Recently I embarked on a monthlong hunt for Republican writers of what’s commonly called literary fiction. In America today, what’s “literary” often seems like a subset of what’s “liberal”—and yet history is full of serious writers stumping for nonliberal ideas and leaders: the Italian Futurists, T. S. Eliot, Kingsley Amis, the American novelists, screenwriters, and playwrights who joined the Communist Party during Stalin’s reign, and so on. Come on, I thought: there has to be somebody who can write a decent character-driven short story who also thinks George W. Bush is a good president.
I wanted to find these conservative somebodies: I wanted to talk to them, to find out what they thought of their minority status—whether they thought the publishing world was arrayed against them, or had other explanations for the apparent predominance of their liberal counterparts. And I wanted to read their work, to see whether it could illuminate the contemporary conservative experience in ways that Republican-penned potboilers and political columns just don’t.
But I couldn’t find them. Among the editors, writers, and agents I surveyed, an unsurprising consensus emerged: the number of well-known American literary writers who are even rumored to be politically conservative is very, very small. One book editor told me he knew several Republican novelists, but refused to disclose their names. He agreed to forward my email, so they could contact me if they wished, but none of them did.
Tom Wolfe takes pains to shroud his political orientation. (“If I have been judged to be right wing,” he has said, “I think this is because of the things I have mocked.”) Cormac McCarthy’s political views are a subject of speculation because he rarely grants interviews and his statements of opinion, such as they are, are compatible neither with mainstream conservatism nor mainstream liberalism: “I think the notion that the species can be improved in some way, that everyone could live in harmony, is a really dangerous idea.” The only evidence of political activity on his part is the New York Times Magazine’s revelation that he and Edward Abbey “discussed a covert operation to reintroduce the wolf to southern Arizona.” Cynthia Ozick would seem to qualify, given her extreme-right ideas about Israel and the Palestinians, but she reserves her diatribes for what used to be the liberal New Republic. Louis Auchincloss is assumed to be of the Lincoln Chafee school. The only definite is Mark Helprin, a Claremont Institute fellow and Wall Street Journal op-ed page regular whose most recent novel, Freddy & Fredericka, was praised by Michiko Kakutani as a “delightful romp.”
It’s true that the GOP hasn’t exactly rolled out the carpet for artists over the past twenty years. The dependence of so many literary writers on liberal universities that pay their faculty mid-five-figure salaries is another sociological factor. But there are political conservatives who teach within liberal departments at liberal colleges, and there are plenty of political conservatives in low-wage professions. As for the campaign rhetoric of the Republican party, literary writers like to bash effete chattering-class big-city Francophiles almost as much as the GOP does. We live in an age in which every American from Bakersfield to Nantucket likes lattés, has an idea for a psychological thriller, and knows that NBC is struggling to find a new ratings juggernaut, but hates latté-drinkers and Hollywood types.
In a recent essay in the Yale Journal of Criticism, “Do You Believe in Magic? Literary Thinking and the New Left,” Sean McCann and Michael Szalay argued that American literature since the ’60s has reflected a New Left/countercultural antagonism toward the Old Left’s faith in rationally conceived government policy’s ability to change the world. The New Left criticized the Old Left for starting Vietnam and for its bloated government bureaucracy. While the New Right response to the Old Left, which culminated in the triumph of Reaganism, was to trim government programs and cut taxes (new policy decisions), the response of those in the counterculture- influenced New Left was to eschew policy decisions for an anti-government, anti-logic, anti-politics politics. Starting in the early ’70s, then, you got DeLillo’s novels about government rationalism gone wrong, and Toni Morrison, who craved language as “magic without meaning”: words that had no reference to systemic thinking but instead functioned as power without explanation.
In this sense, the New Left is not so unlike the Old Right. It’s impossible to imagine Evelyn Waugh or T. S. Eliot without their disgust for modern life, their skepticism about progress. Waugh described himself as 200 years behind the times, and Waugh’s and Eliot’s descriptions of twentieth-century social behavior and landscapes were so sad and funny in part because of their elegiac quality—their yearning for the less-mechanized, more mysterious world left behind, in which people felt themselves under sway of powers that transcended human reason.
This quality—let’s call it elegiac dismay—runs through Eliot’s The Wasteland, Waugh’s A Handful of Dust, Morrison’s Sula, Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, and Jonathan Franzen’s The Corrections. The people eulogized in these books are far from heroic—the old-guard aristocrats in Waugh’s novels have plenty of shortcomings, and so does Franzen’s Alfred Lambert—but their authors arouse our sympathy by showing us the grotesque sides of the people and institutions who are taking over the positions of power these characters once occupied.
