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International Socialism, Summer 1962


David Steel

Political Literature


From International Socialism (1st series), No.9, Summer 1962, p.33.
Thanks to Ted Crawford & the late Will Fancy.
Marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.


Politics and the Novel
Irving Howe
New Left-Stevens. 12s 6d.

What happens to the novel when it is subjected to the pressures of political ideology?

The author answers his own question in two hundred and fifty consistently intelligent pages, in which he separately comments on the work of a number of novelists, American and European, of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, who have written novels ‘in which we take to be dominant political ideas or the political milieu and which permit this assumption without thereby offering any radical distortion.’ But does he answer his question? Hardly, because he has asked it awkwardly. But he describes admirably the literary course of man-against-political-odds from Stendhal to Orwell via Hawthorne and Henry James.

The author raises his tent, guys it firmly to literature on one side, politics on the other, never flounders among the canvas, never trips over the ropes, never staggers against the pole – a sober, competent workman. And if the whole structure leans rather more towards literature than politics, the slant is due to the slant of the ground itself.

However, the thorny question of what is and what is not political is largely by-passed. Class-consciousness which is a vital element in Stendhal, for instance, is unfortunately not necessarily a political consciousness. Mr. Howe, editor of Dissent, covers enough ground as it is, and obviously cannot also burrow among Jane Austen (how politically relevant her non-political world is) and Balzac (whose work thunders to the clink of capitalist coin), but he might have said more precisely where, in his opinion, politics begin and end. A second grumble: can the dilemma of Dos Passos’s man be satisfactorily interpreted in the light of Hawthorne’s man – in other words, I would have welcomed a study of Dos Passos rather than Hawthorne. And why did not the author have time to drag in that luscious quotation from Henry Fielding, ‘Public schools are the nurseries of all vice and immorality,’ or is it perhaps quite irrelevant?

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