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James T. Farrell

Literature and Ideology


From New International, Vol. VIII No. 4, May 1942, pp. 107–111.
Reprinted with the permission of College English, the English Journal and the author.
Transcribed & marked up by Einde O’Callaghan for ETOL.

What is the relationship between literature and politics? What should that relationship be? Such questions have produced major literary controversies in this country for more than a decade. About ten years ago these questions were central in the discussion of so-called proletarian literature. Today these same issues are being discussed in connection with literature and democracy and literature and the war. In current discussions the language is different from what it was ten years ago, but both those who were the apostles of proletarian literature and those who today demand that literature be politicalized in the name of democracy defend essentially the same attitude: in both instances the aim is to enforce the same attitude and the same kind of critical and political legislation upon the writer. [1]

The advocates of proletarian literature, who wrote principally in The New Masses, used to argue that literature is a weapon in the class struggle. If the writer is not on one side, he is either an open defender of the enemy or else he is giving aid and comfort to that enemy. At times it was even claimed that literature itself was on the barricades. In essence, such claims would, if successful, make literature the handmaiden of politics and the docile servant of an ideology. The writer, accepting this conception and attempting to make it operative in the actual construction of novels, would have to see politics first and then life, and he would have to deduce life from political programs. To the theoreticians of proletarian literature the theme of a book was considered to be its most important, its most essential, element; the total pattern of a novel, its unfoldment of characters and events, its insights which help to clarify for us the mysteries of man and his world, and its very style – these were all relegated to a secondary place. A true recreation of social relationships and of human beings was considered to be less important than the ideology that was implanted into a novel and openly affirmed in the last chapter. The ending was stressed as against the entire story and its legitimate meanings. Most of the great writers of the present and of the past were attacked, often severely, as bourgeois defeatists; and in their place novelists such as Jack Conroy, Arnold Armstrong, William Rollins and others were hailed as the inheritors, not only of the literary traditions of America, but also of those of the whole world.

In this article it is not necessary for me to go into historical detail or to discuss this point of view at length. Those who sponsored it have themselves abandoned all their claims. They have themselves forgotten most of the writers whom they lauded as proletarian writers, and they now laud the writers whom they then attacked – for instance, Thomas Mann. Most of the young writers who adopted this view of literature have themselves stopped writing. If a conception of literature produces no books, then it is obvious that that conception is defective. It remains sterile and formal. If the most rigid supporters of a conception abandon it, regardless of the reason, it is not necessary for me here to refute what they themselves have refuted in the most positive manner.

It is ironical to observe that some of the writers who defended the complete freedom of the writer from politics in the early 1930s are now included in the vanguard of the newest group of politico-critical legislators; they now demand that the creative artist adopt the same kind of an attitude which they once attacked, even heatedly. The popular writers whose work appears in the slick magazines and who earn large sums of money in Hollywood sales are also included in this vanguard.

(Pitfalls for Readers of Fiction, by Hazel Sample, a pamphlet publication of the National Council of Teachers of English, contains an able analysis of certain types of popular fiction and of the assumptions on which these are based. The most vulgar of those who would force literature to become official have even gone to the extent of hailing motion pictures – similar in content, basic assumptions, and in emphasis on escape values to the novels studied by Miss Sample – as greater contributions to American culture and the fight for a free world than serious works of American realism which try to describe conditions and characters truly. For instance, Mr. Strunsky, who writes the Topics of the Times column for the New York Times, has declared that serious American realists give us nothing to fight for but that the escape movies of Hollywood do give us something we can fight and die for. In other words, the simple, tragic, spiritually impoverished people described in American realistic novels are not worth fighting for; but it is proper to die for Tyrone Power and his world. Often the essential tragedy in realistic fiction is missed because of the fact that realistic writers try to maintain a tone of objectivity. They are accused of coldness. Chekhov, who was a great writer himself and a realist, remarked in one of his letters that if you want to portray suffering and sorrow it is usually necessary to be a little cold in your portrayal of it; otherwise, you fall into sentimentality. Such simple observations concerning literature are lost on many critics, journalists and others, who do not hesitate to speak on the subject with authority and, in order to derogate serious writers, even raise to a high level the most conventional and banal of novels and the most conventional motion pictures. It is with such ideas in mind that I recommend Pitfalls for Readers of Fiction.)

