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Ten Great Conservative Novels


A few months ago, a professor e-mailed with a simple question: What are the great conservative novels? He was preparing a course on the history of American conservatism and wanted to include some fiction on his syllabus. I proposed a few titles, but his question lingered in my mind. So I asked readers of National Review Online for their suggestions. I also canvassed several ex­perts on American literature. Hundreds of ideas poured in. Here is the result: a list of ten great conservative novels, all written by Americans since the founding of the conservative movement in the 1950s. Lists such as this are always (and ideally) debatable. Yet these choices represent something of a rough consensus. Feel free to add them to your own reading syllabus.

1. Advise and Consent, by Allen Drury (1959): “It may be a long time before a better [novel about Washington] comes along,” noted Saturday Review on the publication of Advise and Con­sent. The first work of fiction by veteran reporter Allen Drury won a Pulitzer, stayed on the bestseller lists for nearly two years, and became a well-regarded movie starring Henry Fonda and Charles Laughton. The book was loosely based on the case of Alger Hiss, and it sizzles with issues of loyalty and security. Half a century since its first publication, Advise and Consent still provides a penetrating look at Washington’s never-ending clash between ambition and integrity. The strength of the book is that even though it’s a political novel about a confirmation battle between the executive branch and powerful senators, it doesn’t wear politics on its sleeve. Instead, Drury shares the conservative’s preference for studying people, with their vices and virtues, before their stated ideologies. His novel exhibits a firm appreciation for the checks and balances at the heart of the American constitutional order as well as a sophisticated view of human na­ture. Even now, Advise and Consent remains a page-turning thriller that both describes and celebrates the obfus­cations, oratorical mannerisms, and etiquette that are designed quite de­liberately as speed bumps in the paths of the statist behemoth. That is just one reason it remains a book that every student of the U.S. Senate should read — as well as any student of American literature.

– Roger Kaplan is a writer in Washington, D.C.

2. Midcentury, by John Dos Passos (1961): Midcentury is more than just a great conservative novel. It’s one of the undiscovered classics in 20th-century literature. Dos Passos returns to the unique style he developed in his acclaimed U.S.A. trilogy, where multiple stories intersect with real-life headlines and portraits of the rich and powerful. His themes are the great issues of the 1950s: the Cold War and the aftereffects of the New Deal. Midcentury uses both fiction and history to show how Communists and organized crime corrupted labor unions, when they were at the peak of their power. The book also displays cultural foresight, es­pecially in its portrait of a sneering James Dean titled “The Sinister Adolescents.” Dos Passos anticipates the emerging counterculture, which he interprets (con­troversially, but plausibly) in light of the subversion and loss of traditional institutions, as the “Greatest Generation” failed to match its bravery overseas with the efforts necessary to take on domestic adversaries. (“Why not resentful? There’s more to life; the kids knew it. Their fathers won a war but weren’t men enough to keep the peace, they let the politicians and pundits wheedle them into defeat; they let the goons pilfer their paychecks, too busy watching TV to resent oppression.”) Midcentury is even more remarkable because Dos Passos made his literary reputation as a socialist and is perhaps the only first-rate novelist to make a conscious journey from Left to Right over the course of his career. Never shrill, Midcentury bristles with insight and the hard-won wisdom of an ex-leftist who knows his history.

 – Larry Kaufmann, an economic consultant in Madison, Wis., contributes to

3. Mr. Sammler’s Planet, by Saul Bellow (1970): If Saul Bellow’s 1970 novel, Mr. Sammler’s Planet, was not written for the sake of conservatism, it was widely read as a conservative manifesto. Set at the end of the dispiriting 1960s in a New York City that has descended into moral anarchy, it chronicles America’s cultural decadence. Young people thrill to the humiliation of the elderly, criminals celebrate their own righteousness, and the sexual revolution has given birth to a base nihilism. Via such depictions, Mr. Sammler’s Planet is a novel of decay and rot. Moreover, Bellow seems to say, the American Left is no passive bystander but an active vehicle of decline. Artur Sammler, the titular character, is a Polish Jewish Holocaust survivor and an erstwhile liberal optimist. The novel pivots on a shocking translation: Sammler applies a pessimism he has learned on Europe’s killing fields to the spectacle of late-20th-century America. His weary wisdom lends the novel its taut intellectual drama. With Elya Gruner, the book’s other hero, Bellow repudiates the littérateur’s formulaic pity for respectable members of the bourgeoisie. Gruner’s plodding commitment to family annoys his ungrateful children, lacks the sanction of cultural fashion, and forms an ideal to which Gruner himself does not entirely live up. Yet, in the novel, it also enables a small island of decency and goodness. Bellow’s was a sui generis conservatism planted at the center of literary Manhattan circa 1970, a calculated provocation from a writer destined to win the Nobel Prize in 1976.

 – Michael Kimmage, an assistant professor of history at Catholic University, is the author of The Conservative Turn.

