“I am the President of the United States, clothed with immense power.” So Abraham Lincoln acknowledged the authority wielded by the American President, an authority that has only increased over the years. We spoke to Thom Addinall-Biddulph about his recent thesis, which looked at the way Presidential power has been represented and challenged by post-war novelists.
You can join the conversation too, by sharing your favourite fictional presidents. Details here.
From TV series like House of Cards and The West Wing, to the novels that you explore in your research, audiences seem fixated with the inner workings of the American presidency. Has American culture always had such an intense fascination with its president?
The presidency is the American monarchy
The cultural obsession of the United States with its presidents was the starting point for my thesis. George Washington was the first example of this: huge portentous statues were constructed depicting him, sentimental fictions were written about him, and the outpouring of grief on his death in 1799 was overwhelming. This, I think, is because the presidency is the American monarchy: not for nothing did Arthur J. Schlesinger, Jr., term it “the imperial presidency”. The president is both head of state and head of government, and so serves as a ceremonial figurehead for, and embodiment, of the nation, as well as its active executive. Ironically, this means the presidency bears a resemblance to the British monarchy that the American Revolution fought against (in fact, some people did propose having an American monarchy when the nation was founded). As public figures under a great deal of scrutiny – the details of their lives pored over by the press – and as not just the American president but “leader of the free world”, they are an obvious choice for cultural representation.
It is, however, to be noted that in the nineteenth century, particularly the latter half, the president was a much less potent figure, as Congress was much more ascendant in this period. During this time there was consequently less cultural interest in the presidency, although texts set during that era but written later – such as Charles Portis’ True Grit – still have characters referring at frequent intervals to the president. This would change as the twentieth century progressed and the president became ever more central to American life.
Direct literary representations of presidential figures as characters in the narrative are, nevertheless, not necessarily that common: my thesis sought to investigate how various texts are influenced and, in part, structured through the constant presence of presidential and executive power in their socio-historical setting.
You focus on three authors: Philip Roth,Thomas Pynchon, and Cormac McCarthy. Given the amount of fiction about the presidency, why did you choose these in particular?
These three novelists are of a generation: they were all born in the mid-1930s, and started publishing in the 1960s (Roth’s first novel was published in 1959). Thus, their work has been written against the backdrop of the increasing aggrandisement of executive power in the United States since 1945. The increase to fifteen executive departments – most recently the Department of Homeland Security in 2003 – and rise to over two million people employed by the federal executive branch indicate this accretion of power. The appearance in recent years of the Tea Party movement is, in part, a reaction to the augmented role of executive power in Americans’ lives. Pynchon, Roth, and McCarthy also make use of a particular “socio-historical novel” form, in which they weave in substantive historical detail, constellations of characters from various parts of the American social milieu, and constant engagement with the socio-political.
Beyond this, they approach American politics from different angles: Pynchon’s anarchic figures and alternative communities; Roth’s more direct political engagement as a lifelong Democrat; McCarthy’s conservatism and often pessimistic view of the world. So, looking at these three authors together allows for a contrast and comparison of how they deploy executive power in their texts – and underlines the important role it plays in all three writers’ texts.
Some of the novels that you look at (such as The Plot Against America) are explicitly about the presidency; others (such as No Country for Old Men) are not. In what way do those novels not explicitly about politics still relate to ideas about the presidency?
My research extended beyond the presidency specifically to executive power more generally. Thus, novels like No Country for Old Men engage with executive power through characters holding more junior executive roles, and references to such figures, from the president on down. No Country’s narrator-protagonist, Ed Tom Bell, is a Texas sheriff, a role he describes as having “the same authority as God” (providing the title for my thesis!), but is a character of very little agency in the text. He always arrives too late, after the crime has happened, after the murder has been committed. He muses at one point in the text on how no way has yet been found to govern outlaw figures such as the novel’s antagonist, Anton Chigurh. The novel – set in 1980 – also presents the rise of corporate power in the place of executive power, as Chigurh carries out his spree of violent acts in the service of a Houston company, whose office is in an impenetrable skyscraper suite. This is against the backdrop of Ronald Reagan’s electoral victory in that year, ushering in a firmly individualist, business-oriented administration.
Vineland, conversely, set in 1984, presents a sprawling, vastly overpowered executive branch, personified largely in that novel’s antagonist, federal agent Brock Vond – but with the constant shadow of Reagan, and indeed Nixon, hanging over the text. Indeed, it is Reagan who eventually, at a distance, triggers the novel’s resolution.
