By Doherty, Brian
The American Conservative , Vol. 9, No. 7
AFTER GIFTING US with such lists as the top 50 conservative rock songs, this year National Review offered, under the guidance of political reporter John J. Miller, the "Ten Great Conservative Novels" of the postwar era.
Miller is a literature buff whose tastes are more inclusive of pop and genre fiction than were those of such highbrow conservative lit gurus as Irving Babbitt or T.S. Eliot. The novels NR selected, though, were all by reputable novelists, some with known conservative sympathies, some not. Their themes promote such modern conservative ideas as the evils of the Soviets, the counterculture's erosion of proper culture, and the technological destruction of human nature.
National Review presented them not to celebrate a recognized right-wing canon, but to promote works of likely interest for conservatives craving ideological sympathy. As Miller told me, "I do think conservatives respond to art in certain kinds of ways and certain kinds of messages resonate with them. I'm not talking about propaganda, but about insight into human nature and shared worldviews--and a sense when reading this book that you are among friends or someone you can learn from."
But when Miller sought suggestions for the list on his blog, various commenters protested that the project was unconservative in principle: Stalinists were the ones who had to categorize art politically. Someone who calls himself "Das" noted, "If a novel just plays out and lets life unfold I believe conservatives can claim it as a conservative novel. Why? Conservatives invest themselves in life not politics. ... Conservatives don't grind axes in art, they just let life play out."
Now, it is true that conservatives have generally avoided the totalitarian temptation to squeeze everything into a political mold. But they have also managed to avoid the creative arts in the formation and shaping of their ideas--this despite their movement's self-appointed reputation as keeper of the canons of Western culture.
Fiction is nearly absent in the offerings of the Conservative Book Club. The institutions and periodicals on the Right most dedicated to belles lettres, such as the Intercollegiate Studies Institute and Modern Age, are the most obscure outposts on the conservative frontier. The conservative godfather who most strongly advocated literary roots for political thought, Russell Kirk, is on a long downhill slide in influence while Sarah Palin rises.
The modern Right's most popular contribution to humane letters, movement apparatchik William Bennett's bestselling 1990s compilation The Book of Virtues--bits of prose and poetry meant to slam home lessons about self-discipline, honesty, work, and faith-might seem on the surface to fill Kirk's bill. But that devotee of Eliot, Faulkner, and Waugh had his sights set on work that was more complicated, less reducible to an easily labeled fable. Kirk thought literature could deliver not just potted lessons but help us "perceive, beyond mere appearances, a hierarchy of worth and certain enduring truths ... drawn from centuries of human experience." Literature's role in the cultivation of the moral imagination, Kirk wrote, is to transmit "to successive rising generations ... a body of ethical principles and critical standards and imaginative creations that constitutes a kind of collective intellect of humanity." As Kirk scholar Donald Atwell Zoll put it, "central to Kirk's social and political commentary was the conviction that ethical and normative truths are often best conveyed through a symbolic veil, as found, for example, in the medium of great poetry, rather than by the means of discursive explication."
One important American political movement did find a huge part of its core understanding of "ethical and normative truths" conveyed not through "great poetry" in the traditional sense, but at any rate through imaginative literature. It included such marvelously entertaining pulpy hugger-mugger as a genius who invents an impossible energy-generating machine that shuts down a corrupt statist government, which tries to fight back with a death ray built by a mad scientist. …