The Unelectable in Literature: A Rogue’s Gallery

November 7, 2012 | 5 books mentioned 1 6 min read

As the 2012 presidential election comes to an end, each candidate’s political and personal life has been vetted, his message honed, and a team of advisers assembled to shield him from any unwanted drama. This list considers those literary political or public figures who would not have withstood much scrutiny in the modern age. In contrast to the predictable quality of even the most captivating political biography, these tales favor the eerie or the bizarre over the electable in their consideration of political life. There is an element of fiction in all successful politics, but these works show the deliriously entertaining distortions that result when fiction (or creative nonfiction) asserts its authority over the political realm. John Cowper Powys’s epic poses the following question: if getting caught with a dead girl or a live boy is political suicide, what does an affair with an endangered, aboriginal giantess portend for a prince about to ascend to the throne? How would Charles Kinbote’s claims about his native Zembla in Nabokov’s Pale Fire hold up in the age of PolitiFact? Ben Marcus’s dystopian allegory-cum-bildungsroman­-cum-anthropological study lets us ponder what debate format would best suit Jane Dark, the pantomiming leader of a political party called the Silentists. A Henry James’s story, “The Private Life” asks just what happens to a figure with a preternatural knack for finding a public when nobody is around. Finally, Gertrude Stein’s authorized autobiography of her lover and modernist Paris explores why the military should embrace the avant-garde or risk obsolescence. Each work puts forth a character who, however indelible, remains doggedly unelectable. 

1. John Cowper Powys, Porius
coverThe time is 499 AD, and for Porius, the prince of a kingdom in Wales, the new century cannot come quickly enough. The Roman authority that installed his clan has long since crumbled, and the realm is threatened by an impending Saxon invasion. The young prince must also contend with a firebrand preacher spreading an aggressive new Christian religion hostile to local customs, a fragile coalition of oft-warring ethnic tribes, a plotting druidical leader, imperious Arthurian knights, and a beguiling sorceress who has infatuated King Arthur’s counselor, Merlin. Oh, and there are also two aboriginal giants lurking about, one of whom Porius, in his most spectacular dereliction of duties (political and marital), pursues over the mountainous terrain and seduces. Hiking the Appalachian Trail indeed. The novel dramatizes one long political and religious crisis, but the most fantastic thing about this fantastical novel is Porius’s sensuous exploration of his private sensations amidst the public chaos. Porius, the “strongest as well as the craziest man” in the kingdom, chooses to ruminate on the nature of the Pelagian heresy or “cavoseniargize,” a Powys neologism for a rapturous state in which “his soul found itself able to follow every curve and ripple of his bodily sensations and yet remain suspended above them.” By the end of the novel, Porius has become a kind of Herculean Lambert Strether, an ambassador who seeks not to impose his will on his roiling domain but rather derive an intensely personal moral from its upheavals.

2. Vladimir Nabokov, Pale Fire
cover“Are you better off than you were four years ago?” As that question is posed repeatedly by each political party, it is perhaps worth musing on how the narrator/commentator of Pale Fire would respond to a similar question after the Karlist Revolution overthrew the monarchy and exiled him from his “blue, inenubliable Zemba.” After all, in Charles the Beloved’s reign, the issues beguiling American politics today were blissfully resolved: “The climate seemed to be improving. Taxation had become a thing of beauty. The poor were getting a little richer, and the rich a little poorer…Medical care was spreading to the confines of the state…Parachuting had become a popular sport.” Granted, this utopia exists solely in the (gloriously) demented mind and “wistful thinking” of a madman, but still, decent healthcare and parachuting as a national sport? Kinbote’s flights of fancy have little to do with some of the more squalid falsifications and misrepresentations to which American politicians resort; rather, as he confides to John Shade, the poet whom he has “saturated” with his Zembla, “once transmuted by you into poetry, the stuff will be true, and the people will come alive. A poet’s purified truth can cause no pain, no offense. True art is above false honor.” (Oh, to hear Kinbote’s account of racing in the Zemblan Marathon!) A noble goal: should leaders lie, at least do it in verse.

