Political Literary Criticism: 1903-2003

Some brief excerpts:

(1903) Frank Norris, The Responsibilities of the Novelist: “[The novel] may be a great force, that works together with the pulpit and the universities for the good of the people, fearlessly proving that power is abused, that the strong grind the faces of the weak, that an evil tree is still growing in the midst of the garden, that undoing follows hard upon unrighteousness, that the course of Empire is not yet finished, and that the races of men have yet to work out their destiny in those great and terrible movements that crush and grind and rend asunder the pillars of the houses of the nations.”

(1924) Upton Sinclair, Mammonart: “Mankind is today under the spell of utterly false conceptions of what art is and should be; of utterly vicious and perverted standards of beauty and dignity. We list six great art lies now prevailing in the world, which this book will discuss: Lie Number One: the Art for Art’s Sake lie; the notion that the end of art is in the art work, and that the artist’s sole task is perfection of form. It will be demonstrated that this lie is a defensive mechanism of artists run to seed, and that its prevalence means degeneracy, not merely in art, but in the society where such art appears. Lie Number Two: the lie of Art Snobbery; the notion that art is something esoteric, for the few, outside the grasp of the masses. It will be demonstrated that with few exceptions of a special nature, great art has always been popular art, and great artists have swayed the people….”

(1924) Morris Edmund Speare, The Political Novel: Its Development in England and in America: “By the very reach and grasp which the genre of the political novel possesses, it is the most embracing in its material of all other novel types… Wars, industrial adventure, economic adjustment, commercial progress, diplomacy in foreign lands, social experiences of every kind, education, art, science, discovery and exploration, expansion and internal development–all are grist for his mill, all may be gathered into his dragnet, if the writer pleases to make use of them….

“…the political novelist, if he is to be true to his craft, must be dominated, more often than not, but ideas rather than by emotions–the presentation of powerful forces working across large areas, of customs and forces potent in their influences upon the national life, and not the simple habits and prejudices and country-church yard epithets of an unsung humanity. That is what we mean by an intellectual interpretation of the novel, not a social one….”

(1926) W.E.B. DuBois, African American Literary Criticism, 1773-2000 (Hazel Arnett Ervin, Ed.): “…all art is propaganda and ever must be, despite the wailing of the purists. I stand in utter shamelessness and say that whatever art I have for writing has been used always for propaganda for gaining the right of black folk to love and enjoy. I do not care a damn for any art that is not used for propaganda.”

(1932) V. F. Calverton, The Liberation of American Literature: “Revolutionary art has to be good art first before it can have deep meaning, just as apples in a revolutionary country as well as in a reactionary country have to be good apples before they can be eaten with enjoyment.”

(1934) John Dewey, Art as Experience: “The moral office and human function of art can be intelligently discussed only in context of culture. A particular work of art may have a definite effect upon a particular person or upon a number of persons. The social effect of the novels of Dickens or of Sinclair Lewis is far from negligible. But a less conscious and more massed constant adjustment of experience proceeds from the total environment that is created by the collective art of a time….”

(1935) Joseph Freeman, “Introduction,” Proletarian Literature in the United States, (Granville Hicks, Ed., et. al.): “To characterize an essay or a book as a political pamphlet is neither to praise nor to condemn it. Such pamphlets have their place in the world. In the case of the liberal critic, however, we have a political pamphlet which pretends to be something else. We have an attack on the theory of art as a political weapon which turns out to be itself a political weapon… The liberal critic, the Man in White, wants us to believe that when you write about the autumn wind blowing a girl’s hair or about ‘thirsting breasts,’ you are writing about ‘experience’; but when you write about the October Revolutions, or the Five Year Plan, or the lynching of Negroes in the South, or the San Francisco strike you are not writing about ‘experience’…”

(1936) James T. Farrell, “Literature and Propaganda,” A Note on Literary Criticism: “I think that literature must be viewed both as a branch of the fine arts and as an instrument of social influence. It is this duality, intrinsic to literature, that produces unresolved problems of literary criticism…. I suggest that in the field of literature the formula ‘All art is propaganda’ be replaced by another: ‘Literature is an instrument of social influence…”. [Literature] can be propaganda–in the more limited sense of my definition of propaganda; and it can sometimes perform an objective social function that approaches agitation. However, it often performs neither of these functions and yet does perform an objective social function… I am making these distinctions on the grounds of strategy and clarity, so that we may know what we are doing and what we are talking about.”

(1939) Bernard Smith, Forces in American Criticism: “‘propaganda’ is not used here as an invidious term. It is used to describe works consciously written to have an immediate and direct effect upon their readers’ opinions and actions, as distinguished from works that are not consciously written for that purpose or which are written to have a remote and indirect effect. It is possible that conventional critics have learned by now that to call a literary work ‘propaganda’ is to say nothing about its quality as literature. By now enough critics have pointed out that some of the world’s classics were originally ‘propaganda’ for something.”

(1940) Roger Dataller, The Plain Man and the Novel: “That Charles Dickens assisted the reform of the Poor Law, and Charles Reade that of the Victorian prison system, is undeniable; but exact measurement is beyond the reach of even the most ardent of social investigators. Such novels influence’.”

