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Reviewed by:
  • Political Fiction and the American Self
  • Paul Hansom
Political Fiction and the American Self. By John Whalen-Bridge. Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press. 1998. xii, 206 pp. Cloth, $39.95; paper, $17.95.

Political Fiction and the American Self is a masterful account of the invisible problem in American literary study: the uncomfortable relationship between aesthetics and the realm of active politics. Politics is such a beastly thing for [End Page 603] critics to address, primarily because it interposes between the beholder and the book, cheekily suggesting there might be something beyond the confines of the armchair. By their nature, literature and art are supposed to fulfill Arnoldian disinterestedness, and for literary works to openly profess an interest in the “system” is plain heresy. American political literature is generally denied worth on these grounds, a position that is of course wholly political. Whalen-Bridge, however, is not interested in constructing simplistic binaries of us (the aesthetes) and them (the politicos) but in blurring the boundaries between the political and the aesthetic. As he reaches back into American literary history, Whalen-Bridge clearly illustrates that this easy split between the two is more reliant on New Critical aesthetic politics than on any intrinsic quality of political fiction itself. The split, as he maintains, is largely a myth, because American fiction has always been concerned with politics, whether explicitly or implicitly, primarily through the status, position, and use of the individual as a national trope. Part one of Whalen-Bridge’s study explores some of the literary-political skirmishes within the critical realm, focusing on the central place of the American self trapped in a besmirched world. This self’s resistance is strengthened by the notion of politics as impurity within the work. However, as parts two and three show, American literary history is full of diverse examples that successfully merge good literature and political interests. As Whalen-Bridge makes clear, a novel’s political concern can be manifest in various ways. Herman Melville and Jack London, for example, both attempted to bridge the gap between politics and literature. While politics has insisted on the multiplicity of interpretation within the political context, literature has cleverly represented the dogmatic in a highly readable and entertaining fashion. Part three focuses on the twentieth century and the connections between individualism and political power. By concentrating on Mailer’s Harlot’s Ghost and the literary-political expressions of African American writers like Ellison, Wright, and Morrison, Whalen-Bridge merges and explores American literary mythology and aesthetic-political strategies within literature. Writing about politics takes not only a keen eye and understanding but also an increased awareness of the personal and artistic choices available to the writer, an awareness that connects the personal, the political, and the aesthetic. In some ways Whalen-Bridge’s work lets him have both political cake and a feast, because he insists that American literature always has been political and artistic, flipping between the flexible integers of art as politics and politics as art. Nevertheless, the intellectual rigor, fairness, and wit make this book a major contribution to the ongoing debates on the definitions of American selfhood.

Paul Hansom
University of Southern California

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pp. 603-604
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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Archived 2005
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