Neoconservatives are by definition optimistic about rationally conceived, activist American foreign policy and the expanding reach of American-style capitalism. At least until the midterm elections, the Republicans who might seem best equipped to become literary novelists were not in an elegiac frame of mind. They were making policy arguments, looking eagerly into the future. Baghdad, Tehran, and so on. Global capitalism was rolling over protectionism. In this regard, conservatives resemble the Old Left back when it was upbeat and internationalist more than they do retrograde Old Right misanthropes like Waugh and T. S. Eliot. Maybe their outlook can produce great literature. But it’s at odds with the dark or at least deeply ambivalent understanding of history that sits at the heart of so many great books. How many 19-year-olds start writing their first novels to show the world how it’s becoming a brighter place?
If the midterm elections really do signal a shift in momentum, the end of the Republican revolution, maybe we’ll hear some elegiac dismay from the Republicans.
Mark Helprin’s literary credentials are as impressive as his conservative credentials: he’s been a Guggenheim Fellow, he’s won the Prix de Rome and the Jewish Book Award. He’s even published in the New Yorker. But do Helprin’s novels actually express a conservative politics?
In the case of his best-known novel, Winter’s Tale (1983), the answer is yes. To read Winter’s Tale is to swim in a politically conservative mind. It’s a lyrical, extensively researched, occasionally polemical Republican epic. It’s florid in its language and complex in its plot and web of references, so you can find plenty to say without harping on its politics, as I’m about to do—its worshipful three-page notice in the New York Times Book Review didn’t even mention how strikingly political a novel it is. That may be why, last spring, when the Times asked 125 writers to vote for the best novel of the past twenty-five years, nobody remarked that Winter’s Tale was an anomaly among multiple-vote getters (it received two, The Corrections only one). It’s a 700-page conservative odyssey among a parade of novels by acknowledged liberals (and McCarthy). Despite the noted preponderance of books that dealt with big American political-historical issues, there was no mention of Winter’s Tale and its conservatism in the A. O. Scott essay that accompanied the list. Nor in the panel discussion among Michael Cunningham, Stephen Metcalf, Morris Dickstein, and Jane Smiley. Nor in the responses run by other publications. Critics reflected on the generational and ethnic makeup of the novelists, but never on their politics.
Winter’s Tale begins in late-nineteenth-century New York City and proceeds through generations of New Yorkers until it looks ahead to the year 2000. It contains heroes—i.e., good-looking people of extraordinary skill and daring who use their powers to battle villains, in service of good. The most central of these heroes is Peter Lake, a mechanic and burglar who rides Athansor, a white horse who can fly.
Lake is a blend of the two kinds of heroes American literature likes most: the hardworking immigrant and the noble savage. His parents are denied entry into America because they have tuberculosis, so they sneak him past customs in the hull of a model ship. The orphan lands in the territory of the Baymen, who live in the wilds of New Jersey and are not Indians but mostly act like it, living off the land and brushing aside with great skill all those who would infringe upon their territory. They teach Lake how to fight with a sword and let him have sex with his adopted sister. Then they send him to Manhattan. There he joins up with the Short Tails, a criminal gang mentioned in Herbert Asbury’s The Gangs of New York. (Asbury’s Dead Rabbits also make an appearance in Winter’s Tale, along with a character named Asbury.) Lake falls in love with Beverly Penn, a newspaper owner’s daughter (she dies of consumption), foils a Short Tail attack on the Baymen, and experiences a kind of death when he and Athansor, surrounded by furious Short Tails, are forced to fly off a bridge.
The action shifts to 1995, and we meet Hardesty Maratta, a rich young man from San Francisco (a city described in markedly unflattering terms). Maratta hands over his fortune to his dissolute brother and makes his way East in search of a “perfectly just city.” He is a veteran and so takes easily to the rugged life, riding the rails with grace until he meets his foil, a four-foot-five hippie named Jesse Honey. Jesse accidentally sets fire to the train Hardesty’s been riding, then excuses the debacle with environmentalist rhetoric: “According to Jesse Honey, it was all part of nature’s way. ‘Trains,’ he said, ‘were never meant to be in the mountains.’ “
Jesse drags Hardesty into progressively worse scrapes (makeshift catapults eventually plunge them into a river), until Hardesty abandons Jesse once and for all, and Jesse, left to fend for himself, dies a cartoonish death:
“It’s not a good idea to go in that direction,” he heard Jesse calling out from behind. “You’d do best to follow me. You have to have years of experience to walk on these crusts. Otherwise you can go right through. It’s more dangerous than walking on a minefield, and you’ve got no training. Look at all these sink ho—” That was the last of Jesse Honey.
Helprin supplies his heroes with elaborate backstories, showing how they acquired their fortitude through struggle outside the confines of civilization. The nonheroic characters they meet are like the adversaries a knight encounters in a medieval romance: no pasts to speak of, no redeeming moments. There are archetypes in Winter’s Tale that I’d thought had vanished from American literature long before 1983; here is Helprin’s description of Jayga, maidservant to the beautiful, delicate Beverly Penn, informing the cops that her mistress has run off with Peter Lake:
“The young miss and her swan done canteloped,” said Jayga to the desk sergeant. After half an hour of shrieking, when the tale was told, Jayga exclaimed, “Oh! I left my biscuits in the oven!” and disappeared from the station house so quickly that the police thought they had dreamed her.