(1940) Edmund Wilson, “The Historical Interpretation of Literature,” 1940, later published in The Triple Thinkers: “I want to talk about the historical interpretation of literature–that is, about the interpretation of literature in its social, economic and political aspects…. In my view, all our intellectual activity, in whatever field it takes place, is an attempt to give a meaning to our experience–that is, to make life more practicable; for by understanding things we make it easier to survive and get around among them…. The experience of mankind on the earth is always changing as man develops and has to deal with new combinations of elements; and the writer who is to be anything more than an echo of his predecessors must always find expression for something which has never yet been expressed, must master a new set of phenomena which has never yet been mastered….”

(1941) Kenneth Burke, “The Nature of Art Under Capitalism,” The Philosophy of Literary Form: “The present article proposes to say something further on the subject of art and propaganda. It will attempt to set forth a line of reasoning as to why the contemporary emphasis must be placed largely upon propaganda, rather than upon ‘pure’ art…. Since pure art makes for acceptance, it tends to become a social menace in so far as it assists us in tolerating the intolerable. And if it leads us to a state of acquiescence at a time when the very basis of moral integration is in question, we get a paradox whereby the soundest adjunct to ethics, the aesthetic, threatens to uphold an unethical condition. For this reason it seems that under conditions of competitive capitalism there must necessarily be a large corrective or propaganda element in art. Art cannot safely confine itself to merely using the values which arise out of a given social texture and integrating their conflicts, as the soundest, ‘purest’ art will do. It must have a definite hortatory function, an educational element of suasion or inducement; it must be partially forensic. Such a quality we consider to be the essential work of propaganda…. And incidentally, our distinction as so stated should make it apparent that much of the so-called ‘pure’ art of the nineteenth century was of a pronouncedly propagandist or corrective coloring. In proportion as the conditions of economic warfare grew in intensity throughout the ‘century of progress,’ and the church proper gradually adapted its doctrines to serve merely the protection of private gain and the upholding of manipulated law, the ‘priestly’ function was carried on by the ‘secular’ poets, often avowedly agnostic.”

(1942) Alfred Kazin, On Native Grounds: “We live in a day when the brilliance of some of our critics seems to me equaled only by their barbarism. In my study in Chapter XIV of the twin fanaticisms that have sought to dominate criticism in America since 1930–the purely sociological and the purely textual-‘esthetic’ approach–I have traced some of the underlying causes for the aridity, the snobbery, the sheer human insensitiveness that have weighted down so much of the most serious criticism of our day….”

(1943) George Orwell, “The Freedom of the Press” (Excerpt from the suppressed preface to Animal Farm; published 1972 in the Times Literary Supplement, also 1993, in the Everyman’s Library edition of Animal Farm): “The sinister fact about literary censorship in England is that it is largely voluntary. Unpopular ideas can be silenced, and inconvenient facts kept dark, without the need for any official ban…. The British press is extremely centralized, and most of it is owned by wealthy men who have every motive to be dishonest on certain important topics. But the same kind of veiled censorship also operates in books and periodicals, as well as in plays, films and radio. At any given moment there is an orthodoxy, a body of ideas which it is assumed that all right-thinking people will accept without question. It is not exactly forbidden to say this, that or the other, but it is ‘not done’ to say it, just as in mid-Victorian times it was ‘not done’ to mention trouser in the presence of a lady. Anyone who challenges the prevailing orthodoxy finds himself silenced with surprising effectiveness. A genuinely unfashionable opinion is almost never given a fair hearing, either in the popular press or in the highbrow periodicals.”

(1947) Philip S. Foner, The Social Writings of Jack London: “The end of the nineteenth century found the nation in a state of great social and political unrest. It found expression in the rise of the labor movement, furious battles between labor and capital, and the political conflict between farmers, workers and small businessmen on one hand and the powerful monopolies on the other. Yet throughout this turbulent period there was a curious dichotomy between literature and life…. Beginning with Rebecca Harding Davis’ “Life in the Iron Mills” in The Atlantic of April, 1861, probably the earliest treatment of the lives of industrial workers that approached realism, American fiction since the Civil War had occasionally piped a rather feeble note of social criticism…. Upon this scene stepped several young writers who at the turn of the century blazed new trails in American literature…[Stephen Crane and Frank Norris especially]. Crane and Norris were the pioneers of realism in modern American literature, but their writings did not reflect the most important issue confronting the American people in their day–the furious battle between capital and labor…. Another American writer was emerging who was interested not only in exposing cruelties and oppressions in the economic system, but in remaking it and building a new and better social order. This was Jack London…. February of 1908 saw the book published which brought lasting fame to London’s name the world over, The Iron Heel, a rare and prophetic novel–the most revolutionary novel in American literature…. With an amazing insight into the mechanism of the capitalist system, London was able to catch tendencies in motion in modern society which went unnoticed by most of his socialist colleagues…. The Iron Heel is the name that London gives to the oligarchy of American capitalists who seized power when there was danger of a socialist victory at the polls…. The book met with instant derision by the majority of the critics….”

