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Steven G. Kellman


The Montréal Review, January 2022


Vaclav Havel

Václav Havel posing in front of Master Theodoric’s portrait of St. Matthew, Prague’s National Gallery (1992). Photo Credits: Pavel Štecha


If only Russia had been founded
by Anna Akhmatova, if only
Mandelstam had made the laws
--Adam Zagajewski, “If  Only Russia,” 1985

Two hundred eleven members of the 113th Congress listed law as their occupation. Congress also includes numerous entrepreneurs, physicians, engineers, clergy, teachers, farmers, and accountants, as well as solitary examples of a rodeo announcer, a vintner, a comedian, a firefighter, a welder, a fruit picker, a football player, a fisherman, and a mortician.1 No one claims a literary calling. Many members of the Senate and the House of Representatives - as well as presidents, governors, and mayors - have written - or pretend to have written - books. Ghost-written memoirs published to coincide with campaigns are the tribute that ambitious yahoos pay to literate houyhnhmns. But the office that a professional writer seeks is most often merely a space in which to write. 

Despite the fact that the Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated 145,900 writers in the United States in 2010 (easily exceeding the number of rodeo announcers and vintners),2 it is an extraordinary event when a writer becomes a candidate, and it is almost apocalyptic when one succeeds. Especially in the United States, where Adlai Stevenson was mocked as an “egghead” for being seen with a book and where Sarah Palin’s apparent indifference to reading embellished her credentials as a populist foe of “elitism,” being “bookish” is usually not an asset, but a liability. So alien are books and reading to American notions of political power that Henry Kissinger, an intellectual courtier who himself  never ran for office, was astonished to find books not only bursting out of the shelves of Mao Zedong’s study but piled onto a table and the floor as well. “It looked more the retreat of a scholar than the audience room of the all-powerful leader of the world’s most populous nation,” he recalled.3 According to a survey conducted by the National Endowment for the Arts,4 fewer than half of Americans of voting age read any literature, and they apparently do not like to read the names of writers on their ballots.

In America the Philosophical, Carlin Romano makes the hyperbolic claim that: “America in the early twenty-first century towers as the most philosophical culture in the history of the world, an unprecedented marketplace of truth and argument that far surpasses ancient Greece, Cartesian France, nineteenth-century German, or any other place one can name over the past three millennia.”5 As part of his panegyric, Romano hails Barack Obama as “our most cosmopolitan, philosopher-in-chief president since Woodrow Wilson.”6 Obama’s Dreams from My Father, which Obama published in 1995, a year before running successfully for the Illinois State Senate, and which won the 2009 Galaxy British Book Award for biography, is indeed written with extraordinary passion and grace. Like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison, Abraham Lincoln, and Theodore Roosevelt, Obama is an anomaly among American politicians in his gift for composing powerful English prose. Nevertheless, although the 44th president might, in another life, have become an important literary figure, he is still, however, an officeholder who writes, not primarily a writer who ran for office. Jimmy Carter published poetry and fiction after leaving the White House, and, despite their published novels, no one considers “author” as the primary identity of Barbara Boxer, William Cohen, Newt Gingrich, Gary Hart, Barbara Mikulski, James Webb, and William Weld. Though Calvin Coolidge in fact translated Dante’s Inferno during his honeymoon, he is better known for the philistine declaration that: “The chief business of the American people is business.” No American writer approximating the stature of Victor Hugo, who was elected to the French Senate in 1876, has ever run for public office. The United States may or may not be the “most philosophical culture” in history, but its political and literary cultures are kept quite distinct. In this country, composing poetry is a disqualification for election to public office.

