The Fiction of American Democracy

America’s independence was won on the battlefield, but American democracy was written into existence. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution created the country that America aspires to be, where all people are created equal and politics is a common effort to establish a more perfect union. This is the ideal democracy that Walt Whitman likened to “leaves of grass”: “Sprouting alike in broad zones and narrow zones,/Growing among black folks as among white,/Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same.”

When Whitman wrote those lines in 1855, of course, the divisions among whites, Blacks and Native Americans were stark and bloody. But like so many American writers, Whitman couldn’t reconcile himself to the way reality fell short of the founding ideal. The idea that literature should keep a distance from politics, that art should exist for its own sake, has never found much traction in this country. On the contrary, American literature is constantly analyzing the state of the nation, posing in countless ways the question that the poet Allen Ginsberg stated directly and plaintively: “America, when will you be angelic?”

Today’s writers continue that tradition, whether they are telling stories about real politicians—like Curtis Sittenfeld and Thomas Mallon, who have used fiction to delve into the minds of Hillary Clinton and Richard Nixon—or using the techniques of fantasy and science fiction—like Suzanne Collins’s popular “Hunger Games” series, set in a dystopian future where a wealthy Capitol takes poor children as “tributes,” forcing them to compete in a televised fight to the death. Even contemporary novelists who don’t tackle politics head-on often end up writing about it—like Ben Lerner, whose 2019 novel “The Topeka School” draws on his own experience as a high-school debater to show how political argument becomes toxic.

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