Seventy years ago it was entirely normal for our most engaged political intellectuals to interrupt their discussions of the Cold War situation in order to write books and essays on, of all things, novels. Three years after co-founding Dissent magazine in 1954, Irving Howe wrote Politics and the Novel, a still insightful study of Stendhal, Hawthorne, Dostoevsky, Conrad, and James. And the chapters in Lionel Trilling’s The Liberal Imagination (1950), which include readings of Dreiser, Twain, and Fitzgerald, bore the subtitle Essays on Literature and Society because, he explained many years later, the novel was “an especially useful agent of the moral imagination, as the literary form which most directly reveals to us the complexity, the difficulty, and the interest of life in society.” The novel, to them, was a tradition standing alongside liberalism and Marxism. A political thinker who hadn’t read Moby-Dick was no such thing. Marx himself took a novel, Robinson Crusoe, as a prime specimen of capitalism.

The mid-20th century was a high point for the novel in American society, when novel-reading was “a necessary part of participation in public life…akin to (or, at least, providing the raw material for) serious intellectual analysis of ethics, political theory, and psychology.” Those words come near

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