The Great American (Liberal) Novel?

The Carpetbagger Report asks an interesting question:

A long-time regular, R.M., recently raised an interesting question via email. A conservative friend recommended that he read “Atlas Shrugged,” which the friend thought would help open his liberal eyes and lead him to the embrace poorly-written novels contrived plots conservative thinking.

Setting Ayn Rand aside, R.M. asked a good question: If the situation was reversed, and a liberal wanted to recommend one book to a conservative, which book should he or she pick?

Some of the more recent books that came to mind are preaching-to-the-choir kind of texts, which a) have their place; and b) when it comes to Al Franken and Molly Ivins, can be fun to read, but wouldn’t necessarily be the first thing I’d recommend to a conservative or politically-neutral reader.

The point isn’t to pick your favorite liberal book, or the one that has had the most impact, but rather the one that can speak to a broad audience and help present a liberal ideology in a persuasive way.

Fiction or non-fiction, recent or “classic” — which book would you pick?

For fiction, I was thinking along the lines of Grapes of Wrath, but it’s a bit dated.

For non-fiction, Simple Justice? Or is that too dated too? If so, really any decent account of the Bush administration ought to do…

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26 Responses to The Great American (Liberal) Novel?

  1. gr says:

    To kill a mockingbird?

  2. really any decent account of the Bush administration ought to do…

    I’m still not sure what it means to be a “liberal” but I’m pretty sure this wouldn’t do it. It presumes that Bush represents conservatism, and I’m not at all sure that’s the case. I think there is growing conservative (not neo-conservative) backlash against government intrusions on civil rights, and explosive budget busting.

    As for the overall question: Maybe “Looking Forward,” (though that’s not exactly “liberal”), or “Power Elite.”

    Or is this just pre-publicity for your closet GAN? (Come on, every academic has one.)

  3. I dunno – maybe Dos Passos’ USA trilogy? Maybe the Woody Guthrie discography? Grapes of Wrath is a good choice. Like this question very much.

  4. To Kill a Mockingbird, natch.

  5. burt says:

    The Theory of the Leisure Class

  6. Brautigan says:

    I think you’d have to start with “Fun With Dick and Jane”

  7. Bob Prior says:

    Dos Passos’ USA Trilogy is a great choice as a historical novel. For something more contemporary, and non-fiction, I recommend In the Absence of the Sacred by Jerry Mander.

  8. molly bloom says:

    I’m not sure if there is a single liberal novel that sums up liberalism like Ayn Rand’s coupling of Nietzsche and Laissez-faire capitalism with a dose of Herbert Spencer’s social darwinism. Grapes of Wrath is a good choice for the obvious economic viewpoint. To Kill a Mockingbird stresses tolerance. You could add Kafka’s The Castle and The Trial for the evils of authoritarianism and a course, Joseph Heller’s anti-war Catch 22. Then, of course, there is the parts of the New Testament that Thomas Jefferson excised in his Bible. There is a message of liberalism there, though I recognize that conservatives would dispute the idea that the excised part was a message of liberalism and they would be steaming over the characterization of Roman à clef…

  9. Ann Bartow says:

    This is a great question. I’d have to start by challenging the notion that “Atlas Shrugged” is a “conservative” book though. It’s certainly libertarian, but it is hardly in favor of “traditional family values” or subservient women, and it is very critical of both religion and cronyism.

    It is both the strength and the curse of liberalism that no one book is ever going to do the job for us. Places to start include Dos Passos, Studs Terkel, John Irving, Eudora Welty, Toni Morrison, Alice Walker, Dawn Powell, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, William Kennedy, etc. etc.

  10. looloo says:

    The Handmaiden’s Tale by Margaret Atwood.

  11. wcw says:

    Orwell’s “Catalonia” would appear the perfect antithesis to “Atlas” and its steal-from-the-poor theologies.

    Granted, it’s not tendentious, overwritten agitprop like Rand, but that’s not a bug — it’s a feature.

  12. wcw says:

    PS – I love “USA” but it’s a little long, a little experimental and Dos Passos never wrote the like again and later went native.

    Oh, and Orwell is available online. For free. So read Catalonia now.

