The Challenge of the Conservative American Novelist

The conservative American novelist—a man of broad intellect, refined sensibility, and discreet humility—surveys the American landscape like a seer. He views our follies and our faults, our successes and our failures, with a sober, sympathetic, and sardonic yet compassionate eye. He, like Superman, has a sort of X-ray vision that penetrates our vanity, our cant, our self-deceit, revealing us for what we truly are—clay, air, and water, animated to life; material for the literary artist to hone his craft, confident that if he can generate sufficient Amazon orders all of mankind might be saved—or at least improved.

But who is he? Who is the conservative American novelist who takes the insignificant lives of others and transforms them into art? 

It is a question I often ask myself, as I sit on a pile of bricks on my semi-rural plot, facing a lake and trees, with a mirror before me, shaving outside, as is my wont, wiping my razor on the obliging backs of my pet ducks, which I feed and raise largely for this purpose. 

With so many paths available to help mankind, what leads me to choose this one? There were times, in the past, when I met pretty nurses and thought—perhaps a doctor is what I should be. But no, I opted for the way of loneliness, the loneliness of the long-distance writer. 

What compels a man such as I to bend over a desk and type late into the night, early into the morning, writing novels about what might have happened had George Armstrong Custer survived the Battle of the Little Bighorn and gone on to protect America as an incognito soldier of fortune? 

I look at myself and wonder at the rugged chin—a chin tested, battered, and bruised against boxing gloves, sometimes even those worn by an opponent.  

I see a cowboy hat, plaid shirt, jeans, cowboy boots; all different in size, but not in type from what I used to wear as a boy. 

And herein is the beginning of understanding and illumination. The conservative American novelist, unlike so many literary types today, is unashamed of his ties to the past and to his country and to the formative literary influences of his youth. 

Foreign literary critics, with their Eurocentric prejudices, often miss this when they analyze the conservative American novelist. They look to European authors for comparisons, when it is really the domestic influences that matter.  

Because much of my writing has dealt with war—as well as with peace—I am, almost invariably, compared to Tolstoy. But Tolstoy, as I recall, was a rather ramshackle, dirty, bearded, and disreputable wealthy Russian landowner who wanted to be a peasant, while I am a tall, lean, clean shaven, well-showered, and respectable member of my parish in Swampland, Mississippi, who aspires to acquire more land to run cattle.

Other foreign critics, especially Frenchmen, look upon my works, recognize my profound engagement with the human condition, and exclaim: “Dostoyevsky!” with especial reference to his book The Idiot. If I had a euro for every time I’ve read in some Académie Française publication, “H. W. Crocker le Troisième? Je ne comprends pas cet idiot,” I’d be in crêpes for life.

These foreign critics forget that the conservative American novelist of the early 21st century is defined by the inevitable “placeyness” and “timeyness” that colors all human existence.  

The Ur-texts of his craft, developing his imagination in the 1960s and 1970s, would be much more like those that inspired young, developing English playwrights who grew up seeing original productions of Shakespeare at the Old Globe—that is, they would be dramatic. So, where Jacobean playwrights might look back on the Old Bard and measure themselves against him, the early 21st century conservative American novelist must measure himself against a more forbidding challenge. He looks not to one-offs like Romeo and Juliet, Hamlet, or Richard III but to a higher bar requiring extraordinary productivity and consistency. By that I mean serialized television dramas, such as “The Beverly Hillbillies;” “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea;” “The Wild, Wild West;” and “The Rifleman.” 

Can he capture, as consistently as did the character of Jed Clampett in “The Beverly Hillbillies,” the sense of displacement felt by the white American male in modern society?

Can he wrestle with the complexities of science and morality as was done with such routine savoir faire in “Voyage to the Bottom of the Sea”? 

Can he provide his female characters with the depth and understanding of the feminine mystique that so characterized James West’s distaff costars in “The Wild, Wild West”? 

These, more than Natty Bumpo or Captain Ahab or Nick Adams (unless it was the Nick Adams who played “The Rebel” on television), are the models of perfection at which he aims. And if the conservative American novelist truly aspires to become the champion of his art, to be the very best, to go beyond the comparisons of television drama, to actually engage with the utmost achievement of the written word, he knows what eyrie he must climb, what skyscraper he must ascend, what character he must match: he must come to grips with the greatest American literary creation of the 20th century, Doc Savage.  

But even then, we would regard his role too narrowly. He is not merely a writer of entertainments, a tickler of moral, intellectual, and spiritual reflection, but potentially a commentator, whose unique and acute mind can solve riddles that baffle faculty lounges, editorial boards, and the Washington establishment. 

Consider questions such as these, which haunt the greatest intellects of our time, for which he alone, perhaps, has the answer:  

We have defunded the police and yet have more crime—how can this be?

Why have not “rainbow” flags at our military bases and embassies won us the respect that was lost from our ignominious flight from Afghanistan?

Why must inflationary policies lead to inflation?

Why must restrictions on oil and gas production lead to higher energy prices?

Why are not children happier these days when they have easy access to drag queen story hours and medically supervised bodily mutilation?

When will the biological sciences realize (as the social sciences have done) that one’s sex is utterly imaginary and thus chooseable, changeable, and interchangeable in endless variety?

Why do we have recruiting shortfalls despite lowering standards, integrating women into combat roles, educating students in Critical Race Theory, and ridding ourselves of monuments to controversial soldiers of the past?  

Why should it be controversial to use the power of the federal government to reeducate those guilty of wrongthink (Donald Trump and his supporters) where possible, or to suppress them and prosecute them when necessary? 

I think we can accept that these are difficult questions; and for educated people almost impossible to answer. But the conservative American novelist, with his innate respect for the realyness of reality and experientiality of past experience has an advantage of perspective that many writers don’t. 

He also has the courage to afflict the comfortable—in faculty lounges and at the New York Times—with bold statements like: 

Dick is a boy and Jane is a girl. All else follows.

Indeed, the conservative American novelist would say that in such simple, folk wisdom of the American past—invaluable in its own way as the Shamanic rituals of American Indian tribes—lie the answers to some of our nation’s most complex problems. 

So, take this bit of comfort from the wise counsel of the conservative American novelist: when you think insanity lies all around, that every problem is unsolvable, turn to him. In his works you will find the answers to every question, because he knows from his long marination in the wisdom of America’s past, including his own past, which he will not repudiate, that nearly every problem that affects the human person can be solved—within the dramatic confines of thirty to sixty minutes—by a brave man of Christian character with morals and a gun. If we all recovered this secret to the good life, the world would be a better place.  

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