(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.”

(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.”

(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…. 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 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: “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?…. 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.”

(1958) Maxwell Geismar, American Moderns–From Rebellion to Conformity: “The American literary scene of the Forties and Fifties must have presented to the rest of the world an odd and ironic spectacle at times; and perhaps the polemical note was indicated; and meanwhile I trust that this spectacle may also be instructive…. [An] emotional syndrome of fear, terror, obsessional hatred, and perhaps underground attraction, of which [John] Dos Passos is the clearest example, has colored and conditioned our whole intellectual climate during the last decade. It accounts for our strange concentration of anxiety on the one ritualistic theme of anticommunism, by which every other issue has come to be measured. Thus our crucial domestic battles have been fought out on the popular level, while our intellectual journals have hardly dared to mention them. Our best literary work has come from writers who are outside this intellectual orbit, where panic has slowly subsided into inertia.”

(1962) Edwin Muir, The Estate of Poetry: “I’ve been trying to measure the gap between the public and the poet, and to find some explanation why it is so great…. And it may be said that [the public; readers] will get more help, both in enjoyment and understanding, from the traditional critic who tells them what the poem means to him, than from the new one who warns them that it cannot possibly mean what it appears to mean, so that he has no choice left but to explain it. The divorce between the public audience and the poet is widened by this critical method; or perhaps one should rather say that the method legalizes the divorce as a settled and normal state. And that is what we feel to be wrong…”

(1964) Michael Millgate, American Social Fiction: “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…[and that such novelists]…look beyond [the national experience] to the universal human experience of which it is inevitably a part….”

(1973) Tom Wolfe, The New Journalism: “By at least the latter half of the twentieth century: the most serious, ambitious and, presumably, talented novelists had abandoned the richest terrain of the novel: namely, society, the social tableau, manners and morals, the whole business of ‘the way we live now,’ in Trollope’s phrase…. Novelists routinely accepted the unpleasant task of doing reporting, legwork, ‘digging,’ in order to get it just right. That was part of the process of writing novels. Dickens travels to three towns in Yorkshire using a false name and pretending to be looking for a school for the son of a widowed friend … in order to get inside the notorious Yorkshire boarding schools to gather material for Nicholas Nickleby. Social realists like Dickens and Balzac seemed so often to delight in realism pure and simple that it was held against them throughout their careers. Neither was regarded as a literary artist in his own lifetime (Balzac was not even invited into the French Academy).”

(1975) Robert Alter, “History and the New American Novel” (in Motives for Fiction, 1984): “If much of this fiction [‘black humor’] has been obsessed with the war and the terrible revelation of the nature of history embodied in the war, the writers, following the general logic of obsessions, have addressed themselves more to the materials of recurrent fantasy than to their ostensibly objective referents. What I am suggesting is that these novelists, even (or perhaps especially) when their surface details are most insistently historical, have been concerned with something very different from history. Indeed, one frequently finds their adversary impulse toward contemporary reality accompanied by a predisposition to dismiss it impatiently, not to bother with imagining it in any complex way. This quality was shrewdly observed a number of years ago by Burton Feldman in a trenchant critique of black humor (Dissent, March-April 1968): ‘For all the violence of its assault on American culture, black Humor gives no sense that this enemy is worth attacking. It is only there, a middle-class moonscape; and then Black Humor slips off into fantasy and parody…’.”

“If the end of history is at hand, historical time being only a welter of statistical events, without causal links, all bent on destruction, there is no objective ground for narrative structure; calculated formal design must substitute for anything like development in the novel; and perhaps most critical, there are no criteria for selectivity in the novelist’s shuttle between history and invention…. If history is no longer a realm of concatenation, if there are no necessary connections among discrete events and no possibility of a hierarchy of materials ranged along some scale of significance, any associative chain of fantasies, any crotchety hobbyistic interest, any technical fascination with the rendering of odd trivia, can be pursued by the novelist as legitimately as the movement of supposedly ‘significant’ actions. The end of history [in novels], in other words, is a writer’s license for self-indulgence, and Pynchon utilizes that license for page after dreary page of Gravity’s Rainbow…. The lack of selectivity leads to local flaws; the unwillingness to make differential judgments about historical events results in a larger inadequacy of the novel as a whole.”

(1978) John Colmer, “The Writer as Critic of Society,” Coleridge to Catch-22: Images of Society: “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.”

(1980) Robert Alter, “The American Political Novel,” Motives for Fiction: “What is particularly troubling about [Robert Coover’s The Public Burning]–and virtually the same could be said about the political novels of Pynchon and Barth–is the astonishing degree of puerility it exhibits, [including an ending that] like much of the sexual and scatological imaginings of Pynchon, Barth, and others, finally directs us more to the psychology of the writer than to any political referent, expressing ultimately a child’s fantasy…. One may wonder why so many gifted and serious novelists have chosen to treat politics in such a fundamentally unserious fashion…. One would think that the political novel, perhaps more than other kinds of fiction, requires adult intelligence…. The novel’s great strength as a mode of apprehension is in its grasp of character, and the political novel at its best can show concretely and subtly what politics does to character, what character makes of politics…. When horror, absurdity, bizarre incongruity, and conscious and unconscious madness come to dominate the institutions and public acts of political life, and political protest as well, fictional invention may pale by contrast or overstrain itself in the effort of competition with reality. Perhaps in such a predicament one valuable service a novelist can perform is to try to come to grips directly with actual events. It may well be that at this point in history we all need the aid of the novelist’s imagination simply to help us imagine what seems to be more and more unimaginable…the real world in which we have to live, make decisions individually and collectively, and still struggle to shape a livable political future.”