Positions of MacLeish and Brooks

A leading exponent of this tendency is Archibald MacLeish. (Cf. Archibald MacLeish, The Irresponsibles) During the height of the bitter polemical controversy concerning proletarian literature, Mr. MacLeish was moved to write in defense of complete freedom of the poet. In those days he believed that the poet should merely sing. The proletarian critics did not halt at describing him as irresponsible – they called him a fascist. Today Mr. MacLeish has reversed himself, and he sharply criticizes almost all modern writers as irresponsibles. His major charge is that, during a period of growing danger to the entire human race, they merely tried to see life truly and to create honest pictures of life. They did not defend ways of thinking, ideas and beliefs which should have been defended. They did not use the weapon of the word to storm the barricades of belief. In consequence they contributed to the demoralization of democratic forces, and this demoralization has left democracy in a weakened state when it must defend itself against a sinister enemy. In passing, it is interesting to observe that the one writer whom MacLeish excepts from his blanket condemnation is Thomas Mann. It is on the record that many of the writers implicitly or openly attacked by MacLeish took a stand on the question of fascism before Thomas Mann would openly condemn the Hitler regime. Further, there is a stream of pessimism in the books of Thomas Mann which renders the assertions of MacLeish somewhat ridiculous.

Another who has now adopted a position analogous to that of MacLeish is the critic Van Wyck Brooks (Cf. Van Wyck Brooks, On Contemporary Literature and The Opinions of Oliver Allston). Mr. Brooks believes that modern writers are cynics and that they write out of hatred and of a drive-toward-death. They have, he claims, lost the idea of greatness, and inasmuch as they themselves are not great men, they cannot write great books. Exceptions to this charge are Robert Frost, Lewis Mumford, Waldo Frank, Archibald MacLeish and Thomas Mann. Modern writers – and Mr. Brooks makes no distinctions between various modern literary tendencies, including that of realism and that of radical experimentalism stemming from the French symbolists – have lost their connection with the soil. They have no roots in the region, in the country, and in its soil. In passing, it is to be observed that this conception is, in essence, Spenglerian. Consequently it is somewhat amazing to observe Mr. Brooks, in his little book, On Contemporary Literature, charging that modern writers have been influenced by Spengler, including those – such as the author of this article – who have for years been anti-Spenglerian. Further, one of the European novelists of the soil, with roots in the soil, is Knut Hamsun, who was one of the first world-famous literary men to become a fascist.

Mr. Brooks claims that modern writers write demoralizing books because they have no attachment to the family and because they do not take an interest in public life. On both of these points he is unspecific. He does not demonstrate in a concrete manner precisely how a writer will become a better artist by transplanting himself to the country and living close to the soil, by declaring an attachment to the family (most writers are attached to their families, love them and try to support them), and by taking an open interest in public life. In addition, he is not specific concerning the manner in which a writer should become interested in and attached to public life. Should he take a political stand on issues? Should he run for an elective office? Should he abandon literature and dedicate himself to political theory or to political polemics? Should he ghost-write speeches for political leaders? And, further, some of the writers whom Brooks accuses of lacking an interest in public life have been far more politically active on many issues than he has. In essence, Brooks is adopting the same kind of a view toward literature as did his recent forebears, the apostles of proletarian literature. Like them, he and Archibald MacLeish and others are seeking to legislate for writing, to tell the writer what to do, what to write, what ideology to inculcate through his works, what conclusions to come to in a novel, and what to think.