“The only thing I’ve ever really wanted in my life was to be President,”7 Gore Vidal, whose grandfather, Thomas P. Gore, was a Senator from Oklahoma and who considered politics “the family business,”8 told an interviewer in 1976. Despite more than two dozen novels, eight plays, and two political campaigns - for Congress from New York in 1962 and for the Senate from California in 1982 ­- Vidal’s ambition remained unfulfilled.  Norman Mailer, a literary rival, also chafed at the role of mere writer. "I have been running for President these last ten years in the privacy of my mind,"9 Mailer wrote in 1959. The novelist had to settle for the presidency of PEN American Center in 1984. He finished fourth in a primary field of five as candidate for mayor of New York City (fellow writer Jimmy Breslin, bidding for the presidency of the City Council, was his running mate) in 1969 and never occupied the Oval Office except in the privacy of his mind. Richard Henry Dana ran for Congress from Massachusetts in 1868; Jack London for mayor of Oakland in 1901 and again in 1905; Upton Sinclair for governor of California in 1934; James Michener for Congress from Pennsylvania in 1962; Hunter S. Thompson for sheriff of Pitkin County, Colorado in 1970; and David R. Slavitt for Massachusetts House of Representatives in 2004 - none victoriously. 

Poets might, as Shelley proclaimed, be the unacknowledged legislators of the world, or, in George Oppen’s formulation, the legislators of the unacknowledged world. Yet they rarely enter legislatures or executive suites in an elected capacity. One writer who did was Václav Havel, the dramatist who was elected president of Czechoslovakia in 1989. He explained his commitment to public service by noting: “If the hope of the world lies with human consciousness, then it is obvious that intellectuals cannot go on forever avoiding their share of responsibility for the world and hiding their distaste for politics under an alleged need to be independent.”10 Michener, too, refused to regard writers as a privileged class exempt from participation in civic affairs: “I consider it insulting for any citizen to think that he is above politics,”11 he wrote in the midst of canvassing votes within every square mile of Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

But the finest writers are connoisseurs of ambiguity, the negative capability that John Keats identified as Shakespeare's genius. And politics, particularly in our time, dissolves complexities into simplistic fables of good and evil, yes and no, blue and red. When a poet enters the electoral arena, something does not scan. The creed of democratic parity causes many voters to mistrust literary excellence. And Stephen Dedalus’s dedication to a “pure” art that disdains the inevitably compromised - because requiring the art of compromise - realm of politics still shapes much of the discourse about belles lettres. “You talk to me of nationality, language, religion,” says Joyce’s haughty young aesthete. “I shall try to fly by those nets.”12 In proud, Promethean alienation, many artists have disdained distractions from their lofty literary calling. “It’s boring and distasteful,” was Slavitt’s verdict on his experience of running for office when he could have been writing more poetry.13

It might seem that, because the trade requires collaboration if not gregariousness, a playwright, at least, would be temperamentally more suited to cajoling voters and donors than a poet, whose Romantic traditions celebrate impecunious solitude in a garret. It is easier to imagine Arthur Miller than Emily Dickinson out shaking hands and kissing babies. The only significant electoral success among American authors was playwright Clare Boothe Luce, whom Connecticut voters sent to Congress twice, in 1942 and 1944. But neither Eugene O’Neill nor Lillian Hellman nor Edward Albee nor David Mamet ever appeared on a ballot.

Despite a rich tradition of littérature engagée, for much of the past two centuries, writers have been adversaries of the dominant social values, rendering artistic and political sensibilities as immiscible as oil and Greenpeace. Three years before his election to the presidency of Senegal, Léopold Sedar Senghor acknowledged his ambivalence, his sense that literature and politics were pulling him in opposite directions: “I am torn between Europe and Africa, between politics and poetry, between my white brother and myself.”14 Are artists incapacitated from participation in civic life? Or are they merely undesirable except as artists?  "All poets adore explosions, thunderstorms, tornadoes, conflagrations, ruins, scenes of spectacular carnage. The poetic imagination is not at all a desirable quality in a statesman," observed W. H. Auden,15 who might have understood why Lyndon Johnson exclaimed: "I don't want anything to do with poets"16 and George H. W. Bush insisted: "I can’t do poetry."17 In a 1939 symposium for Partisan Review, Gertrude Stein dismissed the entire question: “Writers only think that they are interested in politics, they are not really it gives them a chance to talk and writers like to talk but really no real writer is really interested in politics.”18 Or perhaps one life is simply too short to excel in both writing and politics. 

