Political Fictions

Along with many other people, I’ve been on vacation these past couple of weeks. But while I was trying to get away from the world and from newspapers, I nonetheless kept noticing headlines about the presidential race, the recent nominating conventions, and all the other madness that is an election year.

Which started me thinking. Are there any great novels about American politics?

In American literature, most readers would point to Robert Penn Warren’s All the King’s Men, a fictionalized account of Huey Long of Louisiana. Many readers, especially if they’re from Texas, admire William Brammer’s The Gay Place, which focuses on a Lyndon Johnson-like governor of the Lone Star state. The critic Edmund Wilson once sang the praises of Edwin O’Connor’s The Last Hurrah, the account of a Boston mayoral race. Allen Drury’s Advise and Consent—about Washington ways and means—became a best seller and a pretty good movie. I still remember Charles Laughton as Senator Seabright Cooley.

Given his propensity for exaggeration and grotesquerie, one might even include Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail as a semi-fiction. Personally, I regard all campaign books and political memoirs as exercises in myth-making, so they too might count as fictions, of a sort.

There are, of course, plenty of journalistic books about electioneering, the grand-daddy being Theodore H. White’s The Making of the President, about the 1960 Kennedy-Nixon campaigns. The various writings of H.L. Mencken offer an astringent look at politics as a carnival of buncombe. (By the way, this Saturday, September 9, is Mencken Day at the Pratt Library, with talks and symposia from morning till late afternoon.) Certainly, eminent works of biography, such as Edmund Morris’s three-volume study of Teddy Roosevelt and Robert Caro’s ongoing account of Lyndon Johnson, tell us a good deal about the political processes in these United States. Then, too, there are such scholarly classics as Richard Hofstadter’s The American Political Tradition.

What other books would members of the Reading Room recommend for their treatment of American politics? Are there other important novels than those I’ve mentioned? What nonfiction seems essential or enjoyable? Please share your thoughts, as we head into the frenetic election days ahead.

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