by Kent Oswald
Literature is a force both instructive and reflective. As such it can be of great use understanding Donnie, Hillz, JK, Rafa, and The Bern.* Progenitors for each of these five horsefolk of the coming POTUS apocalypse are readily found in America’s literary past. Ever helpful here at Easy Street, we’d be remiss not to point out that, within the canon of American literature, particular masterpieces feature themes and characters from which each of the candidates might learn how to improve their candidacy and potential reign.
Beginning, as all presidential race coverage seems to, with Donald John Trump, it is easy to note his similarities to the id-unchecked Patrick Bateman from Bret Easton Ellis’s 1991 novel, American Psycho. Hopefully, reality will trump that fiction, although there is an argument for the candidate within his own prediction of riots at the GOP convention that he’d be well advised to pick up a copy of Nathanael West’s Depression-era novella, The Day of the Locust, to gain some insight on the potential consequences of sparking crowd nihilism.
While his longtime Mar-a-Lago butler (and who would know him better?) is clear on how little he or anyone in the Trump family reads, it might help his bona fides, when talking to audiences he is not currently reaching, to study and then cite Stephen Crane’s The Red Badge of Courage. The book’s tale of personal growth set against actual wartime conflict could influence more than his policies, lending gravitas to the campaign of a multiple-deferments toughtalk-warhawk. Despite two years at Fordham before transferring to a real estate program at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton school, Trump emits the vibe of someone who hasn’t dug much deeper into the country’s rich literary history than skimming abridged versions of Richie Rich comics. Accordingly, we recommend two other titles as briefing books. The first is Esther Forbes’ 1943 novel of the American Revolution, Johnny Tremain, with its themes of patriotism, service, and humility (and storyline that two years of grappling with serious issues can transform a petulant teen into a selfless individual). The second and final recommendation for the Donald, is Dr. Seuss’ tale “The Sneetches,” which finds yellow-bellied characters battling over green star ink until they agree they might all have been conned by Sylvester McMonkey McBean.
At the other end of the spectrum of (assumed) familiarity with American literature is Hillary Diane Rodham Clinton. While she probably thinks of herself as an Algonquin Round Table era-stalwart Dorothy Parker poetic narrator/victim, for much of the population she comes across much Madame Bovary-lite ala Edna Pontellier, protagonist of Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (1899), the latter a case of the representation of important ideas while not being terribly compelling on a personal level.
To strengthen what many complain is an unsuccessful speaking style, Clinton should definitely consider studying—something she is excellent at—the puritan theologian Jonathan Edwards’ internal organ tremor-inducing sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” Her road to victory in November and ability to execute in the executive branch will surely be enhanced by applying the treatise’s power to cause even the most heathen of nonbelievers to kneel and utter pious implorations.
Insights to where she has been and where she is headed could come from the contemporaries Zelda Fitzgerald and Dashiell Hammett. The former—much more readily accepted as has been the former first lady, through the success of her husband rather than on her own—published Save Me the Waltz, which is her version of the same territory covered in Scott Fitzgerald’s Tender is the Night. Hammet’s hard-boiled tale of ethical questioning, The Maltese Falcon, asks whether the murk one must complete a death march through—and the layers of humanity you shed in doing so—will be worth the long-sought prize, in the novel’s case a leaden fake.
“Leaden fake” does not seem like it should be part of an objective segue, but it could potentially send an American lit major’s thoughts to Sinclair Lewis’ eponymous Babbitt. An author who accepted a Nobel prize by describing his life as both “unromantic and unstirring,” Lewis depicts aspects of a “conservative” businessman’s character that have a certain resonance when considering Babbitt’s fellow Midwesterner, the usually mis-categorized politician John Richard Kasich.
As Ohio’s governor attempts to pull close the mythic cloak of Reagan economic and defense policy success he should consider taking along on the campaign trail a copy of The Gilded Age, which Mark Twain published with collaborator Charles Dudley Warner in 1873. Its lessons on moral virtues may be delivered in a somewhat plodding fashion (chalk it up to it being Twain’s only collaboration), what with the chase through the corruption of Washington after celebrity and riches, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t relevant to thought of today’s politics. Regarding politics and the lack of self-awareness that leaves one to overestimate one’s importance and ability to fix the situation at hand, the one-primary-victory pol can gain a useful perspective on his path through the remaining GOP slog via Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night memoir/novella. However, if Kasich’s quixotic campaign succeeds, the tenor of life that might await his return to the Washington he left as a congressman back in 2000 to unsuccessfully run for president, there are insights available by reading John O’Hara’s Appointment in Samarra. In O’Hara’s first novel, it takes but three days from the novel’s opening for protagonist Julian English to journey from seeming success to suicide due an inability to deal with undercurrents of social corruption, financial pressures and uncontrolled drinking that he refuses to recognize as a self-destructive force.
