Why There Are No Great Soviet (or New Deal) Novels

In The Liberal Tradition (1950), the critic Lionel Trilling called attention to the “fatal separation” he saw between

the ideas of our educated liberal class and the deep places of the imagination. . . . Our educated class has a ready if mild suspiciousness of the profit motive, a belief in progress, science, social legislation, planning and international cooperation. . . . Those beliefs do great credit to those who hold them. Yet it is a comment, if not on our beliefs, then on our way of holding them, that not a single first-rate writer has emerged to deal with these ideas, and the emotions that are consonant with them, in a great literary way.

Trilling believed there was no great novel celebrating the New Deal, in the first instance, or, more broadly, the Welfare State or Mixed Economy or Keynesian Interventionism or “People’s Capitalism” (a term President Eisenhower tried to popularize) or Centralized Planning or, at the extreme, coercive socialism or Communism.

I think he is right. There are great anti-collectivist, anti-Communist novels, but no great pro ones. John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath (1939) may be the closest thing to an exception. It argues in favor of both government intervention (when the hero, Tom Joad, learns that the U.S. government migrant labor camp he’s driven into has not only toilets, showers, and democratic elections, but dance nights, he cries out, “Well, for Christ’s sake! Why ain’t they more places like this?”) and self-sacrifice to build a better world for others (Tom responds to his mother’s worry that, if he works to organize the poor, she may never see him again:

Well, maybe . . . a fella ain’t got a soul of his own, but on’y a piece of a big one -- an’ then . . . it don’ matter. Then I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be ever’where -- wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. . . . I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the house they build -- why I’ll be there.)

But novel-lovers--apparently even Steinbeck himself, who said he didn’t deserve his 1962 Nobel Prize for Literature--would not rank Grapes of Wrath as the equal of, say, Moby Dick, Middlemarch, Crime and Punishment, The Sun Also Rises, Light in August.

One way to understand why there are no great communist/communitarian novels is to look at what I take to be the central paradox of the American character: Americans’ ideas about people as social beings come from the Enlightenment; Americans’ ideas about people as individuals come from our conservative (read: Calvinist/Counterreformation Catholic) religious heritage, from the Romantics, and from Sigmund Freud.

In our public lives we believe in reason, pragmatism, science, equality based on natural rights and the rule of law, soft-edged utilitarianism, co-operation, democracy, quantification, and, certainly not least, a free market where cream rises to the top. At the same time, we believe that the private self is radically unknowable, rich, perverse (“Every inclination of the human heart is evil” -- Genesis 8:21), self-indulgent, spontaneous, emotion-driven ("In our innermost soul we are children and remain so for the rest of our lives" -- Freud), tortured, alienated from others and dismissive of them.

There are no great collectivist or socialist or Soviet novels because the novel is a Romantic art form. Novels focus on individual experience. In a novel, nothing is more important than personal life and relationships -- certainly not such vague, utilitarian things as the welfare of the state or Other People. It was, after all, a novelist (E.M. Forster, a favorite of Trilling’s) who wrote that splendid-sounding, stupid credo, “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country.” (But, Mr. Forster, say your friend was going to blow up an airplane or Parliament or pass an A-bomb to al-Qaeda, surely you’d do something.) It is inconceivable that a good novel could end with an admirable hero sincerely announcing to his beloved or a crowd, “I can’t tell you how great it is to be alive in a caring welfare state where I know I’ll never want for food, shelter, and decent medical care.”

Trilling wanted a great New Deal novel, which, like a square circle, can’t exist. If one wants to see the Enlightenment triumphant in great art, one must look to other arts. To music, for example, and not only to composers of the Enlightenment like Haydn and Mozart but to the Beethoven of the Eroica, the Tchaikovsky of The 1812 Overture, practically all of Prokofiev, some Shostakovich, and, of course, John Philip Sousa. The New Deal can claim at least one great composer: the Aaron Copland of El salón México, Billy the Kid, An Outdoor Overture, Our Town, Rodeo, Fanfare for the Common Man, Appalachian Spring, The Red Pony. (Copland knew he wasn’t a Romantic. “Agony I don't connect with,” he said. “Not even alienation.”)

The contemporary German novelist and sometime politician Günter Grass understands the different requirements of Enlightenment politics and Romantic art. He has said, “What is deadly dangerous to literature is that in politics you have to repeat yourself, and literature and art are about the new and the innovative, about the undiscovered and the unvoiced. We must find ways to show responsibility to both.”

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