Monday, January 25, 2010

Conservative novels

At the National Review’s staff blog, The Corner, John J. Miller has released the magazine’s list of top ten conservative novels:

  1. Allen Drury, Advise and Consent
  2. John Dos Passos, Midcentury
  3. Saul Bellow, Mr. Sammler’s Planet
  4. Elmer Kelton, The Time It Never Rained
  5. Walker Percy, The Thanatos Syndrome
  6. Tom Wolfe, The Bonfire of the Vanities
  7. Charles McCarry, Shelley’s Heart
  8. Marilynne Robinson, Gilead
  9. Mark Helprin, Freddy and Fredericka
10. Cormac McCarthy, No Country for Old Men

The list is admittedly bare and unadorned, since the February 8th issue of the magazine will also include a “capsule review of each,” according to Miller—and probably a defense of its inclusion.

As Dos Passos’s title suggests, only American novels published “since the 1950s”—to be more exact, since 1959, when Allen Drury’s political potboiler was first published—were considered. Even with those restrictions, the list is strangely disappointing.

Drury, Dos Passos, and Kelton deserve a place only on a list of recommended books far more extensive than this one. (Well, the late Dos Passos, at least. In his fifties he may have turned against his own youthful Leftism, but his literary talents did not keep pace with his political opinions.) Tom Wolfe, with all his stylistic gifts, is not really a novelist. And The Thanatos Syndrome is not Percy’s most interestingly conservative book.

Only three novels on NR’s top-ten list really merit their inclusion, I think: Mr. Sammler’s Planet, Shelley’s Heart, and Gilead. (Full disclosure: last year I extravagantly praised McCarry’s novel in Commentary on the occasion of its reprinting by Overlook Press. It is, in my view, a polit­ical classic which examines in complex human detail how the American Left came to exist at all, let alone to complete its long march through the institutions.) And of course here on A Commonplace Blog I categorized Bellow’s masterpiece as one of the ten best English-language novels since the death of George Eliot (an unremarked conservative novelist in her own right).

The question, of course, is what makes a novel conservative. There are nearly as many definitions of conservatism as there are conservatives. The best, because the most comprehensive, belongs to Michael Oakeshott, who says that conservatism is “not a creed or a doctrine, but a disposition.” It’s a habit of mind; it’s a natural inclination. It is a “propensity to use and to enjoy what is available rather than to wish for or to look for something else.” Its motto is not Faust’s dying words (“Stay with me! You are so beautiful!”); Faust is a great liberal; its motto is “Stay with me! I am so attached to you!” The conservative is thus suspicious of change. He is “not inclined to think that nothing is happening unless great changes are afoot.” What is more, he knows that change is a “threat to identity, and every change is an emblem of extinction.” “Radical change!” moaned J. V. Cunningham, another notable conservative—“the root of human woe.”

From this angle, conservative novels would come in two leading varieties: one that enjoys a life and a world, another that grieves at their loss, its damage to people’s identity. And the most conservative American novelist of all time, then, would have to be Nabokov. Pnin combines a deep pleasure in America with the sadness of losing Russia. A good deal of Timofey Pnin’s charm (and awkwardness) derives from that combination. No expression of tragic conservatism is more poignant than Pnin’s resolution “never to remember” Mira (whom he once loved, who died in Buchenwald), “because, if one were quite sincere with oneself, no conscience, and hence no consciousness, could be expected to subsist in a world where such things as Mira’s death were possible.”

Welty’s last novel The Optimist’s Daughter, written in the aftermath of her mother’s death, is another conservative novel on this understanding of conservatism. Returning home to Mississippi for her father’s funeral, Laurel McKelva Hand must confront memories of her parents as well as her husband and the happiness she lost when they died. At the end of the novel, though, she realizes that “For her life, any life, she had to believe, was nothing but the continuity of its love”—a love she still enjoys, even after the death of those she loved. (Not incidentally, James once said that “an optimist is pretty like to be a conservative.”)

But Oakeshott’s “disposition” to enjoy the continuity of present and past is not the only meaning of conservatism, especially in America. Its essence, according to Robert Nisbet, is “the protection of the social order—family, neighborhood, local community, and region foremost—from the ravishments of the centralized political state.” A book like John Williams’s Augustus, the 1973 historical novel which tells the story of the Roman republic’s descent into imperial dictatorship, neatly expresses the horror of the state, particularly since it is narrated by the emperor himself. (Williams is also the author of Stoner, another conservative novel, which is about the unshakable attachment to scholarship.)

But not just the state. The conservative also mocks the ravishment of traditional institutions by liberal elites, and perhaps more than anything, he scorns ideology—the rage to pursue an abstract ideal at the expense of the heat generated by human contact, the insistence upon knowing what is best for people, the inability to leave them alone.

The former spirit is nicely typified by The Mackerel Plaza, Peter DeVries’s hilarious send-up of liberal Protestantism with its horror of a back-sliding piety; the latter, by American Pastoral, Philip Roth’s conscience-stricken account of the New Left’s seduction by terrorism.

Roth’s novel shows that the best conservative novels are not always written by conservatives. There is, in fact, a special genre of conservative American novel that pokes fun at liberals, and some of the richest examples are written by liberals. In Wilfrid Sheed’s People Will Always Be Kind, a golden-tongued young liberal senator runs for president, although he is not sure what he will really do if he gets elected—or, for that matter, what he really believes. (President Obama was only twelve when it was published.) The Believers is a more recent example of the genre.