(1980) Lennard J. Davis, “A Social History of Fact and Fiction” (in Literature and Society, Ed., Edward Said): “In the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century…the word novel seems to have been used interchangeably with the word news…and both were applied freely to writings about true or fictional events…. The nexus between news and novels is a powerful one because it allows us to see that fictional narratives, by participating in a journalistic discourse, are also parts of an information-disseminating system that is by definition social. Raymond Williams has aptly referred to literature as social language and social practice–and I think by showing that novels were part of the journalistic discourse, we can add dimensions to the concept of ‘social language’.”

(1980) Michael Wilding, Political Fictions: “Jack London’s The Iron Heel details the lengths to which capitalism will go to hold off the achievement of socialism…. The ballot is tied to big business; if by some chance the socialists win an election, despite attempts by big business to prevent that from happening, then the trusts will remove the elected socialists from power…. The Iron Heel [reflects] present realities…a world of USA-based multinational corporations working in accord with and through secret agencies, like the CIA, to topple socialism and set up reactionary regimes in South America, Asia, and Australia…. The conscious and deliberate complementing of popular romance narrative with the documentary tone of the footnotes and the theoretical discussions within the body of the novel, the juxtaposition of narrative flow with fragmentation, produce the unique tone of The Iron Heel. London is writing about revolution, and produces a revolutionary experiment in form….”

(1983) A. P. Foulkes, Literature and Propaganda (from the Introduction and Conclusion): “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’….”

(1987) Noam Chomsky, Noam Chomsky [biography by Milan Rai]: “If Orwell, instead of writing 1984–which was actually, in my opinion, his worst book, a kind of trivial caricature of the most totalitarian society in the world, which made him famous and everybody loved him, because it was the official enemy–if instead of doing that easy and relatively unimportant thing, he had done the hard and important thing, namely talk about Orwell’s Problem [regarding England and western states], he would not have been famous and honored: he would have been hated and reviled and marginalized.” (Orwell’s Problem: [how is it that oppressive ideological systems are able to] “instill beliefs that are firmly held and widely accepted although they are completely without foundation and often plainly at variance with the obvious facts about the world around us?”)

(1987) Barbara Harlow, Resistance Literature: “Resistance literature, as this study has attempted to show, has in the past played a vital role in the historical struggle of the resistance movements in the context of which it was written (200). That same literature continues to enlist readers and critics in the First as in the Third Worlds in the active reconstruction of interrupted histories. Omar Cabezas, former FSLN guerilla and author of The Mountain is Something More than a Great Expanse of Green (published in English as Fire from the Mountain), and now head of the Nicaraguan Ministry of the Interior’s Political Section, still maintains that:”

To have participated as a guerilla, to have written this book, son of a bitch: it’s dealt a real blow to the enemy. You feel like you could die after something like that. After that book and one more. Or that book and two more. Or that book and five more. Or just that book. What I want to say is it’s dealt a blow to imperialism. I saw a photo, once, of a dead guerilla in a Latin American country, and they showed everything he had in his knapsack: his plate, his spoon, his bedroll, his change of clothing, and The Mountain is Something More than a Great Expanse of Green. And I think back to when I was a guerilla; when a guerilla carries a book in his knapsack, it really means something.

(1988) Vincent B. Leitch, “Leftist Criticism from the 1960s to the 1980s,” American Literary Criticism from the 30s to the 80s: “What was odd about the Marxist criticism of this [1970s] Renaissance associated with the post-1950s new left and the Movement was its complete disregard of the old left. Mention was never made of V. F. Calverton, James T. Farrell, Granville Hicks, Bernard Smith, Edmund Wilson, or other Leftist Critics prominent in the thirties. The native tradition of radicalism stemming from the nineteenth century had been forgotten during the heyday of the new left…. In H. Bruce Franklin’s view, what was wrong with academic literary professionals was their thorough immersion in the bourgeois ideology of formalism, which itself was rooted in the counterrevolutionary antiproletarianism of the thirties. ‘In the present era, formalism is the use of aestheticism to blind us to social and moral reality’…. Rather than an instrument or weapon of ruling-class oppression, literature was potentially liberating [in the view of Louis Kampf], provided it was set within a living context close to daily life and removed from its sacrosanct place in the great tradition…. The task of the radical critic was to destroy received dogmas and procedures, letting literature be an instrument of agitation and resistance and a force for freedom and genuine liberation. …’Those of us who are literary intellectuals and teachers ought to illustrate in our work that the arts are not alone available to those who are genteel’….”