4. The Time It Never Rained, by Elmer Kelton (1973): To say that Elmer Kelton wrote “Westerns” is to confine him to a literary ghetto. He certainly participated in the genre and wasn’t ashamed to do so. Yet his greatest book, about a terrible drought in West Texas during the 1950s, is an unheralded classic — and a profoundly conservative story about the importance of self-reliance in the face of overwhelming odds. Charlie Flagg is a cantankerous rancher who suffers during the dry spell but refuses all offers of government assistance, to the puzzlement and even consternation of his neighbors. Lib­ertarians like to say that there’s no such thing as a free lunch. Kelton has Charlie proclaim it in his own regional idiom: “There was nothin’ new about that idea. It’s as old as mankind . . . the hope of gettin’ somethin’ for nothin’ or of getting more out of the pot than you put in it. Nobody’s ever made it work yet. Nobody ever will.” The Time It Never Rained overflows with this kind of homespun wisdom, but the book’s real pleasure lies in its vivid characters and their inevitable conflicts. Charlie and his wife can’t agree on what to have for dinner, in an ongoing battle that masks deeper fissures. Their son rejects ranch life, even though he could inherit the small operation they’ve built. Meanwhile, a Mexican-American boy looks to Charlie as a father figure. “I can’t write about heroes seven feet tall and invincible,” Kelton once said. “I write about people five feet eight and nervous.”

 – John J. Miller

5. The Thanatos Syndrome, by Walker Percy (1987): Walker Percy was a doctor who contracted tuberculosis. Following his recuperation, he abandoned medicine for literature. He said he wanted to diagnose spiritual, not physical, malaise. His recurrent theme in books such as The Moviegoer and Love in the Ruins was that particular malady of the modern dystopia, the triumph of science over charity and humanity. A Catholic convert, Percy examined what happens to a society when it stops believing in the transcendent and relies instead on a medicalized view of the human person, whose ills can be cured through therapy and drugs. On this point, his most compel­lingly readable book may be The Thanatos Syndrome. It features Thom­as More, a doctor who returns home to Louisiana after a stint in prison. It seems the good folk of the town are lacing the munici­pal waters with a chemical designed to eliminate bad conduct, such as aggression, addiction, and other dangerous behaviors. More resists this effort because the exercise of choice and free will makes us human. Trying to erase our flaws — even through the use of scientific methods made possible by our human intelligence — reduces us to beasts, a de­volution vividly recounted through characters who revert to being rutting, language-lost animals. The elimination of undesirable characteristics leads, inexorably in Percy’s view, to the destruction of “unwanted” persons. Scientific judgment, without an infusion of charity, results in decisions that are literally non-human. It was a compelling story in the 1980s, and — in an age of destructive embryonic-stem-cell research, trait-specific abortion, and euthanasia — remains one today.

 – Gerald Russello is a fellow of the Chesterton Institute at Seton Hall University and author of The Postmodern Imagination of Russell Kirk.

6. The Bonfire of the Vanities, by Tom Wolfe (1987): In many ways, the New York City of the 1980s — sprawling, crime-ridden, out of control — has passed into history. Yet Tom Wolfe’s grand novel of this place and time holds up because human nature — greedy, lazy, concupiscent, and beset by status anxiety — hasn’t changed a whit, nor has the tumultuous energy of the city that never sleeps. Wolfe created a huge and vivid gallery of New York types, high and low, who were fully human. (His aim was that of Dickens, to write about every level of society.) At the center is Sherman McCoy: preening, eaten by insecurity, and terrified of his wife, his mistress, his boss, and the nemesis that awaits him as punishment for an act of cowardice. And there are so many other characters who persist as recognizable types, including slothful journalists, trophy wives, career-pushing prosecutors, snobbish nannies who lord it over their less well-heeled clients — all ground through the gears of a tight and perfectly turning plot. Wolfe despised arty, introspective fiction and sought to write a panoramic, large-scale, 19th-century-style novel that would realistically portray 20th-century urban life in all its rollicking glory and sordidness. He succeeded so well that some of the turns of phrase he coined — “Mas­ters of the Universe,” “social X-rays” — are fixtures of American English more than 20 years later. Sherman McCoy will live forever as one of 20th-century America’s most distinctive fictional characters, and researchers will be consulting Wolfe’s book for centuries to find out what New York was — and is — really like.

 – Charlotte Allen is the author of The Human Christ.

