In his 1951 essay Chicago: City on the Make, Nelson Algren made his writing philosophy clear: “The hard necessity of bringing the judge on the bench down into the dock has been the peculiar responsibility of the writer in all ages of man.” Of course, the personal politics of writers determine who “the judge” is. Regardless of which side of the aisle they fall, authors inevitably expose their politics either in their works or their actions. These are the political ideologies of several famous scribes:
1. Nelson Algren: “Gut Radical,” Accused Communist and Nazi
The Chicago Polish-American community so hated Algren’s 1942 novel Never Come Morning that it led a successful campaign to have the book banned. Algren was accused of being a Nazi sympathizer seven years after the Detroit-born author was pointed to as a Communist thanks, in part, to passages from The Communist Manifesto included in his book, Somebody in Boots. The 1935 novel was Algren’s first, and the one he publicly claimed to like the least, calling it “an uneven novel written by an uneven man in the most uneven of American times.” But toward the end, the voice of the book’s main character, Cass McKay, is clearly replaced by Algren’s own thoughts on Chicago, on America and on the state of a country on the verge of war. Here, Algren rages against The Chicago Tribute, a fake newspaper that served as cheerleader-in-chief not just of a corrupt town, but of America’s military-industrial complex:
Just as in the final stages of syphilis a dying prostitute is given a urethral smear, so did a World’s Fair now seek to conceal the decadence of a city sick to death. This city was trying with noise and flags to hide the corruption that private ownership had brought it. The Tribute was its smear. The Tribute gave glamor to its World’s Fair reportage, but said nothing of homeless thousands living in shelter, not a word about women being forced into prostitution under its very nose. ... Systematically it fought, as always, any change in an order of society so beautifully calculated to permit the plundering of the millions by the few, so ideally suited to enhance private interest at the cost of the masses: The system that requires of each generation that millions be slain in wars for world-markets.
Further Reading: “He Swung and He Missed”
2. Zora Neale Hurston: Conservative, Libertarian
Hurston’s political views can be most concisely described as a fierce combination of individualism and libertarianism. The author of Their Eyes were Watching God was anti-Communist, anti-pity, staunchly anti-FDR and proudly pro-American.
In the June, 1951 issue of The American Legion Magazine, Hurston penned an essay deriding the efforts of some in the black community to join the Communist Party. It is a takedown unyielding in its assault. On America, Hurston wrote: “It has been proved too many times and by different countries, that nationality is stronger than race.” And on Communists, who she repeatedly refers to as “reds” and “commies,” Hurston had this to say: “By behavior and flavor, they are zombies. Something oozes out like a vicious seepage from a morgue. It is poisoning the air of the world.”
The Alabama native was an independent in a time of widespread dependence on parties. Good thing, then, that she had the ability to craft prose as cutting as this, from “How It Feels to be Colored Me”:
I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it. Even in the helter-skelter skirmish that is my life, I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more of less. No, I do not weep at the world — I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.
Further reading: “How It Feels to be Colored Me”
3. Leo Tolstoy: Christian Anarchist
Born into Russian nobility, Tolstoy was an avowed Christian anarchist, which in his mind was the only form of Christianity that truly followed the teachings of Christ to the letter. Particularly, he believed the practice of non-resistance was the only way to achieve progress toward a utopian society (a belief that would go on to influence Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King Jr.). The author may have best expressed his view that peaceful anarchy could only be achieved without violent revolution in his 1900 essay, “On Anarchy”:
The Anarchists are right in everything; in the negation of the existing order, and in the assertion that, without Authority, there could not be worse violence than that of Authority under existing conditions. They are mistaken only in thinking that Anarchy can be instituted by a revolution. But it will be instituted only by there being more and more people who do not require the protection of of governmental power. ... There can be only one permanent revolution — a moral one: the regeneration of the inner man.
Further Reading: What I Believe
4. Hunter S. Thompson: Leftist Radical, George McGovern Enthusiast
With the exception of his affinity for firearms and strong support of the Second Amendment, Thompson was firmly in the far-left camp that emerged from the 1960s. Anyone who has taken in a significant amount of the Good Doctor’s work will tell you that there is undoubtedly one person to thank more than anyone else for Thompson’s politics: Richard Nixon. Thompson made clear his support for George McGovern in the 1972 presidential election, which he covered in dispatches for Rolling Stone that would eventually evolve into the book Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72. Thompson’s hatred of Nixon and his swan song for the American Dream reaches its zenith when he’s forced to accept that Nixon will be re-elected:
This may be the year when we finally come face to face with ourselves; finally just lay back and say it — that we are really just a nation of 220 million used car salesmen with all the money we need to buy guns, and no qualms at all about killing anybody else in the world who tries to make us uncomfortable.
Further Reading: “He was a Crook”
5. Chuck Klosterman: Apolitical
Klosterman point-blankly says he’s apolitical in this ESPN Page 2 column. But the most famous person to ever come out of North Dakota (seriously, try to think of another) is fiercely conservative when it comes to sports (also explained in that piece). While the author and essayist purports to hold reason and pragmatism in higher esteem than loyalty to any particular political party or ideology, his latest book, I Wear the Black Hat, includes a reference to the inevitable failure of conservatism:
Everyone knows history is written by the winners, but that cliche misses a crucial detail: Over time, the winners are always the progressives. Conservatism can only win in the short term, because society cannot stop evolving (and social evolution inevitably dovetails with the agenda of those who see change as an abstract positive). It might take seventy years, but it always happens eventually. Serious historians are, almost without exception, self-styled progressives. Radical views — even the awful ones — improve with age.
Whatever your opinion of “write what you know” is, you can’t deny that political beliefs wiggle their way into an author’s work as often as personal knowledge does. A good writer will convince you that their political leanings are fundamentally right. A great writer will make you question your own.
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