Stendhal famously observed that: “Politics, in a literary work, is like a pistol shot in the middle of a concert,”19 but a literary worker in politics seems more like a blundberbuss. Writers in politics behave differently than do soldiers, lawyers, and stockbrokers. In the United States, they are an oddity. Though Senghor, a major figure in modern French poetry, served as president of Senegal for twenty years, it is hard to imagine Robert Frost or James Dickey serving anything but an ornamental function at a presidential inauguration, and it is ludicrous to envision Marianne Moore or Cormac McCarthy addressing rallies out in the hustings. The Velvet Revolution propelled Havel, whose dissident plays had earlier earned him seven years in a Communist prison, into the presidential castle in Prague, but revulsion against McCarthyism did not thrust Tennessee Williams into executive office. And, though novelist Benjamin Disraeli became one of Britain’s most notable prime ministers (and continued publishing fiction while in office), the closest that Nathaniel Hawthorne came to president was to room with one - Franklin Pierce - at Bowdoin College.

“Writers should be read - but neither seen nor heard,” declared Daphne du Maurier,20 voicing a common belief that writers are better off casting ballots but not appearing on them. According to Mario Vargas Llosa, “There is an incompatibility between literary creation and political activity.”21 In much of the world for much of the time, writers are more likely to be victims than agents of official power. Government authorities murdered Ken Saro-wiwa in Nigeria, David Bergelson in Russia, André Chenier in France, and Cicero in Rome. Forced from power and far from home, the ancient Chinese poet-statesman Qu Yuan killed himself. In his prison memoir For a Song and a Hundred Songs: A Poet’s Journey Through a Chinese Prison (2013), contemporary Chinese poet Liao Yiwu recalls a failed suicide attempt as the most terrible moment of his harrowing four years of incarceration. Icelandic poet Snorri Sturluson was assassinated when his political activities angered Norway's King Haakon IV. Modernist culture has cast the writer as adversary rather than instrument of the state. "An author's first duty," quipped Brendan Behan, "is to let down his country."22 Robert Crawford concurred: “As far as politics is concerned, the poet’s most important work is to fiddle while Rome burns.”23 However, as mayor of Fort-de-France and deputy to the French Assembly, Aimée Césaire did not let down his native Martinique, nor did William Butler Yeats betray his nation by serving as senator of the new Irish Free State, nor did José Echegaray after election to the Spanish Cortes, nor did Lennart Meri during his tenure as president of Estonia. Alphonse de Lamartine flopped in his bid for the presidency of France in 1848, but Luis Muñoz Marin, the first elected governor of Puerto Rico (1949-1964), sustained the dream of Philosopher King.

Nevertheless, French intéllectuels and Russian intelligentsia defined themselves in opposition to the regnant régime, and, speaking truth to power, literary dissidents including Voltaire, Hugo, Emile Zola, Thomas Mann, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn upheld the role of the writer as rival sovereign. "For a country to have a great writer," wrote Solzhenitsyn, "is like having a second government.  That is why no régime has ever loved great writers, only minor ones.”24 The moral authority of Nigeria has resided in Wole Soyinka and Chinua Achebe, not the kleptocracy in Abuja. The Liberal Party that Alan Paton founded foundered at the polls, but his 1948 novel Cry, the Beloved Country ultimately exerted more lasting influence than the South African pass laws promulgated by H. F. Verwoerd and P. W. Botha.