Its Relation to Politics

Those who adopt such an approach toward literature do not clearly focus the problems of literature, the character of writing, the functions and purposes which literature can perform. When Karl Marx was a young man, editing a democratic newspaper in the Rhineland and working toward the point of view which he finally adopted and developed, he wrote a letter to a friend which contains some remarks which are today a pertinent and decisive answer to the claims of those who would sneak politics and ideology into literature. At that time Marx had not yet been converted to socialism. He resisted the pressure of philosophical and literary friends who took a frivolous attitude toward serious questions, and he explained why he rejected the articles of these people. I quote him:

I demanded less vague arguments, fewer fine-sounding phrases, less self-adulation and rather more concreteness, a more detailed treatment of actual conditions and a display of greater practical knowledge of the subjects dealt with. I told them that in my opinion it was not right, that it was even immoral, to smuggle communist and socialist dogmas, i.e., an entirely new way of looking at the world, into casual dramatic criticisms, etc., and that if communism were to be discussed at all then it must be done in quite a different fashion and thoroughly.

Today, as then, literary men are trying to smuggle ideology into literature. “Smuggle” is here an excellent word. They seek to consider, to discuss and to educate people in an indirect, oblique, yes, even casual, manner concerning the most serious problems which the human race faces. Instead of discussing questions such as socialism and communism, democracy and fascism, in terms of the relevant problems raised by those issues, they want to smuggle a discussion of such issues into novels, poetry, dramatic criticisms, book reviews, banquet speeches and books labeled as literary criticism. I do not hesitate to characterize such conduct as frivolous. Politics is serious. It is the arena in which the fundamental bread-and-butter struggles of men, of groups, of nations, of social classes are conducted. He who is frivolous about politics is guilty of a grave disservice to his fellow-men, especially in times of deep social crisis. The problems of politics are, basically, concerned with action and with power. Literary men have the habit of rushing into the periphery of politics, and they contribute to political struggles – not knowledge, not practical experience, not theoretical analyses, but rhetoric. Rhetoric is the one commodity in politics of which there has never been a scarcity.

My subject, however, is not the political conduct of literary men in politics. I do not criticize this per se. I merely suggest that the requisites of all responsible action, in any endeavor, are that one be serious and that one accept the obligations and duties which that endeavor imposes on one. My concern here is with the efforts to politicalize literature. The end result of the politicalization of literature is an official or state literature. The extreme example of a state or official literature in our times is that of the totalitarian countries. It need not be commented upon in this article. We know what it is and what it leads to and how it destroys literature in the most brutal and ruthless fashion. It is possible to silence writers by force; a state power can put writers into jail and treat them as common criminals; it can prevent their books from being published; it can execute them. However, it cannot make them, either by open force or by prizes, praise, awards, and academic and institutional honors, write good books. Modern authoritarian rulers are not the first ones who have been taught this elementary lesson. Often literary men fail to learn it. During the period of the Second Empire, even the great critic Sainte-Beuve was ready to play along with the idea of an official literature. The attempt to create an official literature in that period failed. The two greatest French writers of the times, Flaubert and Baudelaire (both of them friends of Sainte-Beuve), were haled into court on censorship charges. The poetry of Baudelaire was suppressed. Today we read Flaubert and Baudelaire and not the official writers of Louis Bonaparte.

Napoleon Bonaparte still remains as the greatest of modern dictators. Himself a fine writer and a man who developed literary taste through the course of his lifetime, he tried to impose an official art and literature on France when he was its ruler. In the year 1805 he wrote to Fouché:

I read in a paper that a tragedy on Henry IV is to be played. The epoch is recent enough to excite political passions. The theater must dip more into antiquity. Why not commission Raynouard to write a tragedy on the transition from primitive to less primitive man? A tyrant would be followed by the savior of his country. The oratorio Saul is on precisely that text – a great man succeeding a degenerate king.

In the same year he wrote: “My intention is to turn Art specially in the direction of subjects that would tend to perpetuate the memory of the events of the last fifteen years.” He justified expenditures on the opera on the ground that it flattered the national vanity. A year after he said this he found that his official opera only degraded literature and the art, and he demanded that something be done to halt the degradation which was caused by his own official policies and his control of the opera. Then he declared: “Literature needs encouragement.” Something had to be proposed to “shake up the various branches of literature that have so long distinguished our country.” But literature did not distinguish France during the period of la gloire. The writer was told to behave, and generally he obeyed orders. The chief of police and the ministers of the cabinet gave him instructions on what to write, and they honored him for obeying instructions. And Napoleon himself was forced – after all he was a man of taste – to show contempt for his own official litterateurs. In exile at Saint Helena, he did not read them. He did not speak of them. He remembered Racine, and he remembered Homer, but he remembered no literature that could distinguish his own period of rule. And neither do we today. Is more eloquent demonstration of the failure of this attitude toward literature needed?