Finally, Walker Percy’s most fulfilling conservative novel is The Second Coming. Will Barrett has become suicidal since the events narrated in The Last Gentleman. But then he meets a girl, a former mental patient, living in an abandoned greenhouse. She is recovering from madness by learning to enjoy what is available. She finds an old wood-burning stove in the basement of a ruined house, and she teaches herself to hoist it into the greenhouse. Otherwise she is so alienated from the world, and especially its abstractions, that she can make little sense of them. Will and she become friends by educating each other. As he puts it, “I need you for hoisting and you need me for interpretation.” Only a conservative could say such a thing.


R/T said...

Thank you for your generous and thoughtful posting. You've given me plenty of food for thought, and you've made some interesting suggestions for reading; McCarry's novel jumps to the head of my reading list, and--I am embarrassed to admit this--I have yet to read the Bellow and Robinson titles, so I need to rectify those oversights in the near future.

Moreover, I (and like many others) am relieved to have another Myers posting to read and ponder.

R/T said...

For a variety of reasons--not necessarily falling precisely within your definition of a "conservative novel"--I would also nominate Cather's DEATH COMES FOR THE ARCHBISHOP because of the author's treatment of the theme of tradition and orthodoxy versus changes and compromises.

Lincoln Hunter said...

As you say, the list is very disappointing, not the least reason being the time restriction.
Novels with a conservative bent written before 1950, when it was against the grain to be one, deserve much respect.
Aside from that, I am always disappointed how two very conservative novelists continue to be ignored in lists of any kind: James Gould Cozzens and Wallace Stegner.

Steven said...

Dear Mr. Myers,

I enjoyed reading this tremendously and will reread. There seem to be some tacit recommendations that I may take up on.



D. G. Myers said...

Excellent point, Lincoln. Particularly because Stegner is a gaping hole in my own reading. Can you believe I’ve never finished Angle of Repose?

D. G. Myers said...

The time restriction was, as you say, Steven, silly and pointless. So was the geographical. Who could leave The Princess Cassamassima and The Secret Agent off a conservative reading list?

Patrick778 said...

A silly designation. Is the vastly popular "To Kill A Mockingbird" liberal? Why, because it exalts justice and equality? And (if we slightly bend the post-'59 criterion) why not include the major work of the America-loving, hippie-hating Jack Kerouac?

Anonymous said...

I'm shocked none of Ayn Rand's novels made the list. Her impact is undeniable.

Kyle said...

Is this conservatism that they use suppose to imply a disposition towards the current 2010 state or to the state at the time it was written? I ask this because someone mentioned Jack Kerouac who was undoubtedly conservative for his time but now 60 years later I read "On The Road" as very liberal in its distaste and disappointment in the consumer culture of america, a culture that is now the norm today but was only a small phenomenon in 1950.

Rohan Maitzen said...

I think George Eliot's 'conservatism' is pretty well recognized--it's just that what it means to be 'conservative' varies over time and across contexts. In Canada we used to have a political party with the oxymoronic sounding name 'Progressive Conservatives,' a label that actually works not badly for her, don't you think?

Patrick778 said...

Well, Kyle, I'm not sure Kerouac's "distaste and disappointment in the consumer culture of america" disqualifies him as a conservative (although he's probably more accurately labeled a libertarian). In any case, few writers have celebrated individuality and personal freedom with more enthusiasm. However, truth be told, I personally never thought much of his writing, a good deal of which reads like warmed-over Saroyan, a writer I adored in my early youth. So let me propose another candidate for the conservative list - a true masterpiece and one that fits all the criteria - Vladimir Nabokov's PALE FIRE.

Terry Teachout said...

I recently wrote in National Review about James Gould Cozzens' "Guard of Honor," which surely belongs on any such list whose maker is concerned with literary quality.

D. G. Myers said...

Mr Teachout,

Your first-rate reconsideration of Guard of Honor in the National Review provoked me to begin rereading the novel. (Robert A. Nisbet called it, along with Lolita (!), one of the greatest American novels of the past half-century. That was some time back in the ’eighties.) And I myself am partial to The Just and the Unjust, his novel about the legal profession and probably the first “serious” novel I ever read.

But the criterion of the NR Top Ten list was American novels since the ’fifties. And none of Cozzens’s novels which fit that criterion qualify for a list of the best conservative novels.

Dwight said...

I have to thank you for mentioning and recommending Gilead. I picked it up at the library the other day and it's so rare to see such a moving spiritual/religious journey and history today.

Guy Pursey said...

Just now catching up with your blog since your break... Excellent post. It is good to see conservatism defined, and consistently at odds with the definition of Leftism you gave in a previous comment!

Coincidentally (w/r/t your comment above), Princess Casamassima and The Secret Agent are both at the very top of my reading list, as they seemed like a logical follow-on to my vague interest in anarchism in literature. Having seen them mentioned here and in a relevant context, I now feel reassured that I'm on "the right track"...

Mr Sammler's Planet and Gilead are both in my stacks somewhere but they'll have to wait a while I suppose. And as Steven said, your post seems to list many other "tacit recommendations" — one of the more general reasons I keep returning to this blog.

Unknown said...

At your recommendation, I am reading Gilead. What a jewel! Your recommendations continue to deliver for me...thanks so much!

TLJ said...

I've discovered your blog via the author's note in the May COMMENTARY (lovely piece on Francine Prose), and am arrested by this conversation about novels appealing to readers with a conservative disposition. I suggest another classic, Conrad's NOSTROMO, which implicitly offers an Adam Smith-style understanding of economic and cultural development in a fictional South American country strongly resembling Venezuela. It's an aesthetically difficult novel, and needs to be read twice, but it's immensely rewarding.