Some of the greatest writers of Latin America, including Julio Cortázar, José Martí, Manuel Puig, and César Vallejo, have suffered imprisonment and/or exile, but other authors have possessed powers beyond the ability to devise startling metaphors and ingenious plots. Rubén Darío, Jorge Isaacs, Gabriela Mistral, Miguel Angel Asturias, Pablo Neruda, Octavio Paz, and Alejo Carpentier have served their nations as diplomats, and poet Ernesto Cardenal served as Nicaragua’s minister of culture, while novelist Sergio Ramírez Mercado was its elected vice president. Carlos Fuentes served as Mexico’s ambassador to France, and his death, on May 15, 2012, was first announced on Twitter by Mexican President Felipe Calderón. Whereas Zora Neale Hurston was buried in an unmarked pauper’s grave, Fuentes was memorialized in a state funeral attended by his nation’s political elite. But it was another Latin American writer, poet Rigoberto López Pérez, who threw his nation’s politics into turmoil, by assassinating the Nicaraguan dictator Anastasio Somoza García. Early in his career, in 1945, Jorge Amado was elected to the National Constituent Assembly, though his political candidacies ended abruptly when his Brazilian Communist Party was outlawed. When novelist Rómulo Gallegos was elected president of Venezuela in 1948, he considered it “a loan from letters to politics, with no fixed repayment date.”25 The troubled presidency of novelist Domingo Faustino Sarmiento in Argentina (1868-74) promised the possibility of reconciling civic responsibility with the life of the mind.

That was also the ambition of Vargas Llosa, when he ran for president of Peru in 1990. Though opponents wrenched lurid passages from his fiction to quote out of context, he garnered a plurality of 29 percent in the first round of balloting, before losing the runoff to an obscure agronomist named Alberto Fujimori, who received 57 percent of the final vote. In A Fish in the Water, the memoir that he published in 1993, Vargas Llosa recalls the arguments with which Paz had tried to dissuade him from entering politics: "…incompatibility with intellectual work, loss of independence, being manipulated by professional politicians, and, in the long run, frustration and the feeling of years of one's life wasted."26 Yet Vargas Llosa admits that it was in large part "the decadence, the impoverishment, the terrorism, and the multiple crises of Peruvian society" that drew him to the challenge of seeking "the most dangerous job in the world."27 By running for president of his destitute, embattled nation, the author of The Green House (1968), Conversation in the Cathedral (1975), Aunt Julia and the Scriptwriter (1982), The War of the End of the World (1984), In Praise of the Stepmother (1990), and other books pursued the grandiose illusion "Of writing the great novel in real life."28 His noble ambition of using his talents to transform Peru came up against his discovery that “…real politics, not the kind that one reads and writes about, thinks about and imagines (the only I was acquainted with), but politics as lived and practiced day by day, has little to do with generosity, solidarity, and idealism. It consists almost exclusively of maneuvers, intrigues, plots, paranoias, betrayals, a great deal of calculation, no little cynicism, and every variety of con game.”29

“Writers and politicians are natural rivals,” declared Salman Rushdie. “Both groups try to make the world in their own images; they fight for the same territory.”30 However, the fight is seldom conducted on equal terms, and it becomes complicated when a single figure is both writer and politician. “I am a poetician, not a politician,”31 observed Yevgeny Yevtushenko, who was elected to the Russian Duma. Is the hybrid species of poetician as mythical—and sterile—as a unicorn? A hybrid can be stronger than either of its progenitors, if it is not grotesque.

With very few exceptions - Blaga Dimitrova, the poet who was vice president of Bulgaria; Clare Boothe Luce; and Halide Edib Adivar, who served in the Turkish Parliament - the only writers showing up on ballots have been male. Women, who gained suffrage in most countries less than a century ago, have in general been underrepresented among candidates for office, and it is perhaps no surprise that the women who have pioneered as politicians have come from more customary professions such as law and education rather than literature. Gender has been enough of a handicap to women who might have sought election that the added baggage of authorship would sabotage a campaign from its outset.