What Is Greatness in Literature?

It is a truism to state that the test of a work of literature is not to be found in its formal ideology. The most cursory examination of a few great works of literature will prove the validity of this truism.

Many of us recognize Tolstoy as a great writer, a genius, and a thinker of the first order. Do we do this because of the formal attitudes – the ideology – in his major works? In Anna Karenina the character Levin develops, during the course of his novel, that conception of political non-resistance which became part of the gospel of Tolstoyism. Levin found reasons for refusing to take an interest in public affairs, and these reasons were Tolstoy’s own for formulating this doctrine. Because we disagree with Tolstoy’s views, represented in his characterization of Levin, will we therefore deny the greatness of Annna Karenina? In War and Peace Tolstoy presents a view of history which succeeds in atomizing history to the degree that it is impossible to distinguish between influences that are essential and of weight in the influencing of events and those which are incidental or secondary. According to this conception of history, every single human being in a period influences the history of that period. History is the result of all the actions and all the thoughts of every single human being. In a sense, this is correct. The history of man is everything that happens to man. But can we seek to explain and to understand man if we apply this conception concretely? If we do, we have no means of truly evaluating what factors are essential and important in a given historic study and what ones are non-essential. Dismissing this theory of history, which is imbedded into the very warp and woof of War and Peace and which is also presented in the novel in essay form, do we therefore destroy the value of this work?

Balzac was anti-democratic, and his formal attitudes were those of the restoration which followed the fall of Napoleon. The formal view of Theodore Dreiser concerning man in the universe is an undigested hodge-podge of crude materialism and misunderstood science. Are his books, consequently, to be dismissed? Examples to demonstrate this point are endless. If we literally adopt such a view of literature, we thereby exclude ourselves from an appreciation of many of the greatest works of the past. We cannot then appreciate the literature and the art which precedes democracy, because it is not democratic. If we are socialists, we cannot appreciate the great literature of the modern age. If we demand that literature in a direct, obvious and mechanical fashion reflect the major struggles of the period from which it springs or with which it deals, what are we to say of such a novel as Wuthering Heights? This novel – in my opinion one of the greatest of all English novels – describes characters who lived during the period when Bonaparte was at the height of his power. Withal, it has nothing to say of the danger of old “Bony” invading England. Is it therefore invalidated as a novel?

Literature is one of the arts which re-creates the consciousness and the conscience of a period. It tells us what has happened to man, what could have happened to him, what man has imagined might happen to him. It presents to us the environments, the patterns of destiny, the joys and the sorrows, the tribulations, the dreams, the fantasies, the aspirations, the cruelties, the shames, the dreams of men and women. Life is full of mysteries, and one of the major mysteries of life is man himself. Literature probes into that mystery. Just as science permits man to understand nature, literature permits man to understand himself. Just as science makes the forces of nature human in the sense that it permits the construction of instruments which can control these forces, so does literature aid in making man human to himself. Literature, by its very nature, cannot, in and of itself, solve social and political problems. Any solution to a social and/or a political problem in a work of literature is a purely mental solution. These problems are problems of action. Every problem delimits the kind of means which can, and those which cannot, be of use in its solution. This statement applies in logic, in mathematics, in the physical sciences, in the solution of social and political problems and in the problems which any artist must face in his own work. It is as absurd to assume that you can solve political and social problems with a poem as it is to call in a painter and ask him to save from death a man stricken with appendicitis by painting a picture.

How Much Literature Can Do

Literature generally reflects life. It limps, even crawls, behind events. This is especially so in periods of great social crisis and of historic convulsion. What is the great literary work of the Napoleonic period – one which parallels our own age? It is Stendhal’s The Red and the Black. But Stendhal did not write this novel when he was with the French army in Moscow. He wrote it some time after the Battle of Waterloo.

