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The Tea Party’s New Front in the American Culture Wars: Literature

What Adam Bellow and other conservatives get wrong about the political leanings of creators of imaginative fiction

Adam Kirsch
July 10, 2014
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Shutterstock)
(Photoillustration Tablet Magazine; original photo Shutterstock)

It has not always been the case that imaginative writers—novelists, poets, playwrights—are liberals. Look back at the 1920s, the classic decade of modernism, and you’ll find that some of the greatest names were attracted to various kinds of reactionary and even quasi-fascist thought, from T.S. Eliot to Ezra Pound to D.H. Lawrence. For the New York Jewish intellectuals surrounding Partisan Review and Commentary in the mid-20th century, reconciling their literary admiration for such figures with their left-wing political views was the challenge that produced a generation of great critics. Lionel Trilling, in particular, was always reminding the bien-pensant liberals who read the highbrow journals that literature was more disturbing, more ideologically unruly and humanly curious, than conventional left-wing politics allowed.

But when Adam Bellow complains, in a pair of recent articles in National Review and Buzzfeed, that the literary establishment today is a liberal monolith, one has to acknowledge that he’s probably right. Surveys are always showing that something like 95 percent of professors vote Democratic, and I suppose that if a similar survey were taken of novelists, the results would be similar. As an editor, Bellow has shepherded a number of conservative bestsellers into print—books like Illiberal Education and The Bell Curve—but in his National Review essay, he notes that conservatives tend to be more successful at nonfiction argument than imaginative literature. “For years,” he writes, “conservatives have favored the rational left brain at the expense of the right. With apologies to Russell Kirk, the conservative mind is unbalanced—hyper-developed in one respect, completely undeveloped in another. It’s time to correct this imbalance and take the culture war into the field of culture proper.”

To this end, Bellow calls for a conservative countercultural establishment: “MFA programs, residencies and fellowships, writers’ colonies, grants and prizes, little magazines, small presses, and a network of established writers and critics.” Clearly, the model he has in mind is the right’s successful creation in the 1970s, under the auspices of neoconservative intellectuals like Irving Kristol, of a network of think tanks and publications that provided intellectual ammunition to the Republican party. Bellow himself has founded a website, Liberty Island, which allows conservative and libertarian authors to self-publish their work online—a first step in the Long March to conservative cultural renewal.

Still, if you look at the list of conservative books that Bellow recommends in his Buzzfeed article, it becomes clear that a major right-wing literary movement is not in the cards anytime soon. And the reason why can be deduced from his own essay—not so much its substance as its tone and emotional atmosphere. What drives Bellow, and seems to drive many of the authors he recommends—for instance, Kurt Schlichter, the author of Conservative Insurgency: The Struggle to Take America Back, 2009-2041—is the same deep-seated resentment that fuels the Tea Party movement. This brew of populism, racial grievance, wounded male pride, and generalized nostalgia excels at generating anger, which when harnessed to politics can do impressive and frightening things. The anger pulses in every line of Bellow’s essay, which begins with an anecdote of his own humiliation at the hands of a feminist speaker at a writer’s workshop (“I didn’t see why I should be called out in front of the group and angrily chastised as though I were merely an embodiment of the white male heterosexual power structure.”)

And it is this very anger that explains why a conservative literary revival, along the lines Bellow desires, is not going to happen. For anger is a not a conservative emotion. Genuine conservatism is something much broader and deeper than a political orientation; it is a temperament, one that looks to the past with reverence and the future with trepidation, and which believes that human nature is not easily changed or improved. Defined in this way, conservatism is in fact a major strain in contemporary American literature. David Foster Wallace, the leading novelist of his generation, was a champion of earnestness, reverence, self-discipline, and work—never more so than in his last, unfinished novel, The Pale King, whose heroes are hard-working accountants. Dave Eggers made his name with a memoir about raising his younger brother after his parents died, a hip but deeply earnest hymn to family values. Zadie Smith excels at the conservatism of comedy, which resolves differences in laughter and exposes human follies with an indulgent understanding.

In Jewish American literature, too, the conservative temperament has always been central, as Jewish writers struggle to remain attached to the past even as they negotiate their place in the future. Bernard Malamud’s The Assistant more or less explicitly identifies Jewishness with the values of honesty, hard work, and family loyalty, and dramatizes a willful young man’s submission to those values. Philip Roth’s American Pastoral, one of the most celebrated and decorated books of the last 20 years, is also one of the most explicitly conservative; it is a long shudder of horror at the radicalism of the 1960s, and it is filled with hymns to the small businessman that any Republican could love. And of course Adam Bellow’s father, Saul, wrote one of the first and most powerful anti-Sixties novels in Mr. Sammler’s Planet, inveighing against the sexual and racial liberations of that decade, which he contrasted with the old-world moral earnestness of the Jewish Artur Sammler.

With all these books to read and admire, why does Adam Bellow continue to believe that conservative writers are a persecuted minority? The reason may have something to do with the description of the kind of work he seeks at his Liberty Island website: “At Liberty Island, good still triumphs over evil, hope still overcomes despair, and America is still a noble experiment and a beacon to the rest of the world.” The problem is not that these are conservative ideas, but that they are simpleminded ideological dogmas, and so by their very nature hostile to literature, which lives or dies by its sense of reality. If you are not allowed to say that life in America can be bad, that Americans can be guilty as well as innocent, that good sometimes (most of the time?) loses out to evil—in short, that life in America is like human life in any other time or place—then you cannot be a literary writer, because you have censored your impressions of reality in advance.

But then, literature does not seem to be the driving impulse behind Bellow’s manifesto. What he wants is not good books, but political victory, and revenge—revenge against the smug liberals who so haunt the right-wing imagination. In short, he wants reassurance, the certainty that reality—of which literature is the perceiver and guardian—is always on the side of his political beliefs. But the first principle of the literary imagination, as Trilling argued, is that it is broader, deeper, and truer than political convictions; that politics must be corrected by literature, and not vice versa. If most writers are liberals, perhaps it’s because they instinctively understand this liberal principle.


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Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.

Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.