In the United States, the nation with the most elaborate and expensive system of electing leaders, traditions of frontier egalitarianism and pragmatic Babbitry have combined to make the phenomenon of writers who run for office especially rare, as if literary mastery were in fatal conflict with the leveling culture of electoral democracy. In recent campaigns, “elitist” has been one of the most damaging epithets in the arsenal of political invective, and a literary sensibility was seen as a symptom of toxic oligarchical tendencies. Though his wife was a librarian, George W. Bush was manifestly uncomfortable with books and with the English language. His opponent John Kerry was forced to disguise his fluency in French, the language of effete, un-American aesthetes such as Baudelaire, Proust, and Dominique de Villepin, the poet who became prime minister. In Edmund Wilson’s famous appropriation of the Philoctetes myth (more applicable to American than Greek culture; Sophocles, after all, served as a general in the Athenian army), the artist and society are locked into a relationship of mutual resentment. Real poets - at least those in the mold of Rilke and Verlaine - don’t do photo ops. When Sinclair, running as a Democrat on the EPIC (“End Poverty in California”) platform, was defeated for governor in 1936, a rival explained that the novelist “was beaten because he wrote books.”32 During a nasty campaign, passages from Sinclair’s fiction were quoted against him. However, the specific contents were scarcely relevant, since dedication to any kind of writing can be a liability in a political culture that favors slogans over complex thought and personalities over ideas. In exile in Italy long after his last electoral battle, Vidal told an interviewer: “There is also something in the water - let us hope it was put there by the enemy - that has made Americans contemptuous of intelligence whenever they recognize it, which is not very often. And a hatred of learning, which you don't find in any other country. There is not one hamlet in Italy where you fail to find kids desperate to learn.”33 After his own disastrous run for office, Slavitt, a novelist, poet, and translator, concluded: “The electorate is invincibly stupid.”34 To many literary folk, vox populi is an ill-informed rant.

Asked by the emperor for advice on governing, Confucius is said to have replied: “First purify the language.”35 Although good writers are temperamentally allergic to clichés, a modern electoral campaign requires formulaic statements delivered several times a day for successive weeks and months. How do voters respond when a “poetician” attempts to communicate in ways that embody those qualities most valued in literature - innovation, complexity, provocation?  What happens to people whose profession demands verbal precision when the pressures of a campaign oblige them to deliver speech after numbing speech and settle for slogans?  “It is a low-grade poetry,” complained Slavitt, “the art of clobbering people over the head.”36 In democratic cultures in which increasing emphasis is placed on the candidate one would most choose to share a beer with, how do voters relate to literary artists? Candidates who choose poetry over rhetoric are not likely to succeed on the stump.

In 2004, Slavitt staged a quixotic quest for a seat in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. The 69-year-old author of 29 novels, 17 collections of poetry, and 27 volumes of translation ran as a liberal Republican against a six-term incumbent in a solidly Democratic district encompassing Cambridge and Somerville. Slavitt resented as humiliating distractions the signature-collecting, hand-shaking, sloganeering, and schmoozing required for success in electoral politics. On an occasion when literary inspiration competed with the candidate’s schedule, poetry won.”I took the day off and did absolutely nothing in the way of campaigning,” he reports. “Instead, I wrote a poem with which I am well pleased. All my life, my practice has been to suspend almost any other kind of activity if a poem has presented itself to me.”37 Slavitt explained his unconventional candidacy in a letter to prospective constituents: “I am a social moderate, a fiscal conservative, and a grown-up. That I am also a person of some intelligence and culture does not, I think, absolutely disqualify me for office in the State House.”38 Most voters in the 26th Middlesex District of Massachusetts disagreed. Slavitt was routed by the incumbent, Timothy J. Toomey, 87 percent to 13 percent. He took consolation from the fact that his minuscule support, 1,680 votes, “is not a bad number for sales of a book of poems.”39

Free to resume his prodigious career as a writer, Slavitt immediately set to work publishing translations of Euripides, Boethius, Lucretius, Sophocles, Ausonius, and Ariosto, two volumes of original poetry, a memoir, a book of essays, and a novel. But in the aftermath of defeat, he also produced a sardonic account, Blue State Blues (2006), of his misadventures in electoral politics. Its pages, he later claimed, redeemed the ordeal of running for office: “The book, very early on, became the purpose, and I got the book written and published. That's what I accomplished. The account of the effort is much more interesting as a piece of political anthropology than was my actual campaign in this benighted city and state.”40