(1990) Toni Cade Bambara, Black Women Writers at Work (Claudia Tate, Ed.): “I start with the recognition that we are at war, and that war is not simply a hot debate between the capitalist camp and socialist camp over which economic/political/social arrangement will have hegemony in the world. It’s not just the battle over turf and who has the right to utilize resources for whomsoever’s benefit. The war is also being fought over the truth: what is the truth about human nature, about the human potential? My responsibility to myself, my neighbors, my family and the human family is to try to tell the truth…. I do not think that literature is the primary instrument for social transformation, but I do think it has potency. So I work to tell the truth about people’s lives; I work to celebrate struggle, to applaud the tradition of struggle in our community, to bring to center stage all those characters, just ordinary folks on the block…. It would be dishonest, though, to end my comments there. First and foremost I write for myself….”

(1990) Audre Lorde, Black Women Writers at Work (Claudia Tate, Ed.): “Art for art’s sake doesn’t really exist for me. What I saw was wrong, and I had to speak up. I loved poetry and I loved words. But what was beautiful had to serve the purpose of changing my life, or I would have died. If I cannot air this pain and alter it, I will surely die of it. That’s the beginning of social protest.”

(1993) Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism: “Much of what was so exciting for four decades about Western modernism and its aftermath…in, say, the elaborate interpretative strategies of critical theory or the self-consciousness of literary and musical forms—seems almost quaintly abstract, desperately Eurocentric today. More reliable now are the reports from the front line where struggles are being fought between domestic tyrants and idealist oppositions, hybrid combinations of realism and fantasy, cartographic and archeological descriptions, explorations in mixed forms (essay, video or film, photograph, memoir, story, aphorism) of unhoused exilic experiences. The major task, then, is to match the new economic and socio-political dislocations and configurations of our time with the startling realities of human interdependence on a world scale…. The fact is, we are mixed in with one another in ways that most national systems of education have not dreamed of. To match knowledge in the arts and sciences with these integrative realities is, I believe, the intellectual and cultural challenge of the moment…[not least in] the urgent conjunction of art and politics….”

(1994) Dorothy Allison, Skin: Talking About Sex, Class & Literature: “The difficulty faced by lesbian and feminist writers of my generation becomes somewhat more understandable if we think about the fact that almost no lesbian-feminist writer my age was able to make a living as a writer. Most of us wrote late at night after exhausting and demanding jobs, after evenings and weekends of political activism, meetings, and demonstrations. Most of us also devoted enormous amounts of time and energy to creating presses and journals that embodied our political ideals, giving up the time and energy we might have used to actually do our own writing. During my involvement with Quest, I wrote one article. The rest of my writing time was given over to grant applications and fund-raising letters. I did a little better with Conditions, beginning to actually publish short stories, but the vast majority of work I did there was editing other people’s writing and again, writing grants and raising money. Imagine how few paintings or sculptures would be created if the artists all had to collectively organize the creation of canvas and paint, build and staff the galleries, and turn back all the money earned from sales into the maintenance of the system. Add to that the difficulty of creating completely new philosophies about what would be suitable subjects for art, what approaches would be valid for artists to take to their work, who, in fact, would be allowed to say what was valuable and what was not, or more tellingly, what could be sold and to whom. Imagine that system and you have the outlines of some of the difficulties faced by lesbian writers of my generation.

“As a writer, I think I lost at least a decade in which I might have done more significant work because I had no independent sense of my work’s worth. If Literature was a dishonest system by which the work of mediocre men and women could be praised for how it fit into a belief system that devalued women, queers, people of color, and the poor, then how could I try to become part of it? Worse, how could I judge any piece of writing, how could I know what was good or bad, worthwhile or a waste of time? To write for that system was to cooperate in your own destruction, certainly in your misrepresentation. I never imagined that what we were creating was also limited, that it, too, reflected an unrealistic or dishonest vision. But that’s what we did, at least in part, making an ethical system that insists a lightweight romance has the same worth as a serious piece of fiction, that there is no good or bad, no ‘objective’ craft or standards or excellence.”

(1994) Michael Hanne, The Power of the Story: Fiction and Political Change: “Can a novel start a war, free serfs, break up a marriage, drive readers to suicide, close factories, bring about a law change, swing an election, or serve as a weapon in a national or international struggle? These are some of the large-scale, direct, social and political effects which have been ascribed to certain exceptional novels and other works of fiction over the last two hundred years or so. How seriously should we take such claims?

