In “Why Americans can’t write political fiction,” Chris (not Christopher) Lehmann ponders the failure of U.S. writers to rise to Walt Whitman’s “call for a distinctive, politically minded American literature.”
[A] stubborn moralizing impulse is what makes American political fiction, even today, such watery and unsatisfying literature: It deprives writers of the best material. Don’t the intrigues sprouting from our well-known human flaws and excesses ultimately make for more engaging plots and character studies than the falls from grace of a thousand or so Washington ingénus? You can consult any of the scores of wiser, better-written European novels of politics — Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s The Possessed, Ignazio Silone’s Bread and Wine, Stendhal’s The Charterhouse of Parma, Gunter Grass’s Dog Years, Joseph Roth’s The Spider’s Web, to name but a few — and see how much richer and more nuanced political fiction can be. You can also see the parry-and-thrust of ambition and vice sparking Gore Vidal’s better historical fantasias — steeped as they are in a rather perversely relished old world fatalism — such as Burr, Lincoln, and 1876.
But most of all, you can see exuberant besotted sinfulness of all varieties on rich display in the one truly great modern American political novel, Billy Lee Brammer’s 1961 The Gay Place.