Political novelists are our nation’s storytellers. They tackle the big questions inherent in the idea of America. They bring to life the tragedies of our history —slavery, Manifest Destiny, the Depression, “America First” isolationism, political corruption, political paranoia, as well as our exalted faith in liberty and freedom. Yet underlying these stories is a certain idealism, or optimism, about the American political experiment, and the American spirit — the hope that we can work together to achieve our aspirational goals. These political novelists, in many ways, are defenders of the American soul.
Here are 10 favorite political novels that offer invaluable insight into who we are, where we have come from, and who we might yet become. They remind us that America is as much an idea as a place. They are listed in historical order.
1. Harriet Beecher Stowe, UNCLE TOM’S CABIN (1852)
This novel portrayed the injustices of slavery in the 1840’s and 1850’s. It is justifiably regarded as the most consequential in American history. Stowe, probably more than any other individual, helped end the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, and helped advance Emancipation and the 13th Amendment.
She wrote to rally America to transcend racism and to treat everyone as human beings. She was intentionally preachy and agitational because she understood this was needed to shame her fence-sitting Christian friends — as well as the reluctant Abraham Lincolns — into exercising moral responsibility on the slavery issue.
2. Henry Adams, DEMOCRACY: AN AMERICAN NOVEL (1880)
Adams was the privileged and erudite Bostonian son, grandson and great grandson of American statesmen. He lived off and on in Washington, D.C. and often didn’t like what he was seeing. His caustic novel, published anonymously, warned that the American political experiment was hemorrhaging from integrity-deficit disorder.
Adams has his fictional characters look closely at our presidential-congressional separation of powers system and the verdict is dismaying — hypocrisy, bribery and partisanship over principle. Adams, through his characters, calls for a Civil Service Reform Act, and for both more enlightened citizens and for leaders who have moral fiber.
3. Helen Hunt Jackson: RAMONA (1884)
Colorado Springs resident Helen Hunt Jackson tried to do for Native-Americans what Stowe had done for African-Americans. Her novel failed to achieve Cabin’s fame and influence yet it is remains in print. Ramona is a heart-wrenching, consequential novel that reminds us of the darker aspects of Manifest Destiny. It remains a classic consciousness-raiser and it triggered some needed legislative reforms and some advocacy reform groups. It deserves to be reread in this new nativist period.
4. John Steinbeck, GRAPES OF WRATH (1939)
Grapes is a hard-hitting expose of greed, meanness and the imperfections of our economic practices. Steinbeck said he wrote this “purpose novel” to shame the “greedy bastards who were responsible,” adding that “I’ve done my damndest to rip the readers’ nerves to rags.”
His book chronicles the Joad family as they search for grapes, jobs, fair pay and humanity. Eleanor Roosevelt rejected criticism that this was an un-American book. It was, she insisted, “a profoundly religious, spiritual and ethically urgent book.” Millions of readers have agreed.
5. Robert Penn Warren, ALL THE KING’S MEN (1946)
Warren’s classic is the essential American political novel. It tells the story of a populist rural politician who mobilizes his fellow “hicks” and “hayseeds” to take on the oligarchy of their fictional southern state. Protagonist Willie Stark wins an upset victory and becomes an activist governor championing much-needed redistributive policies. Stark, after some success, becomes intoxicated with fame and power and begins to confuse needership with leadership.
This novel tells the dispiriting story of Stark’s right-hand man, Jack Burden — a well educated son of privilege — who gets so sucked into the subversive vortex of his boss’s ambitions to make both his state and himself great that he is painfully slow to understand his own moral responsibilities, as well as this nation’s constitutional principles.
6. Richard Condon, THE MANCHURIAN CANDIDATE (1959)
Condon’s convoluted satirical, psychological, and political thriller gives us a range of narratives, including soldier brain-washing, romance, assassinations, international conspiracies, dodgy presidential politics, a power-driven Joe McCarthy-style U.S. senator (who secretly uses help from foreign powers to try to win the presidency), counterespionage, and a heavy dose of political intrigue and paranoia. Sound a little familiar?
Its central theme is to beware paranoid ideologues — who can come from the political left, or right, or even from the disguised middle — who undermine our nation’s constitutional practices.
7. Allen Drury, ADVISE AND CONSENT (1959)
This remains the best novel on Congress. Drury’s best selling melodrama captures the U.S. Senate at work as it processes a presidential nomination for secretary of state.
Drury’s fictionalized nation’s capital has its share of vain, pompous and self-serving officials in all three branches. Yet it wonderfully portrays, in very human ways, compassionate, hardworking and conscientious senators dedicated to representative government, thoughtful deliberation, and doing the right thing. Drury is at his best when he describes how politics influences character and how politicians deal with moral and political ambiguity.
8. Fletcher Knebel and Charles Bailey, SEVEN DAYS IN MAY (1962)
These veteran Washington journalists left us a powerfully instructive political thriller that warns against the type of military coup that has regularly happened in dozens of countries around the world.
Their fictional Pentagon plot to overthrow an elected if unpopular president was obviously a creation of their imagination in the early Kennedy era. But as their fictional president muses at the end of their novel, “with missiles and satellites and nuclear weapons, military commanders could take control of the nation by just pushing some buttons.”
9. Michael Shaara, THE KILLER ANGELS (1975)
Shaara gave us one of the most readable and illuminating novels of wartime leadership in America. He describes how Union and Confederate military commanders made battlefield judgments at the crucial showdown in Gettysburg.
Shaara had carefully studied all the records and diaries yet had to imagine the conversations between Lee and his deputies and their counterparts on the Union side.
Embedded in his gripping historical fiction is a pep talk Union Colonel Joshua Lawrence Chamberlain gives to some decidedly reluctant, exhausted fellow Mainers who wanted to go home.
Chamberlain explains that while other men and other nations have gone to war for loot or new territory, the Union Army fights for something more noble:”we fight to set other men free.” “This is free ground” Chamberlain continues. “All the way from here to the Pacific Ocean. No man has to bow. No man born to royalty. Here we judge you by what you do, not by what your father was….It is the idea that we all have value.”
Chamberlain’s soldiers responded and helped to defeat Lee’s troops at Gettysburg.
10. Toni Morrison, BELOVED (1987)
Morrison’s remarkable narrative is not just about what protagonist Sethe Garner wants to remember and forget but more importantly what America needs to remember about the unspeakable unspokens that happened in the Middle Passage, the slave trade across the Atlantic and in the course of slavery in America. Hers is the story of a nation that had made dreadfully bad choices and had repeatedly lost its moral compass.
Morrison’s storytelling is exhilarating, lyrical and packed with magical realism and biblical symbolism. She believed the best art “is political and you ought to be able to make it unquestionably political and irrevocably beautiful at the same time.”
As the idea of America and the soul of America are much debated these days, these and dozens of other great American novels should be read or reread.
Tom Cronin and Bob Loevy are retired political science professors who were longtime members of the faculty at The Colorado College in Colorado Springs. Both taught courses on the American political novel. Tom Cronin’s recently published Imagining a Great Republic: Political Novels and the Idea of America (Rowman & Littlefield, 2018) provides an extensive discussion of more than 40 American political novels.