“In their crudest form, assertions of this kind are obviously naïve, oversimplifying the complex ways in which literary texts can be said to ‘work in the world’ and oversimplifying, too, the causal processes required to account for a major social or political change. But is it possible to modify or refine such claims in the light of contemporary theory and historical research so that the mechanisms by which each text has engaged with the political forces of the time are adequately described? This book explores that general question through the close examination of five works, from several different countries and periods, for which remarkable direct political effects of one kind or another have been claimed…”

“Storytelling, it must be recognized from the start, is always associated with the exercise, in one sense or another, of power, of control. This is true of even the commonest and apparently most innocent form of storytelling in which we engage: that almost continuous internal narrative monologue which everyone maintains, sliding from memory, to imaginative reworking of past events, to fantasizing about the future, to daydreaming…. It is a curious thing that, in the liberal democracies, the word ‘power’ is used more frequently than any other by publishers and reviewers to indicate, and invite, approval of a work of narrative fiction…. This flooding of popular critical discourse with the term ‘power’ does not, of course, indicate a widespread belief in the capacity of narrative fiction to ‘change the world.’ The use of ‘power’…indicates little more than approval of the novel’s capacity to involve and move the individual reader emotionally. Indeed the term is so devalued as to imply a denial that narrative fiction can exercise power in a wider social and political sense…. Power, as is usual in a liberal democracy, is treated as individual and unproblematic, rather than collective, structural, and problematic.

“Two important corollaries follow from this: a) there is no public acknowledgement that literature plays a role in the maintenance of existing power structures and b) literature is seen as incapable of playing a seriously disruptive role within such a society…. If, in a liberal democracy, a piece of imaginative writing seeks or achieves social or political influence that goes beyond such a limited conception of its proper power, it must either be nonliterature masquerading as literature or a literary work being manipulated and misused for nonliterary, propagandistic purposes…. In overtly authoritarian states whose form of government does not rely on liberal bourgeois conceptions of constitutionality, such as Russia under the Tsars or the Soviet Union under Stalin, these assumptions are entirely reversed. Literature is required, by a combination of censorship and patronage, to contribute to the maintenance of power as constituted at the time. The government’s insistence on retaining tight control over what is written and published reflects the belief, which is most often shared by the regime’s opponents, that fictional writing possesses an extreme potential for disruption.”

“To anyone who is skeptical about the assertion that narrative fiction, in certain circumstances, plays a central role in the lives and political thinking of ordinary people, I recommend the earthy reminder provided in a letter to Solzhenitsyn by a reader of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich living in the Ukraine, who wrote to the author: “In Kharkov I have seen all kinds of queues—for the film Tarzan, butter, women’s drawers, chicken giblets and horse-meat sausage. But I cannot remember a queue as long as the one for your book in the libraries.”

“One of the earliest, and best known, examples of a novel which is claimed to have exercised a massive, direct, social influence is Goethe’s story of hopeless love, The Sorrows of Young Werther (1774), which is said to have so stirred the feelings of a whole generation of young readers all over Western Europe that a number were recorded as committing suicide in imitation of its lovesick hero. Of a very different kind is the impact claimed for the novels of Dickens and Charles Kingsley, which have been credited with contributing, through the exposure of some of the social evils of mid-nineteenth century Britain, to the most important pieces of reform legislation enacted in the later part of the century. Perhaps the most specific (and best-documented) claim for a novel’s leading to significant legislative change relates to the publication in 1906 of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, which, through its depiction of the lives of workers in the Chicago meatpacking industry, is reliably said to have been instrumental in ensuring the passage of the Pure Food and Drug Act in the U.S. Congress a few months later…. (A curious knock-on effect of the widespread anxiety about the health risks associated with canned foods provoked by The Jungle was the immediate collapse of whole communities based on canning quite remote from Chicago…including those in my country, New Zealand.)”

(1998) John Whalen-Bridge, Political Fiction and the American Self: “The demand for an absolute separation of politics and aesthetics is today rarely voiced as an imperative, but occasionally we happen upon it whole cloth. In the section of its booklet entitled ‘What the Endowment Does Not Support,’ the National Endowment of the Humanities makes it clear that it will support no projects that ‘Are directed at persuading an audience to a particular political, philosophical, religious, or ideological point of view, or that advocate a particular program of social change or action’…. Art must affirm the status quo to receive NEH funding.

“The political novel exposes itself to economic and critical perils that are somewhat more focused than those faced by other novels; its author will receive fewer government grants, or it may be singled out for reproach in reviews. This condition has not always obtained to the same degree, and there have been moments in this century when challenges to the idea that politics and literature are unmixable discourses were particularly strong….”

(2002-2003) Various: commentary on Robert Newman’s geo-political epic novel The Fountain at the Center of the World (2002):

“It reads like what you’d get if Tom Wolfe clambered inside the head of Noam Chomsky — it elegantly and angrily scorches a lot of earth…the talismanic ‘Catch-22’ of the antiglobalization protest movement, the fictional complement to Naomi Klein’s influential treatise ‘No Logo'” -Dwight Garner, The New York Times.

“…[a] spirited attempt to reconcile the larger forces at work in the world through fiction. Could this herald a resuscitation of the English ‘literary political novel’…?” -Jean McNeil, The Independent.

“The Fountain At The Centre Of The World is perhaps the first novel to really explore the human story behind the placard waving and polemics of globalisation – it is fiction that tells a truth about a world that is only too real” -The Ecologist.

“It’s like bootleg Chomsky – The Fountain at the Centre of the World is a serious and intelligent book. It’s a novel that confronts everything that is wrong with the world and demands that which is right, and it therefore makes a lot of British fiction seem rather tender-minded in comparison” -The Guardian.