Some of those who take a view of literature contrary to the one which I present here demand that the writer be a prophet. His duty is to foresee what is to come, not merely to reflect what has already come, including what man has already dreamed, imagined, constructed in his own head, as well as what has happened in the sense of actual objective events happening. Let us examine this claim concretely. Prophecy is what? It is prediction. Whether one makes a prophecy or a prediction on the basis of an inner vision or as the result of a close scientific investigation, that prophecy or prediction proves nothing. It is merely a statement of probability. It must be validated by the occurrence of the events which are predicted. Further, it is obvious that when one makes a prediction one should base that prediction on the relevant evidence. I ask, therefore, Is a lyric poem the proper manner in which to predict historic events? If so, why do we not elect lyric poets as our political leaders? It is the exercise of simple intelligence not to confuse problems. We do not ask our doctors, our dentists, our scientists, our politicians, or our mechanics to confuse problems; we ask only our poets and our novelists to do this. [2]

Further, those who want to officialize literature, those who insist that the artist wear the uniform of an ideology, persist in calling writers who refuse to accept their demand skeptics and cynics. Often they use the words “skeptic” and “cynic” as if they were synonymous. These words do not necessarily have the same meaning. A skeptic doubts. A cynic is without faith. It is possible to doubt, to be critical, and still to have faith. Further, there is no necessary opposition between skepticism and faith. Without a skepticism that is sufficient to permit us to be critical of evidence, we will have a faith that is without warrant. We will then believe in something without knowing why we believe. Also, to say that a writer is skeptical or cynical does not necessarily constitute a valid ground for criticism. Was there no skepticism, no cynicism, in Shakespeare? Is there no skepticism in the Bible? Tolstoy was more than skeptical of modern capitalism and of the efficacy of political action; further, he was a pacifist. A pacifist is obviously skeptical of war. Generally speaking, it is the realistic writers who are called skeptical and cynical. Those who make this charge against realists do not, however, examine what the realistic writer has to say. They don’t examine the conditions which he describes. In many instances the realist describes injustice, misery, spiritual and material poverty. The world described by modern realists is not free of the conditions which produce these results. No less a person than the President of the United States has spoken of “one third of a nation” submerged in poverty, suffering from all the physical and mental ills which are bred by poverty. But if the realistic novelist deals with the conditions which exist, if he dares to re-create a true and revealing picture of these conditions, of the patterns of destiny of the characters who are educated and live in such conditions, he is a skeptic, a cynic. The attempt to tell the truth in a precise, concrete and uncompromising manner is demoralizing. And what is proposed as an alternative to this kind of literature? The advice to write about justice, about morality, about heroism, and about greatness in general – that is, in the abstract. To state many of these arguments is sufficient. It even becomes embarrassing to be forced to answer them in detail.

The Role of the Writer

He who would put literature in uniform is afraid of literature. The demand that literature conform comes from fear, not from confidence, and not from faith. Literature in the modern world cannot thrive on the basis of official control. The only result of controlling it officially will be silencing, destroying, crushing, the real talents among our writers and permitting those who are not serious, those who are not truly talented, those who have nothing to say, to come to the front. The notion that the serious literary artist is a major element in demoralizing a society is absurd on its face. No society can be demoralized by a few books. If a society is demoralized, the reasons for that condition go much deeper than the circulation of a few books. The actual spy, the actual saboteur, the actual agent of enemy governments, and so on, do not have the time – and usually they do not have the sensibility, the imagination, the intelligence, the culture, and the background – to create a work of literature. He who makes such charges against the artist makes them because he dare not look conditions in the face. And to look conditions in the face is precisely what the serious writer does. In some instances these conditions exist in society at large; in other instances these conditions are in the mind, in the emotions, in the dreams, and in the consciousness of the artist himself. In all serious art there is truth – truth of insight, of observations, truth about the social relationships of the world, and/or truth about the consciousness of men. And the truth will make men free, although it may disturb the critical legislator and the ideological smuggler.