Not only is Helprin rarely inclined to give the bad guys good lines; he establishes their inferiority in terms of beauty, intelligence, and skill, reserving wit and competence for his protagonists. “He was handsome and she was beautiful,” he writes of Peter Lake and Beverly Penn during a love scene. The good guys tend to recognize each other immediately—the Reaganesque Praeger de Pinto, before he makes the transition from newspaperman to mayor, offers gorgeous country girl Virginia Gamely a column at the exemplary Sun after being dazzled by her conversational skills on their first meeting. The fact that some people are evidently better than others—better looking, more courageous, possessing superior abilities coupled with a superior morality—is a keystone of the novel’s universe.
The only villain who does possess dignity is Pearly Soames, leader of the Short Tails. In the early twentieth century, he returns some modern European paintings that he’s stolen, and attaches a critique of modernism:
Take any American city, in autumn, or in winter, when the light makes the colors dance and flow, and look at it from a distant hill or from a boat in the bay or on the river, and you will see in any section of the view far better paintings than in this lentil soup that you people have to pedigree in order to love. I may be a thief, but I know color when I see it in the flash of heaven or in the Devil’s opposing tricks, and I know mud.
The temporary transformation of a Short Tail into an art critic for the New Criterion is only one of the miracles afoot. Without mentioning Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale, Helprin’s novel continually echoes the play’s final scene, in which the king Leontes watches a statue of his departed queen Hermione become her flesh-and-blood self. This is one of Shakespeare’s classic testaments to the power of faith; because Leontes is willing to imagine that the statue might become the real Hermione, the miracle can take place. In Winter’s Tale, similarly, an act of faith enables a miraculous transformation. A virtuous character named Martin looks at a dead baby, Abby, in the expectation that she will live again, and she does. In the higher arc of the novel, New York gets a chance to become a just city, rising from the ashes, through the collective faith and sacrifices of heroes.
Winter’s Tale soars into lightly fictionalized speechwriting when a minor character rails against compassion. Peter Lake goes to a morgue for the poor in hope of learning the fate of an abandoned child he saw in a hallway twenty years before, and finds a doctor among the corpses who asks Lake if he’s from “some reform group.”
“They know they’re better than the miserable bastards they try to help, but they really enjoy thinking that they’re better than the rest of us, who aren’t as ‘compassionate’ as they are.” He turned to Peter Lake again, and said, “You notice how often that very word escapes their lips. They use it like a cudgel. Beware. “They come down here for their own benefit. It’s as clear as day that they love it. The great irony and perfect joke is that the wretches on the bottom of the barrel get these self-serving scum as champions. Some champions! They feed off the poor—first materially, and then in spirit. But they deserve each other in a way, because vice and stupidity were made to go together.”
Any ambiguity about whether the doctor is supposed to be understood as a wise man ends at the end of the chapter, when he reminds Peter Lake of his responsibility to his own family:
“Is there someone you love?”
“Then go home to her.”
You can read Christopher Buckley or Joel C. Rosenberg’s The Last Jihad if you want to see conservative politics in a work of fiction. What makes Winter’s Tale different from those books is Helprin’s determination to link politics to yearnings that can only be described as spiritual, and to show the character of those spiritual yearnings through inventive language. It’s one thing to understand Reaganism by reading an op-ed about the restoration of patriotism. It’s another to understand Reaganism as a desire for a miraculous resurrection, mixed with adulation for the heroic dying Indian, and to apprehend some sense of how that desire and that adulation feel. Ditto for the conservative beliefs that the poor receive too much compassion and assistance, that New York intellectuals are cut off from the wider world, that people who are brave and skilled are more worthy of esteem than people who are neither. It’s one thing to hear a pundit expound these views, another to experience Helprin’s thunderous disdain, his contempt for stooges, expressed in eloquent terms. You can read Winter’s Tale for a sense of how being a conservative feels.
Helprin recently wrote an essay in the National Review, “Without Which Conservatism Is Stillborn,” in which he argues that high culture is vital to the long-term health of the conservative movement. Ross Douthat made a similar case in a National Review Online piece called “So You Want to Win the Culture Wars? It Would Help to Engage in a Little Culture.” I wish their movement ill, but I’d like conservatives to start writing more novels, and not of the Scooter Libby variety. Try to picture a work of contemporary literature that exhibits a faith in the global free market, that understands exurbs as the latest manifestation of the American dream, that exposes wasteful social programs and presents sympathetic Republicans struggling to stand by their principles. Admit it: it’s tantalizing.