  13. Dan Lyke says:

    I have to admit that I’m a Rand lover myself, but I’ve got a soft spot for Edward Abbey’s “The Monkey Wrench Gang”. Orwell and Huxley weren’t American, but just free-associating to go along with the Steinbeck and the Harper Lee, how about Upton Sinclair? Carl Sandburg? Nathaniel Hawthorne?

    As I think about the various authors I associate with “liberal” politics (and that word changed meaning rather dramatically between the 19th and 20th centuries), one of the things I’m realizing is that I think of that less as a set of core political beliefs and more as a set of causes, so the Great American (Liberal) Author of one decade won’t be the same as the next (meatpacking becomes sharecropping becomes coal mining becomes race relations becomes steel mills becomes…), whereas those who associate with Rand (or, relatedly but interestingly different in the nuances, Laura Ingalls Wilder) have pretty much the same concerns now as way back then. The science/speculative fiction crowd may play with how the core ideas apply to technological innovation, but the cultural ideals remain the same.

  14. Don says:

    LIberal, Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John. Skip the Paul stuff. Paul still called for capital punishment not unlike a Texas governor I know.

    The first New Testament books were progressive, called on feeding the poor, warned against the rich getting obsessed and forgetting the basic values of life. Or imagine pushing the book of Leviticus and Jubilee. Can you imagine a full redistribution of wealth every 50 years? Cancel all debt and take away all the Miami condos from the land developers.

  15. Brian Boru says:

    Of recent books, non fiction, John Dean’s hyperprescient Worse than Watergate would be good start.

  16. Lou says:

    The Other America, by Michael Harrington
    I nominate any or all of the following ten:

    Silent Spring, by Rachel Carson
    The Jungle, by Upton Sinclair
    Elmer Gantry, by Upton Sinclair
    Anti-Intellectualism in The United States, by Richard Hofstadter
    Rachel and Her Children, by Jonathon Kozol
    Progressive Democracy, by Herbert Croly
    Rules for Radicals, by Saul Alinsky
    The Woman’s Bible, by Elizabeth Cady Stanton
    In Dubious Battle, by John Steinbeck
    Drift and Mastery, by Walter Lippman

  17. hmmm says:

    Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle.
    Not only on its own merits, but for its influence.
    Sadly, we’re going to need another one.

  18. Michael says:

    Elmer Gantry is by Sinclair Lewis

    I wonder when the great New Orleans novel will get written?

  19. Lou says:

    Sorry about that Upton Sinclair/Sinclair Lewis mix-up. Also, the Hofstadter book is Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Mistakes were made. No one was injured.

  20. I think “Grapes of Wrath” explains who liberals are and why they believe what they believe better than just about anything else.

    as for non-fiction, i”d recommend Bartlett and Steele’s “America: What Went Wrong” — which may not explain why we’re liberals, but does a great job of exposing modern “conservatism” for the “Hefty Bag Full o’ Crap” that it is….

  21. Roger Mourne says:

    I love the question, too. I’m surprised no one suggested Nathaneal West’s Day of the Locust. I immediately think of Bellow and books like Herzog, when it was still OK to believe in and talk about liberal ideals. Philip Roth’s early novels have that same quality.

    I plug James Jones’ masterpiece, From Here To Eternity, whenever I can. It’s a shame even educated reviewers usually have an aversion to long novels now. “Eternity” is illustrative of the misery of lower class lives in a system of Unenlighted Capitalism, which is another name for conservatism in practice. For one thing, most of the soldiers are doomed to die or be maimed in the eminent war.

    How about Budd Shulberg’s What Makes Sammy Run? I’m thinking maybe the best way to educate a conservative about liberalism is to show her what inevitably goes wrong for 98% of the people when consumerism, unfettered competition and an every-man-for-himself atmopshere prevails. I believe the key part of liberalism is the recognition that we absolutely must help each other. If we don’t, I suppose something weird might eventually happen — maybe the polar icecap will melt, or millions of people in Africa will starve, or where I live in Orange County, CA, 75% of the children in Santa Ana go to sleep hungry every night while 6 miles south in Newport Beach, more cosmetic surgeons practice than in all of England, Ireland and Scotland.

    All we need are the best novels available about human beings other than the affluent and rich. Then the story of conservatism and liberalism tells itself.

