Ars Americana, Ars Politica

Ars Americana, Ars Politica: Partisan Expression in Contemporary American Literature and Culture, by Peter Swirski, McGill-Queen’s University Press, RRP£16.99, 221 pages

As Peter Swirski makes clear in his first page, Ars Americana, Ars Politica is concerned with writers who are not afraid to be partisan, who combine entertainment with commitment, who produce “the kind of art that should come equipped with shock absorbers”. The result is a provocative and energetic book that reaches out beyond academia in an attempt to define the nature of American political literature.

Swirski’s focus is US literature and film of the past 50 years. Surprisingly perhaps, this does not render the book inaccessible to the non-American reader. Many of Swirski’s choices, such as filmmaker Michael Moore and writer PJ O’Rourke, are well-known on both sides of the Atlantic; others might be less familiar, but this doesn’t matter. The book is an enjoyable rummage through half a century of US culture in an attempt to give savage political satire as honourable a place as any other art form.

Swirski is professor of American Literature and Culture at the University of Missouri, but one senses in his writing a man who is impatient with the careful objectivity of academe. He clearly has a political drum of his own to bang, and he bangs it almost as loudly as the writers and the filmmakers whose work he admires. This gives the book a breezy aplomb, as Swirski flies the flag for “partisan literature that rolls up its sleeves and gets its hands dirty”. At the same time, he never really conceals his own liberal leanings, lurching occasionally into blatant if entertaining anti-Republican tirades.

This is a timely book. Reading it in the shadow of the Arizona shootings, it feels eerily prescient in its concern for the coarsening of public political debate in the US. Whether the work of O’Rourke or Michael Moore is a response to that coarseness or an actual part of it is a question that Swirski poses but in the end fails to answer.

With a penchant for satire at its most biting, he takes us back to such classics as Richard Condon’s novel Death of a Politician (a thinly disguised satire on Richard Nixon) or Irving Wallace’s The Man. Published in 1964, Wallace’s novel envisaged what might happen if a black man became president of the United States.

Largely forgotten today, The Man was an enormous success in its time, with a combined 71 weeks in the New York Times and Times bestseller lists, followed by 17 foreign editions. Wallace received death threats.

Tom Lehrer famously declared that satire died the day Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. As any British student paying tuition fees can tell you, satire is in fact alive and well and always will be as long as we have politicians who make solemn promises in opposition and forget about them days after coming to power.

The challenge for the satirist is to find a grotesque bigger and bolder than that with which we are daily confronted. This requires a focused anger. Swirski’s book reminds us of the need to keep this anger alive, challenging the satirist not only to fan the flames of outrage, but to entertain us along the way too.

Alistair Beaton is a satirist and playwright. His work includes ‘A Planet for the President’ (Orion) and the Channel 4 film ‘The Trial of Tony Blair’

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