Vargas Llosa, too, returned to writing, prolifically, and expressed gratitude and relief over the decision by Peruvian voters not to burden him with the responsibilities of the presidency. In addition to a steady stream of new fiction, he, too, published a campaign memoir, El pez in el agua (1993; A Fish in the Water, 1994), that is suffused with melancholy over the irrationality of an electorate he had hoped to win over through the strength of his ideas. Though Voltaire located Candide’s Eldorado, an idealized kingdom of rational citizens, in the vicinity of Peru, the real Peru was resistant to the reign of a Philosopher King. “They voted the way people do in an underdeveloped democracy, and sometimes in the mature ones as well,” Vargas Llosa complains about his fellow citizens, “on the basis of images, myths, heart throbs, or on account of obscure feelings and resentments with no particular connection to processes of reason.”41

Through his EPIC movement, Sinclair also made his bid for governor a campaign of ideas, an educational effort to win voters over to “production for use,” a plan by which state-owned cooperatives would provide constructive employment for the 700,000 Californians who were out of work. His popularity as the author of The Jungle and many other novels drew attention to his candidacy at the top of the Democratic ticket, but it also aroused animosity. “What does Sinclair know about anything?” a hostile movie executive is reported to have asked his screenwriters. “He’s just a writer.”42 Despite the often vicious attempts by powerful interests to discredit him and sabotage his efforts, Sinclair did surprisingly well at the polls. He received 37.6 percent of the vote, to Republican Frank Merriam’s 48.7 percent; a third-party candidate, Raymond L. Haight, received 13.7 percent. Within three days of losing, Sinclair was busy writing what has become almost requisite for writers who run for office - a campaign memoir. Finished in five weeks, I, Candidate for Governor and How I Got Licked (1935) expresses relief that its author is free again to drive his own car, take walks, sleep with the windows open, and get back to writing novels. And, insisting that he ran in order to advance his ideas and not because he particularly wanted to be governor, Sinclair pronounces himself satisfied that he has accomplished his goal.

After losing, by only 17,000 votes, to a ten-term incumbent, Michener, too, resumed a prodigious - and lucrative - writing career.  In the memoir that he published thirty years later, The World Is My Home (1992), he is sanguine about his unsuccessful bid for public office: “Running for Congress was one of the best things I’ve done because campaigning in public knocks sense into a man. He begins to see his nation as a carefully assembled mosaic whose individual pieces require close attention.”43 Even during the campaign, Michener’s equanimity distinguished him from Slavitt’s bitterness, Vidal’s cynicism, and Vargas Llosa’s despair. Unlike them, he did not resent the sacrifice of time and energy for writing. “If I were found worthy to participate in the government of my country,” he declared, “I would be happy indeed. I would consider the work more important than the writing of another book, more significant than the making of another movie.”44

Havel actually won election to the highest office in his nation, serving as president from 1989-2003. To Vargas Llosa, he is an inspiring example of the difference that a conscientious writer can make to political culture:

“I think what he brought to politics in Czechoslovakia is something that a writer or an artist can offer: a moral perspective, more important than the purely political, and a new discourse—a discourse without the stereotypes and the wooden language that is the norm in political discourse. Václav Havel was the extraordinary case of the politician whose speeches you could read because they full of ideas, and there was something authentic there.  He proved to the people that politics is not only about intrigue, maneuvering, and sordid appetites, but also about something in which idealism, ideas, creativity, and authenticity can take place, and that these can produce positive changes in society. the unique contribution that a writer can make to politics. I think it’s a positive example of how not all writers are so ineffective in politics, as I myself, for example.”45

Of course, literary candidates in North America have been even more ineffective than Vargas Llosa, a credible contender for president of Peru.

Like other writers who ran for office, Havel resumed his literary career after re-emerging from politics. He also wrote with intelligence, candor, and self-effacing wit about the frustrations and satisfactions of running and serving. In his unconventional memoir To the Castle and Back (2008; Prosím stručně, 2006), Havel recalls the challenges, ranging from determining place settings at state dinners and obtaining a longer hose for the presidential garden to dissolving the Warsaw Pact and gaining entry into the European Union, that he had to negotiate. He credits his success to the contradictory qualities that are assets in writing for the theater:

