The Riddle of Dos Passos
IS IT possible to read and admire a political novel without one’s own politics getting in the way? Can a Populist read Henry Adams’s Democracy, with its aristocratic tone and elitist views, without becoming enraged? Can a Marxist give a neutral reading to Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon? To take a more recent example, what of E. L. Doctorow’s Ragtime? Here is a novel one can admire only if one shares its general line-that at least from the turn of the century America has been a cruelly capitalist and hideously racist country. If one does buy the line-as so many of Doctorow’s reviewers did, to the point in many instances of not even recognizing that the novel had a line-then there appears to be no limit to one’s enthusiasm for the novel. But if one does not buy the line-finding it, to put it gently, simple-minded-then Doctorow’s immense novelistic energy and invention seem a sad waste, a case of good talent being spent on bad politics. It is useless to deny that politics do not influence literary judgments-they do, regularly and decisively.
About the Author
Joseph Epstein is a regular contributor to COMMENTARY.