- No Accident, Comrade: Chance and Design in Cold War American Narratives by Steven Belletto
In the late 1980s and 1990s, scholars began rethinking the effects of mid-century American foreign policy on authors and the literary market. Landmark studies from Donald Pease, Thomas Schaub, and Alan Nadel encouraged critics to consider the ways in which authors negotiated and sometimes reinforced the postwar consensus built around strategies of containment. Once installed, containment became the dominant method for analyzing the eclectic body of texts known as Cold War literature. Everything, it seemed, could be read as a legacy of George Kennan’s 1946 “Long Telegram” and Harry Truman’s 1947 “doctrinal” speech. In the last decade, though, scholars began interrogating this logic to emphasize what gets left out in the [End Page 390] Manichean framework of American capitalist democracy and Soviet communism: the decolonizing third world, the implicit economic stakes of the protracted military conflict. This reoriented perspective is what Leerom Medovoi calls the “three worlds imaginary” and Christina Klein calls the “global imaginary of integration,” containment’s dialectic other. More than ideological dominance was at issue, they underscore, in the circulation of cultural objects during the Cold War.
Building on the work of Medovoi and Klein, Steven Belletto’s No Accident, Comrade: Chance and Design in Cold War American Narratives shifts the focus once again. Belletto conceptualizes Cold War literature in relation not to containment or integration but rather to the idea of chance. He argues that chance became a critical tactic for mid-century intellectuals to contest what they took to be the fictional “objective reality” of Stalinism. They defined American democracy in contrast, as offering room for chance in life and history and thus personal freedom. This thinking depended on a misinformed understanding of historical materialism in which chance (and human agency) had no role whatsoever; all political and economic changes occur according to historical destiny: “There is no accident, comrade.” Literary authors took to this subject, determinism and design, to consider the ways in which the construction of “objective reality” itself relied on storytelling to inscribe meaning and order. In doing so, they regarded fiction writing as a point of entry for contemplating the “authorial design” of Stalinism but also the political and cultural norms of the United States. Belletto clarifies: “Because politics were during the Cold War often viewed as being fictions, and the conflict itself betrayed its narrative quality again and again, the act of literary fiction making became laden with political significance, as did the use and theorization of chance within these narratives” (12).
In charting the meaning of chance in mid-century literary texts, No Accident, Comrade makes a critical distinction between “absolute chance” (23) and what Belletto theorizes as “narrative chance” (25). The former refers to the absence of intention altogether, something that cannot be foreseen according to a theory or rule. The latter, on the other hand, refers to chance as it occurs in a work of fiction, which cannot be absolute because it is ordered according to an author’s intention and imagination; it is a scripted accident. Narrative chance is thus “interpretable” because it occurs within a larger design and is understood to contain meaning as such, whereas absolute chance falls outside of the critical enterprise as lacking design and therefore deliberate meaning. In the mid-century American climate of militarism and redbaiting, Belletto argues, the lack of absolute chance in fiction became a source of anxiety and political insight for some authors. If absolute chance stands as an indicator of “objective reality” and thus [End Page 391] true freedom, he points out, “then narrative chance is marked always by its inability to achieve the same sort of freedom possible in real life” (26). Belletto’s argument thus carries considerable implications for the way we understand the political in relation to the fictional in postwar American literature.
No Accident, Comrade displays the tight and clear organization of a first book. Chapter 1 offers a sketch of the ways in which the idea of chance circulated in...