“I’m a sociable person who likes being with people, organizing events, bringing people together; a cheerful fellow, sometimes the conversational life of the party, one who enjoys drinking and the various pleasures and trespasses of life—and at the same time I’m happiest when alone and consequently my life is a constant escape into solitude and quiet introspection.”46

Havel acknowledges that his foray into politics benefited from the exalted prestige accorded writers under the repressive regimes of Central and Eastern Europe. By contrast, many American writers - e.g., Herman Melville, Emily Dickinson, Kate Chopin, Walt Whitman, Henry Roth, Zora Neale Hurston - have languished - and flourished - in obscurity. And the changing dynamics of culture are making the success of a poetician, in this country and elsewhere, less and less likely. In a 2006 interview published fifty years after he ran for Congress, Vidal quipped that he was once a famous writer but that: “to speak of a famous writer is like speaking of a famous speedboat designer. Adjective is inappropriate to noun. How can a novelist be famous - no matter how well known he may be personally to the press? - if the novel itself is of little consequence to the civilized, much less to the generality?"47 Literature, once the arbiter, if not center, of serious culture, is increasingly marginalized. Books as printed texts are an endangered species, and book-reading must now compete with a multitude of other activities. Authors have ceded their authority to masters of other media, mostly visual. In an age of endemic aliteracy, a Vidal campaign would have a very different resonance today than it had when he ran for Congress in 1960, before the advent of the internet, cable TV, cinematic multiplexes, DVDs, and iPods. Actors (Fred Gandy, George Murphy, Ronald Reagan, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Fred Thompson) and athletes (Bill Bradley, Jim Bunning, Jack Kemp, Jesse Ventura, J. C. Watts) are more likely to succeed in politics than are the wretches who write.

Benito Mussolini began his career as a writer, and the world would have been spared much grief had he stuck to that profession. And it would have been greatly impoverished had Iris Murdoch, like Jeffrey Archer, diverted her energies to standing for Parliament. However, writers are among the best and brightest of citizens, and the health of the commonwealth suffers when they are confined to the role of political advisor or quarantined in academe. It is possible to imagine authors as varied as William Dean Howells, George Bernard Shaw, Margaret Atwood, Carlos Fuentes, David Grossman, and Walter Mosley making constructive contributions as candidates as well as elected leaders without having to banish their Muses. Of course, many other writers (Charles Bukowski, Hart Crane, Henry Roth, Henry James, Jack Kerouac, Sylvia Plath, Thomas Pynchon, J. D. Salinger) are temperamentally ill-suited to a campaign trail or a government office. They also serve who only sit and write.


Steven G. Kellman is a professor of comparative literature at the University of Texas at San Antonio, where he has taught since 1976. He is the author of The Restless Ilan Stavans: Outsider on the Inside, The Translingual Imagination, Loving Reading: Erotics of the Text, and Redemption: The Life of Henry Roth, which received the New York Society Library Award for Biography, as well as hundreds of essays and more than a thousand reviews. Among his other honors are the Gemini Ink Literary Excellence Award and the San Antonio Public Library Foundation’s Arts and Letters Award. He lives in San Antonio.


1 Congressional Research Research Service. Membership of the 113th Congress: A Profile. http://www.fas.org/sgp/crs/misc/R42964.pdf.

2 Bureau of Labor Statistics. Occupational Outlook Handbook, 2010-2011 Edition.    http://www.bls.gov/ooh/media-and-communication/writers-and-authors.htm.

3 Henry Kissinger. White House Years. Boston: Little, Brown, 1979, p. 1058.

4 “Literary Reading in Dramatic Decline, According to National Endowment for the Arts Survey.” National Endowment for the Arts News. Room.http://www.nea.gov/news/news04/readingatrisk.html

5 Carlin Romano. America the Philosophical. New York: Knopf, 2012, p. 8.

6 Ibid., p. 18.

7 "Gore Vidal: Laughing Cassandra." Time, May 1, 1976.

8 Gore Vidal. Palimpsest: A Memoir. New York: Random House, 1995, p. 334.

9 Norman Mailer, Advertisements for Myself. 1959, repr. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1992, p. 17.

10 Quoted by Carolyn Forché in: William H. Gass and Lorin Cuoco, ed. The Writer in Politics.Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press, 1996, p. 147.