“It is rare to find such a politically engaged novel. There has been plenty of fiction that has had a political edge or implications, but this book is much more than that. It is openly partisan… uncomfortable reading for advocates of the current global set-up.” -Nicolai Gentchev, The Socialist Review.

“Newman has written a big, generous book, filling canisters with facts and philosophy from the likes of Noam Chomsky, Greg Palast, Susan George, and Bill Hicks, then igniting them with keen observations of everyday life in Mexican villages where international factories suck up all the water…in border jails, and on police-lined streets. Finally, he hurls them at the shock troops of globalization. The troops and everyone else — Radical Cheerleaders and TV correspondents, National Guardsmen and international activists — are blanketed in a cloud of truth-and-laughing gas that stings, burns, and, yes, brings tears.” -Suzanne Charlé, The American Prospect.

“After absorbing this tale, you’ll be left with an obvious question. Is globalisation our future, or an attack on the human race? Too weighty for you? It shouldn’t be. The author’s style and the flowing sense of foreign adventure alone make it a good yarn. Learning Spanish to influence a story is real commitment. Incredibly, his descriptions create similar feelings to those left by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. The story is intricately constructed, told from the heart and definitely worth a go, whatever your viewpoint.” -Adam Corres, Diverse Books.

“The anti-globalization movement may not quite have found its Dante or its Homer in British writer Robert Newman, but it’s found something, all right — maybe its Theodore Dreiser. Newman, the author of two previous novels published in the United Kingdom, makes a splashy, messy American debut with ‘The Fountain at the Center of the World,’ an ambitious and occasionally thrilling book that takes you from a NAFTA-impoverished Mexican village to the sleek corporate hallways of the City of London to the now-legendary street demonstrations at the World Trade Organization’s 1999 Seattle meeting. Newman is himself a veteran street-level activist, having worked with such groups as Reclaim the Streets, Indymedia, Earth First! and the longshoremen of Liverpool. He writes about the decentralized, ragtag fringes of the contemporary left with affection and a wry eye for detail…” -Andrew O’Hehir, Salon

(2003) Howard Zinn, Artists in Times of War: “I suggest that the role of the artist is to transcend conventional wisdom, to transcend the word of the establishment, to transcend the orthodoxy, to go beyond and escape what is handed down by the government or what is said in the media…. It is the job of the artist to think outside the boundaries of permissible thought and dare to say things that no one else will say…. It is absolutely patriotic to point a finger at the government to say that it is not doing what it should be doing to safeguard the right of citizens to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness…. We must be able to look at ourselves, to look at our country honestly and clearly. And just as we can examine the awful things that people do elsewhere, we have to be willing to examine the awful things that are done here by our government.”

For more excerpts of political literary criticism, including expanded excerpts of some of the passages above, see here, and for excerpts of the entries listed below, see here [slow link for dial-up]. For a much more extensive bibliography, see here.

1883 William Morris, On Art and Socialism

1885, 1888 Frederick Engels, Letters

1898 Leo Tolstoy, What is Art?

1903 Frank Norris, The Responsibilities of the Novelist

1905 Vladimir Lenin, “Party Organization and Party Literature,” in Novaia Jizn

1914 Emma Goldman, The Social Significance of Modern Drama

1924 Upton Sinclair, Mammonart

1924 Morris Edmund Speare, The Political Novel: Its Development in England and in America

1926 W.E.B. DuBois, African American Literary Criticism, 1773-2000

1927 Vernon Louis Parrington, Main Currents in American Thought: An Interpretation of American Literature from the Beginnings to 1920