Blood Meridian, meanwhile, focuses on the idea of the executive only having the power to unleash forces it cannot then control – in the novel, Angel Trías, governor of Chihuahua state in Mexico, hires John Joel Glanton’s scalphunter gang and thereby unwittingly brings down hellish chaos upon his people. Executive power here is theoretically vast, but in practice those who hold it lack the personal force to actually direct it as they would like. The exception is the novel’s terrifying central character, Judge Holden, a murderous, psychopathic, erudite polymath, the only figure in all the texts I studied who is capable of truly embodying the full power of executive force. (While his title is more judicial, he appears to wield executive power at various points throughout the novel, and judicial roles often carried a certain degree of executive authority in the US in the mid-nineteenth century.) Beyond this, the ways in which the actions of presidential and executive figures often shape the narratives of the texts is central to my argument: Trías’ legitimising of the scalphunters’ depredations in Blood Meridian, the effect of the fictive Lindbergh administration of the Roth family in The Plot Against America, Brock Vond’s interference with the Gates-Wheeler family in Vineland, which is the root of the novel’s sequence of events.
To come back to the first question, the presidency has been a theme in various media. How can novels offer a different perspective compared to other forms in culture?
The ‘phantom presidency’: a force that is always spectrally present without any need for the physical presence of presidential figures
It is, again, in that insidious continual presence of the presidency and executive power: the “phantom presidency”, as I term it, a force that is always spectrally present without any need for the physical presence of presidential figures (or presidential “avatars” such as Brock Vond). This would, I think, be harder to achieve in other media. In a novel this phantom power can creep in throughout without ever needing to be overly obvious, which a visual medium would likely find harder to achieve. The film of No Country for Old Men, for example, while generally speaking a very close adaptation of the novel, drops Ed Tom Bell’s monologues; descriptive passages such as Judge Holden’s bizarre parody of a “formal presentation” of the scalphunters to a Mexican army patrol in Blood Meridian and the Roths’ tour round Washington D.C. with a character who seems to almost be a presidential phantom himself would inevitably be lost in a less textual medium.
None of your chosen novels directly cover the incumbent, Barack Obama. When authors start to revisit the most recent President, how do you think they will handle it? Will there be any singular events to rival September 11th that inspired Bleeding Edge?
Obama has thus far made a more immediate impression on television and film, not unsurprisingly given the often shorter gestation periods of those mediums. Bleeding Edge was published in his second term, but features no obvious references to him, being set in 2001. Inevitably, literary material featuring his presidency is likely to cover his status as the first African-American president, and the deep divisions his administration saw open in American society. As of now, there isn’t one event that stands out from Obama’s presidency in the way George Bush senior fought the Gulf War, Clinton faced impeachment, and George Bush junior began the war on terror following September 11. I suspect what writers will focus on will be those social divisions, and America’s changing role on the international stage: the progress made on gay rights, the divide between “blue” and “red” states, the hugely vexed issue of immigration, Obama’s handling of foreign wars. I wonder if Obama may be presented as a figure with radical inclinations who failed to really follow through on them. Pynchon, especially, might see Obama’s 2009 election as another missed opportunity for a real presentation of alternatives to the prevailing socio-political order, along with the failure of the 1960s generation presented in Vineland; though he might also see Obama, whose senate record was not as liberal as some Democrats’, as never having been truly radical.
Lastly, the election of the next American president is coming up next year. From the wife seeking to step into her husband’s old shoes, to a multimillionaire reality TV star, the lineup is nothing if not characterful. Which one do you think would provide the best material for the writers of tomorrow?
There is an easy answer here, which is the living cartoon character that is Donald Trump! However, many of the candidates could provide great material. Hillary Clinton is a fascinatingly divisive figure, seeming to many to be the Lady Macbeth of American politics. Bernie Sanders could almost be one of Pynchon’s left-wing characters, or indeed one of Roth’s fiery demagogues: if he were to win, it would be very intriguing to see how the US would handle a self-proclaimed socialist as president. In Ben Carson, we have another candidate with no political, or even business, experience, who has, like Trump, tapped into a vein of anti-political sentiment; Ted Cruz presents us with another controversial firebrand. Carson, Cruz, and Marco Rubio are, like Obama, from ethnic minorities, but with hugely different politics to him, which could also provoke a good deal of literary commentary. Trump, perhaps, would make satire redundant, even more so than Nixon (who Roth so viciously and extremely thinly satirised in Our Gang as Trick E. Dixon). If we look at the “presidential” literature already written, it tends to focus on a handful of presidents with whom American culture is obsessed: Washington, Lincoln, the two Roosevelts, Kennedy, Reagan. Given the long fascination of the American public with Hillary, whether as fans or foes, maybe she would give novelists the most material after all.
Thom’s thesis is available to read online now, via Durham eTheses. Which is your favourite fictional President? Join the conversation here.