11 James A. Michener. “Why I Am Running for Congress.” Saturday Evening Post, 1962, p. 4.

12 James Joyce. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. New York: Viking Press, 1968, p. 203.

13 Email to the author, October 27, 2009.

14 Letter to Alain Badiou, February 20, 1957. Quoted in Jacques Louis Hymans. Léopold Sedar Senghor: An Intellectual Biography. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 1971, p. 80.

15 W. H. Auden. “The Poet and the City.” The Dyer’s Hand and Other Essays. New York: Vintage, 1990, p. 84.

16 Colman McCarthy. “An Investigation of the Soul.” Washington Post. July 18, 1995, p. D21.

17 Ben MacIntyre. “When Rimbaud Meets Rambo.” The Times. June 4, 2005, p. 24.

18 Gertrude Stein. “The Situationin American Writing.” Partisan Review, Vol. 6 No. 4 (summer 1939), p. 41.

19 Stendhal. The Charterhouse of Parma. Trans. Margaret Mauldon. New York: Oxford University Press,1997, p. 414.

20 Connie Robertson, ed. The Wordsworth Dictionary of Quotations. Ware, Hertfordshire: Wordsworth Editions, 1998, p. 111.

21 Mario Vargas Llosa. International Herald Tribune, April 1, 1988. Quoted in: Robert Andrews, ed. The Columbia Dictionary of Quotations, New York: Columbia University Press,1993, p. 534. 

22 Brendan Behan. The Guardian, 1960. Quoted in: Jonathon Green, ed. The Cynic’s Lexicon: A Dictionary of Amoral Advice. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1984, p. 20.

23 Quoted in Charles Simic. Memory Piano. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2006, p. 232.

24 Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn. The First Circle. Trans. Thomas Whitney. New York: Harper & Row, 1968, chapt. 57.

25 Rómulo GallegosUna posición en la vida.  Buenos Aires: Ediciones Centaures, 1977, p. 383.

26 Mario Vargas Llosa. A Fish in the Water: A Memoir. Trans Helen Lane. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1994, p. 431.

27 Ibid., p. 41.

28 Ibid., p. 41.

29 Ibid., p. 87.

30 Salman Rushdie. Imaginary Homelands: Essays and Criticism 1981-1991. New York: Penguin, 1992, p. 14.

31 Yevgeny Alexandrovich Yevtushenko. “A Time for Summing Up.” Voices of Glasnost: Interviews with Gorbachev’s Reformers. Stephen F. Cohen and Katrina Vanden Heuvel, ed. New York: Norton, 1991, p. 261.

32 Richard Rapaport. “The Great Gorino.” Los Angeles Times, May 7, 2006, p. l.28.

33 Steve Perry, "The Undoing of America: Gore Vidal on War for Oil, Politics - Free Elections, and the Late, Great US Constitution."  City Pages, March 23, 2005.

34 Email to the author, October 27, 2009.

35 F. David Peat. The Blackwinged Night: Creativity in Nature and Mind. New York: Basic Books, 2000, p. 125.

36 David R. Slavitt. Blue State Blues. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2006, p. 267.

37 Ibid., p. 41.

38 Ibid., p. 31.

39 Ibid., p. 334.

40 Email to the author, October 27, 2009.

41 Vargas Llosa, A Fish in the Water, p. 81.

42 Upton Sinclair. I, Candidate for Governor: And How I Got Licked. 1935; repr. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1994, p. 170.

43 James A. Michener. The World Is My Home: A Memoir. New York: Random House, 1992, p. 188.

44 Michener. “Why I Am Running for Congress,” p. 4.

45 Gass and Cuoco, The Writer in Politics, p. 80.

46 Václav Havel.  To the Castle and Back. Trans. Paul Wilson. New York: Vintage, 2008, p. 336.

47 Gore Vidal. Point to Point Navigation: A Memoir 1964-2006. New York: Doubleday, 2006, p. 2.


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