    How a

  22. Ric Moore says:

    The liberal/conservative distinction is a false dichotomy – a myth of modernism, and a fallacy of Aristotelian logic. Liberalism is a philosophy whose origins are the “liberal arts” which were the education of “libera” or “free men” in contradistinction to other classes, first slaves, but also others disenfranchised from “democracy” in Greek society of slaves and wars supported routinely by votes seeking to maintain the empire of the city-state and its dominance and favorable balance of trade. One cannot fully appreciate the irony of “liberalism” without first understanding that it was fundamentally an elite philosophy – as with the structure of the Republic of Plato and its stratification of people into grades of worth. Then, one can appreciate the further irony that “conservatism” has become the post-modern defender of “liberal” philosophy, while, in fact, both, as political movements, are defenders of what was once called “statism” in contradistinction to the radical revolutionary spirit of the founders, replete with the contradictions of Southerners, who in their own perverse way, were closer to the elitist demcratic spirit of the ancient Greeks (after whom many of their cities were named – as with Sparta and Athens) than the Northerners who proposed a radical Transcendentalism that was not so much “liberal” as the utter overthrow of the ‘ancien regime’ in all its forms of elite sovereignty. Liberalism, ironically, seeks to preserve the ‘ancien regime’ in merely a more putatively ‘tolerant’ form. Note that Catholicism is a great defender of the “liberal arts” which are but the modern systematization of the older Trivium and Quadrivium of scholasticism. But, in the real modernization, Science was separated from Humanities for principally political reasons, so that scientists like Giordano Bruno were no longer burned at the stake for alleged heresies against Church orthodoxy. Of note, those scientists tended even up through Liebniz to be practitioners of alchemy and followers of pagan (Greek, Roman, et al.) philosophies on which it was based, which the Church tried diligently to banish, burn, suppress, and utterly extinguish.

    What has been missed is the emergence of a radically different epistemology, in the guise of Sustainability, that actually challenges the elitism of Liberal Arts, and the false dichotomy of liberal and conservative, focusing instead on a new understanding of Reality itself – one that ironically began in the thinking of Transcendentalism and its predecessors.

    The Great American Novel, is a poem: Leave of Grass by Walt Whitman – radically prophetic, not liberal.

  23. John Berglund says:

    I’m not sure that the MAJORITY of recent novels aren’t inherently liberal… the post-modern novel would be liberal in bent, for instance. It rejects the idea of a meaningful existence in the overall scheme of things, i.e., that there is a narrative. The liberal novel would reject the dictates of the Bible that have colored much of Western culture for centuries, and isn’t this exactly what is found to be true in modern literature? “Greatness” in modern literature exists in framing human existence in ways that challenge “traditional” values that assume the rightness of separation of the races and subjection of women and patriarchal society; that if you do not work you should not eat; the assumption of benefit to honesty over deceitfulness; etc., etc., etc. I think nearly every book that has been praised in the last 100 years has been defined by liberal educators and critics, and hence the “great”novels are DEFINED as those that break or challenge the form of so-called traditional values, such as “Brave New World,” “Sister Carrie,” “The Scarlet Letter,” “Lord of the Flies,” “Snow Crash” and just about any novel with the exception of those printed by religious publishing houses… or “Atlas Shrugged.”

  24. Michael says:

    Thank you for this interesting reply.

    I wonder, though, if this perspective unhelpfully conflates the rejection of literary tradition with liberalism. I don’t think much post-modernism, for example, was liberal in the sense I’m using the term. If you see life as binary (liberal/conservative) then I suppose post-modernism might be lumped with liberalism, but I think of liberal as being mostly Modern, not post-modern (and indeed, likely to outlast the post-Modern, so it will be post-post-Modern too). Post-modernism is a rejection of liberal values and objectives, partly on the claimed grounds that they are incoherent, partly on the claimed grounds that they are unattainable..

    Liberalism isn’t Whiggish, in that it does not assume things necessarily get better, but it does assume that it is possible for things to change in a positive direction. Certainly, liberalism has plenty of room for virtues such as honesty and thrift, and indeed more room for others such as charity and fairness than might arguably be found in certain traditional views of society.

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