enlightenment and Propaganda, had attempted to create a state apparatus for thought control which could have served as a model for the perfect totalitarian state depicted in Orwell’s novel Nineteen-Eighty-Four…. Propaganda does not often come marching towards us waving swastikas and chanting ‘Seig Heil’; its power lies in its capacity to conceal itself, to appear natural, to coalesce completely and indivisibly with the values and accepted power symbols of a given society. When Hitler claimed that art had nothing to do with propaganda he was anticipating a perfectly integrated Nationalist Socialist Germany whose art would spontaneously and unthinkingly reproduce the desired images and perceptions. Even in the early revolutionary period of the Third Reich, Goebbels, who had objected to the word propaganda being used in the title of his Ministry, insisted that ‘news is best given out in such a way that it appears to be without comment but is itself tendentious’…. If a simple principle can be derived from the discussion so far, it is that the recognition of propaganda can be seen as a function of the ideological distance which separates the observer from the act of communication observed…. Hitler’s assertion that art has nothing to do with propaganda does not contradict Orwell’s statement that all art is propaganda, but is rather contained within it, for the propaganda-free art which Hitler envisaged was an art within which the values and beliefs of National Socialism would be dominant, invisible and totally natural. This ‘illusion of pure aestheticism’ was for Orwell a reminder that ‘propaganda in some form or other lurks in every book, that every work of art has a meaning and a purpose—a political, social and religious purpose—that our aesthetic judgements are always coloured by our prejudices and beliefs’…. Although there is no ready-made method for detecting propaganda, we can become aware of the general categories in which it manifests itself and we can attempt to classify its techniques and forms…. This approach does not mean that we must study literature as a set of documents rather than as a set of aesthetic objects. For in effect it denies the validity of such a distinction by assuming that the propagandistic or demystifying moment of literary communication may be inseparable from its aesthetic function….”
–A. P. Foulkes, Literature and Propaganda (from the Introduction and Conclusion)
Bibliography – 1800s to 2003
Critical Excerpts – 1883 to 2003
Social and Political Novel
Social and Political Literature