It is inept, absurd, downright silly to argue that in a world torn by the greatest convulsions of the modern period literature can hide away in a hothouse. I make no such claims. I am not here demanding that literature exist in any ivory towers. What I do stress, however, is that literature must solve its own problems and that it cannot be turned into the handmaiden of politics and the looking-glass of ideologies. The justification of literature must be made in terms of the real functions which it performs and not by seeking to make it perform functions for which it is unfitted. When Ralph Waldo Emerson died, William James, who had known Emerson was a monist – James defended a conception of a pluralistic universe – Emerson did not suppress the facts in order to substantiate his monism. This statement provides us with the formula for tolerance and for understanding, both in the world of ideas and in that of art. If the writer has not suppressed the facts, we can seek to understand him; and if we find value in his work, we can justify that work despite agreement or disagreement with his formal ideas. And it is to be remembered that in art the facts are not statistical; the facts are perceptions, observations, insights, revelations of certain aspects of those mysteries of life which surround us on every side and which exist even in our own consciousness.

It is now almost three centuries to the year since John Milton wrote Areopagitica, one of the most eloquent defenses of freedom of inquiry and freedom for the artist that has ever been written. And Milton wrote that it is “as good almost” to “kill a man as kill a good book: who kills a man kills a reasonable creature ... but he who destroys a good book kills reason itself.” (Because of the limitations of my typewriter, I have here taken the liberty of modernizing the typography and the spelling of Milton.) What Milton said is in the spirit of the eloquent apology of Socrates when he stood on trial for his life, charged with having demoralized the youth of Athens, and when he declared to his judges: “... the unexamined life is not worth living ...” And, to conclude, serious literature is one of the most powerful means contrived by the human spirit to examine life. This, in itself, is the basic justification of literature in any period. This is the answer which the artist can confidently hurl back at all Philistines who fear to permit the examination of life.


1. I have stated in detail my own views on the question of proletarian literature in my book, A Note on Literary Criticism. Views directly counter to my own are to be found in The Great Tradition, by Granville Hicks. There are a number of books which relate to this question in varying ways, and I cite a few of them: Leon Trotsky, Literature and Revolution; Joseph Freeman, Joshua Kunitz and Louis Lozowick (eds.). Voices of October; Henry Hart (ed.), American Writers’ Congress; Stephen Spender, The Destructive Element; Edmund Wilson, The Triple Thinkers; A. Zhdanov, Maxim Gorky, N. Bukharin, K. Radek and A. Stetsky, Problems of Soviet Literature; V.F. Calverton, The Liberation of American Literature; Christopher Caudwell, Illusion and Reality; Max Eastman, Artists in Uniform, and Art and the Life of Action; Bernard Smith, Forces in American Criticism; Jean Fréville, La Literature et l’Art, choisis, traduits et présentés par Karl Marx et F. Engels; George V. Plekhanov, Art and Society (introduction by Granville Hicks). In Ireland during the period of national revolutionary ferment, prior to the Easter Rebellion of 1916, the same question was discussed in literary controversies, but there it was an issue concerning literature and the aspirations of the nationalist movement. One of those who defended the writer against the criticisms of those nationalists who demanded that Anglo-Irish literature serve as a direct instrument of the national movement was the late Lord Mayor of Cork, Terrence MacSwiney (cf. Principles of Freedom). MacSwiney said: “It is because we need the truth that we object to the propagandist playwright.”

2. I have here discussed prophecy in literature in terms of the prediction of events. Those who demand that the poet play the role of prophet from a regressively cultural point of view base their contention on the traditional philosophical conception of cognition as the sole factor in the process of knowledge. They then assume that the insights and “intuitions” of the poet constitute a superior form of knowing than that embodied in scientific method. They desire to substitute the poet for the political theorist and analyst, and for the scientist. However, there is a sense in which the poet, for instance, Shelley, plays a rôle that can he considered analogous to that of the prophet. When a poet or a novelist emphasizes the need for a change in values and attitudes which are required by the demands of social evolution, his rôle is then more or less analogous to that of the prophet. However, to perform this rôle he must have more than an alleged superior form of knowing which is assumed to be poetic insight.

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