3. Ben Marcus, Notable American Women
coverBen Marcus, at once the guinea pig, greatest hope and greatest disappointment of the warring parents whose narratives bookend his own “secret history of women in American townships,” can remember a time when “historic leaders shouted their hearts out to the world, lecturing feverishly until their bodies collapsed and they died.” Yet by the time Ben narrates his perverse bildungsroman, those leaders, presumably male, have been “shushed,” as has Ben’s father, who is imprisoned in a grave-like cell in the family’s backyard by a cultish group of women, the Silentists. These Silentists, led by the enigmatic, powerful Jane Dark, seek to achieve what they call a New Stillness, to bring about a revolutionary, distinctly feminine, world silence and institute semaphore as the primary form of behavior. The Silentist movement is an anti-populist one, as in Marcus’s world, people (and the language they spew) are the problem; they are “areas that resist light, mistakes in the air, collision sweet spots.” The political solution lies not in appeals to personal responsibility but in a full-throated defense (as much as possible for the Silentists) of government intervention and organizations: The Woman’s National Pantomime Group, The Akron Stillness Center, the Ohio Pillow Talk Council, and the American Naming Authority. The author even recommends that “public money should be used to deploy roving masseurs to careers citizens of our public areas so their bodies might better yield to speech and weather broadcasts streaming from this book.” Now that’s a stimulus. The tools with which they attempt to bring about the New Stillness — “witness water” that becomes imprinted with certain behaviors, language enemas, a new all-vowel language causing less disturbance in the weather, a chew stand (recommended for every household), daily “wind-ambush baths,” vigorous pantomime — constitute an absurdist, prescriptive guide for how to revitalize a worn out language, an effort to combat the “failure to traffic language with any newness” and to find, in a new collective behavior, “unprecedented utterances.” Ben is the subject of the Silentists’ increasingly futile experiments to raise a child best adapted to this new world, and the familial struggle at the heart of the novel between deposed father and ascendant mother broadens out over to a larger struggle for political power and over the Logos itself.

4. Henry James, “The Private Life”
The tightly plotted ghost story unfolds with mathematical precision under the backdrop of a “great bristling primeval glacier” at a Swiss resort hotel. The narrator and an accomplished stage actress, Blanche Adney, investigate the unusual behavior of two figures: Lord Mellifont, an aristocrat who is all public and had no corresponding private life,” and Clare Vawdrey, a “great mature novelist” who is “all private and had no corresponding public [life].” Vawdrey’s social personality is one of “economy;” his opinions are “sound and second-rate,” he feels comfortable in the “flat country of anecdote,” and he exhibits none of the rare feelings found in his masterful novels. Lord Mellifont, by contrast, “expend[s] treasures of tact” and is marked by a “plenitude of presence.” He seems to exist solely to charm “an immense circle of spectators,” each conversation about him “take[s] the form of anecdote,” and he is less a flesh-and-blood specimen than a “style;” in short, James has created the prototype for “The Most Interesting Man in the World.” The ghostly element of the story is an elegant way to demonstrate the costs and payoffs of each social strategy — the one frugal, the other profligate. I won’t reveal the twist, but James homes in on the ominously spectral quality of public life, the unheimlich nature of a man who is excessively good at putting strangers at ease: “I had secretly pitied him for the perfection of [Lord Mellifont’s] performance, had wondered what blank face such a mask had to cover, what was left to him for the immitigable hours in which a man sits down with himself, or, more serious still, with that intenser self his lawful wife.”

5. Gertrude Stein, The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas
coverMidway through The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, the narrator notes that Gertrude Stein is “one of the few people of her generation to read every word of Carlyle’s Frederick the Great,” and at the very end of the memoirs, she coyly suggests an alternative title for her work: My Life with the Great. Both details hint at the ambitious, world-historical scope of Stein’s modernism. Stein, the “Mothergoose of Montparnasse” and hostess of the famous salon at 27 rue de Fleurus, is also a general-like leader of the avant-garde. Of course, part of the memoir’s pleasure is reading the gossipy accounts of feuding artists in Paris. In one amusing episode, she diplomatically appeases the fragile egos of her painter-guests at a dinner party by sitting each across from his own picture, which makes them all “so happy that we had to send out twice for more bread.” And yet while chronicling each petty intrigue, Stein is never shy about trumpeting the heroic nature of her modernist project, beginning with the claim that the “three little Matisse paintings” she brought back from Paris were the first modern things to cross the Atlantic. But perhaps more striking are the geo-political implications she sees for the modern. When Stein asserts that “[the Germans] cannot…possibly win this war [WWI] because they are not modern,” she casts herself and the avant-garde as vital to military success as the war cannot leap over the aesthetic; military success is bounded by modernity, and Stein and her set are modernity incarnate. The wonderful scene in which a “spell-bound” Picasso sees a camouflaged cannon rolling down the boulevard Raspail makes this connection explicit: “It is we that have created that, he said. And he was right, he had. From Cézanne through him they had come to that.” Whether Picasso’s aperçu will lead to a joint Pentagon-NEA project is anyone’s guess; regardless, Stein’s alternately blustery and revelatory claims about modernity, national character, military might and literature make for great sound bites: “She realizes that in English literature in her time she is the only one. She has always known it and now she says it.” Gertrude Stein approved this message.

is a staff writer for The Millions living in Durham, NC. Learn more about Matt at

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