7. Shelley’s Heart, by Charles McCarry (1995): Charles McCarry is sometimes called a “conservative John le Carré” for his highly intelligent espionage thrillers. The difference is that le Carré presents British spymaster George Smiley and his Soviet foe Karla as moral equivalents, while McCarry believes in the superiority of Western ideals. His spy novels depict the unpleasant, even tragic, actions that are sometimes necessary to preserve those ideals. Shelley’s Heart is a political thriller and the finest fictional account of how modern Washington works — or doesn’t, as the case may be. The novel eviscerates politicians, aides, journalists, and judges as they vie for power. McCarry’s depictions can be deeply cynical: A radical nominee for the Supreme Court will likely be confirmed because he has spent his professional life making sure that none of his controversial views is ever on the record. As for the supposedly free press, “All the front pages carried the same stories in the same positions under headlines that said the same thing.” Thanks to environmental policies that have run amok, the streets are dark at night and the capital is infested with deer. Here is how McCarry describes a president who has made a momentous decision that he knows runs counter to the best interests of the country but may save his career and advance his political agenda: “Like most political figures of his generation who embrace progressive convictions,” McCarry writes, “Lockwood had never in his adult life been anything but a politician.” He “was a politician to the depths of his being, and his office was all he had.” Sound familiar?

 – Melanie Kirkpatrick, a former deputy editor of the Wall Street Journal’s editorial page, is a writer in Connecticut.

8. Gilead, by Marilynne Robinson (2004): This Pulitzer Prize–winning novel is about virtue, and virtue rewarded. It takes the form of a letter from father to son, the last testament of the ailing John Ames, a fourth-generation minister in the small Iowa town of Gilead during the 1950s. He has lived according to what he calls the “obvious question”: “What is the Lord asking of me in this moment, in this situation?” The answer is not always apparent, Ames finds. His is a divided heritage: between his fiery abolitionist grandfather, who fought in the Civil War, and his pacifist father. Ames faces his own stumbling block in the form of Jack Boughton, his godson and a Prodigal Son who returns seeking his godfather’s blessing. Throughout the novel, Ames seeks to untangle a series of knotty moral questions: What is the relation of divine justice to earthly justice? How is that justice consistent with grace? Gilead grapples with these “mysteries” of human existence, even as Ames cautions that “we human beings,” frail and sinful, have “so little conception of justice, and so slight a capacity for grace.” The result is a book of both humility and hope, aware of our limitations, but also of the goodness of creation. “Augustine says the Lord loves each of us as an only child, and that has to be true,” Ames writes. “‘He will wipe the tears from all faces.’ It takes nothing from the loveliness of the verse to say that is exactly what will be required.” There is, indeed, balm in Gilead.

 – Cheryl Miller is editor of Doublethink magazine.

9. Freddy and Fredericka, by Mark Helprin (2005): As the Allies closed in on the Nazis, U.S. soldiers arrived at the door of Richard Strauss. Drawing himself up (one ima­gines), Strauss greeted them with, “I am Doktor Richard Strauss, composer of Salome and Der Rosenkavalier.” In­teresting that he should have chosen those two works, for self-identification. Under Mark Helprin’s name, on the cover of his latest book, Digital Barbarism, we find, “Author of Winter’s Tale and A Soldier of the Great War.” Those are extraordinary, even great, novels. One or the other is many people’s favorite book. But there are other Helprin creations to absorb. All of his novels are “conservative,” in that they deal with enduring truths and how to live. They are also shot through with religion, having the quality of prayer. But at least one of those novels is conservative in even a political way. That is Freddy and Fredericka, a comedy. And though it is a comedy — a dazzling one — it becomes perfectly profound. Freddy and Freder­icka are a prince and princess of Wales who are banished to America, where they find their true selves. Helprin writes a hymn to America, his home country — a hymn with no triteness at all. But he also sings of England as few Englishmen have. They should knight him for it. In writing about love and life — and how could the two be separated? — Helprin lifts you up. He is a rare combination of big, big literary talent and big, big humanity.

 – Jay Nordlinger is an NR senior editor.

10. No Country for Old Men, by Cormac McCarthy (2005): Some novels are not ostensibly political but nevertheless have a special appeal for conservatives, especially those in the Augustinian tradition. Such people are skeptical about plans for improvement and cynical about the morally pretentious. They think that we live in a fallen world and that natural law is a lie told by an atheist. Their favorite authors are Pascal, Evelyn Waugh, Graham Greene, and, in our day, Cormac Mc­Carthy, America’s greatest living novelist. McCarthy’s The Road recently has been turned into a film. A better introduction to his work may be No Country for Old Men, itself the subject of a superb movie. McCarthy’s message is that evil walks the land, that fate rules the world, that God owes us nothing, and that His silence is unbroken. Those who accept this have a certain nobility, but redemption comes only through His grace. No Coun­try is the story of a chase, of a hunter and the hunted, of a hit man and his victim, told through the prism of a sheriff, the novel’s moral center. The hunter, Anton Chigurh, is an avenging angel, the agent of amoral fate in a dark world, the most frightening character you’ll ever encounter. “If the rule you followed led you to this of what use was the rule?” asks Chigurh, before he pulls the trigger. The sheriff follows moral rules, but like Chigurh does not expect they’ll help him in any way, which is why Chigurh permits him to live.

 – F. H. Buckley is a law professor at George Mason University.

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