Even before the tabloid trawling that scooped up rumors of sexual infidelity as a self-destructive path, Rafael Edward “Ted” Cruz projected the mien of the title character in Sinclair Lewis’ Jazz Age satire, Elmer Gantry. That is not to discount Cruz’s most noteworthy literary intersection, his September 2013 “dramatic reading” of Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham on the Senate floor to protest the Affordable Care Act.** Less remembered is that, no stranger to bookshelves, he also read on the occasion from Ayn Rand’s college-sophomore-inspiring Atlas Shrugged, a tome which might serve him well in re-building bridges he has burned with his own party.
To the extent that Cruz desires to erect spans of understanding between the rest of America, a candidate temporarily abandoned in Canada as a young child with his American mother by his Cuban alcoholic-turned-evangelist father, he may discover feelings for his fellow citizens by reading Maya Angelou’s first autobiographical volume, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. There is the shared pain of divorce and nomadic living situations, as well as the influence of religion. He may also find common ground in comparing Angelou’s poetically recounted troubles with his own more prosaicly remembered challenges, including struggles to save his half-sister from her demons.
Moving back in (publication date) time, the situation of Ralph Ellison’s 1952 Invisible Man—a character representing unseen millions who burns with their anger as well as his own—suggests an interesting, if obviously not perfect, doppelganger. Cruz certainly sympathizes with the narrator’s resentment of communism, and while he is unlikely to see all himself in the character of a grandchild of American slaves, he might surprise himself sharing common ground with the journey of the protagonist, as well the views of the powerless and troubled Americans described throughout the novel. And (not actually) finally, taking more steps back in discursive history moves the Tea Party favorite to a bookshelf including Transcendentalist Nathaniel Hawthorne’s The House of Seven Gables from which he can consider a lesson concerning how centuries of cleansing won’t wash away the hidden sins of the Pyncheons, no matter their class or surface propriety.
Of course, discussion of class brings our discussion around to the last of our final five candidates. Bernard “no admitted middle name” Sanders is the only candidate with a folk album on his resume. So, if there is any literary character the social democrat (aka “socialist”) invoked, as he rasped and railed against “millionaires and billionaires,” it is Eliot Rosewater, the enigmatic, mostly private, and generally idealistic character with few accomplishments who shows up in a variety of Kurt Vonnegut novels.
As for suggestions of what might aid his policy pronouncements on the stump, he could brush up on The Autobiography of Benjamin Franklin, more a collection of shaded remembrances within a favorably altered context (aka bildungsroman or “first novel”) from everyone’s favorite founding father than traditional autobiography. It also couldn’t hurt for #BKLYN’s Bernie to call out from the stump a bit more about what people can accomplish for themselves, even as they rely on government to try and de-tilt the economic playing field. And while it seems harsh to sentence anyone to Henry James, there may be something Bernie could use in the 1878 novella Daisy Miller, with its thoughts of life abroad, that could turn at least a few more of his democratic socialist thoughts to foreign policy, as well as shade his speeches with a few welcome hints of romance.
Until the recent #birdiesanders moment, it seemed there was rarely sunshine or humor in Sanders’ life. To remedy that, he might pick up any of the story collections of Damon Runyon in order to bolster a perspective helpful for getting things done in a world of bumbling scoundrels and lesser thinkers.
Now, in all humility, we know that when the presidential candidates check into Easy Street to take a break from screaming at the fans who attend their rallies and amusing themselves with the myriad ways they can answer the same question from the pundits who plague them, they do so for literary and not political insights. Still, as noted above, there is much for them to learn from American fiction tradition. In fact, given the constraints on their time, if they just want to “skip to the chase” as a way of understanding the roots of the mess we will be in under their leadership, they should pick up a copy of the first American novel, William Hill Brown’s epistolary The Power of Sympathy, the 1789 morality melodrama depicting loss of innocence played out against a plot highlighted by a close brush (probably) with incest. The most important takeaway from reading this country’s ur-book—which we can all consider as a lesson of literature’s power to propose, predict and project—is that probably, regrettably, we are who we are, and, in 2016, we have the politicians vying to prove it.
*While these monikers may appear to be too informal for an upcoming earth’s-most-powerful-individual, it is the way they are currently known around the Easy Street offices, based on what they chose for their ES bowling team shirt embroidery.
**There is no good reason to make the easy joke here that since the bill’s passage was a done deal, and he wasn’t serving his party’s or constituent’s interest that he was just grandstanding like a Moby Dick.