1928 Edward L. Bernays, Propaganda

1931 Edmund Wilson, Axel”s Castle

1932 V. F. Calverton, The Liberation of American Literature

1934 John Dewey, Art as Experience

1934 Max Eastman, Art and the Life of Action

1935 Joseph Freeman, “Introduction,” Proletarian Literature in the United States

1936 James T. Farrell, “Literature and Propaganda,” A Note on Literary Criticism

1939 Bernard Smith, Forces in American Criticism

1940 Roger Dataller, The Plain Man and the Novel

1940 Edmund Wilson, “The Historical Interpretation of Literature,” The Triple Thinkers

1941 Joseph Warren Beach, “Art and Propaganda,” American Fiction: 1920-1940

1941 Kenneth Burke, “Literature as Equipment for Living,” The Philosophy of Literary Form

1941 Kenneth Burke, “The Nature of Art Under Capitalism,” The Philosophy of Literary Form

1942 Alfred Kazin, On Native Grounds

1943 George Orwell, “The Freedom of the Press”

1947 Philip S. Foner, The Social Writings of Jack London

1948 Alex Comfort, The Novel and Our Time

1949 James Baldwin, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” Notes of a Native Son (1955)

1950 Ann Petry, “The Novel as Social Criticism,” African American Literary Criticism, 1773-2000

1953 Gilbert Highet, “The Pleasures of Satire,” People, Places, Books

1955 Joseph L. Blotner, “The Novel as Political Instrument,” The Political Novel

1955 Ralph Ellison, “The Art of Fiction: An Interview,” Shadow and Act (1964)

1956 Walter B. Rideout, The Radical Novel in the United States–1900-1954

1957 Irving Howe, Politics and the Novel

1957 Wimsatt and Brooks, Literary Criticism: A Short History

1958 Maxwell Geismar, American Moderns–From Rebellion to Conformity

1958 George Steiner, “Marxism and the Literary Critic,” Language and Silence (1967)

1962 Edwin Muir, The Estate of Poetry

1963 Vernon Hall, Jr., A Short History of Literary Criticism

1963 Robert E. Spiller, Ed. et. al., Literary History of the United States

1964 Michael Millgate, American Social Fiction

1965 Eudora Welty, “Must the Novelist Crusade?” (1965), The Eye of the Story (1978)

1969 Maxwell Geismar, “Introduction,” New Masses: An Anthology of the Rebel Thirties (Ed. Joseph North)

1973 Tom Wolfe, The New Journalism

1977 Maxwell Geismar, Reluctant Radical: A Memoir [first published 2002]:

1978 John Colmer, “The Writer as Critic of Society,” Coleridge to Catch-22: Images of Society

1980 Mary McCarthy, Ideas and the Novel

1980 Edward Said, Ed., “Preface,” Literature and Society

1980 Michael Wilding, Political Fictions

1981 Toni Cade Bambara, “Foreword,” This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color (Moraga and Anzaldúa, Eds.)

1983 Terry Eagleton, “Conclusion: Political Criticism,” Literary Theory: An Introduction

1983 A. P. Foulkes, Literature and Propaganda

1983 Susan Rubin Suleiman, Authoritarian Fictions

1986 Ishmael Reed, “Which State?” Writin’ Is Fightin’

1987-1999 Noam Chomsky, The Chomsky Reader, biographies, etc…

1987 Barbara Harlow, Resistance Literature

1988 Nadine Gordimer, The Essential Gesture

1988 Vincent B. Leitch, American Literary Criticism from the 30s to the 80s

1989 D. J. Taylor, “Writers, Politics and Society,” A Vain Conceit: British Fiction in the 1980s

1989 Tom Wolfe, “Stalking the Billion-Footed Beast,” Harpers

1990 Toni Cade Bambara, Black Women Writers at Work

1990 Audre Lorde, Black Women Writers at Work

1991 Maxine Hong Kingston, “The Novel’s Next Step,” Critical Fictions: The Politics of Imaginative Writing (Philomena Mariani, Ed.):

1993 Barbara Foley, “Art or Propaganda,” Radical Representations: Politics and Form in U.S. Proletarian Fiction, 1929-1941

1993 Edward Said, Culture and Imperialism

1994 Dorothy Allison, Skin: Talking About Sex, Class & Literature

1994 Michael Hanne, The Power of the Story: Fiction and Political Change

1995 Sharon M. Harris, Redefining the Political Novel: American Women Writers, 1797-1901

1995 Jane Smiley, “Say It Ain’t So, Huck: Second Thoughts on Mark Twain’s ‘Masterpiece’,” Harpers, December

1998 John Whalen-Bridge, Political Fiction and the American Self

1999 Barbara Kingsolver, Bellwether Prize, http://www.bellwetherprize.org

2000 Kathryn Hume, American Dream, American Nightmare: Fiction Since 1960

2002 B. R. Meyers, A Reader’s Manifesto: An Attack on the Growing Pretentiousness in American Literary Prose

2003 Howard Zinn, Artists in Times of War

Fiction and Politics: Excerpts From Some Recent Articles

2002, April 6 John Pilger, “Hollywood Hurrah,” http://www.zmag.org

2002, June 26 John Pilger, “Our Writers’ Failure (I),” http://www.zmag.org

2002, July 26 John Pilger, “Our Writers’ Failure (II),” http://www.zmag.org

2002, September 29 Arundhati Roy, “Come September,” http://www.zmag.org

2003, November 10 John Pilger, “The Silence of Writers,” http://www.zmag.org

2004, January 1 Margo Hammond and Ellen Heltzel, “The Plot Thickens at the New York Times Book Review,” http://www.poynter.org

2004, March 8 Andrew O’Hehir, “‘The Fountain at the Center of the World’ by Robert Newman,” http://www.salon.com

2004, May 27 Heather Lee Schroeder, “Political fiction inspires thought, debate on issues,” Capitol Times, http://www.madison.com

2004, June 30 Ardain Isma, “Novel Injustices: Whither the Contemporary Novel?” http://www.justresponse.net

2004, October 1 Ira Chernus, “Presidential Fiction: The Story Behind the Debates,” http://www.tomdispatch.com

2004, October 10 Fred Kaplan, “Truth Stranger than ‘Strangelove’,” New York Times

2004 Larry Beinhart, “Politics & Mysteries,” http://www.thelibrarian.biz

2004, November 12 Andre Vltchek, “Are We Alone, Arundhati Roy?” http://www.zmag.org


See also:

Cover for 'Fiction Gutted: The Establishment and the Novel'

by  Tony Christini



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