[In honor of May Day, a series on some compelling cultural representations of communism in American history and identity.]
On two distinct but complementary postmodern historical novels.
As I wrote in this post on American hypocrites, Tony Kushner’s play Angels in America (1991-1993) includes one of the most searing and tragic depictions of McCarthyism: Kushner’s portrayal of Roy Cohn, and most especially of Cohn’s literally and figuratively haunting conversations with the ghost of Ethel Rosenberg, whose conviction and demise a young Cohn helped ensure and who becomes in Kushner’s imagining the last “person” to speak with Cohn before his own death from AIDS. And Kushner isn’t alone is capitalizing upon Ethel Rosenberg’s literary and symbolic qualities, as the famous communist (whether guilty of espionage or not, she certainly was that) and her husband also occupy a complex and central place in two of the most significant late 20th century American historical novels: E.L. Doctorow’s The Book of Daniel (1971) and Robert Coover’s The Public Burning (1977).
Scholar Linda Hutcheon developed a new category, “historiographic metafiction,” to describe postmodern historical novels, works that put history and fiction in complex and often playful interrelationship and that do so in self-aware and –reflective ways. Both Doctorow’s and Coover’s novels fit aspects of this category, but in very different ways: Doctorow’s novel is narrated by the son of a fictionalized version of the Rosenbergs (known in his novel as the Isaacsons), and it is the narrator Daniel’s awareness of his own project, audience, and historical significance that makes the book truly postmodern; whereas Coover’s novel’s most prominent characters include not only Ethel Rosenberg but also Richard Nixon (who serves as one of the text’s main perspectives) and Uncle Sam (who is a folksy and vulgar chorus of sorts, appearing periodically to comment on the action). Needless to say, despite their shared subject matter, only one of the novels produced a significant controversy upon its publication.
Yet if we consider that shared subject matter, and more exactly the question of how fiction can help us engage with difficult and divisive historical subjects more generally, it seems to me that Doctorow’s and Coover’s books complement each other quite nicely. Coover’s is biting and angry, lashing out at the kinds of hysterias and extremes that McCarthyism exemplified (whether the Rosenbergs were guilty or not) and that Uncle Sam’s America has always included. Doctorow’s is intimate and tragic, considering the legacies of such histories on the individuals and families, as well as the communities and nation, that experience them. Coover focuses on the most public moments and figures, Doctorow on the most private effects and lives. Together, they help us remember that every American history and issue, even the Cold War boogeyman of communism, became and remains a part of our communal and human landscapes as well.
Next cultural communism tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Cultural representations of communism you’d highlight?
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