Looking to literature to make sense of our world is essential, but we must draw from a wide array of works that speak to the layers and subtleties of our nuanced world.
As a professor who has lectured, researched and written about literature for almost 20 years, it’s heartening to see a truly great work of literature — George Orwell’s 1984 — climb the best-seller charts nearly seven decades after its initial release.
1984’s sudden surge in popularity could be tied to a public attempt to compare it to actual events in our current political landscape. But 1984 is the wrong novel to be reading right now if you want to understand Donald Trump’s multi-pronged assault on the democratic process.
To be sure, Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway’s horrific and spurious argument that untruths are simply “alternative facts” immediately recalls the Orwellian language of 1984. Conway seeks to eliminate both media criticism and public protest of the breathtaking lies being told by the Trump administration by eliminating “lies” from the discussion entirely: there are only “facts” and “alternative facts.”
Yet, other comparisons are far messier. After all, the most memorable feature of 1984’s state-sponsored repression is Big Brother — and widespread state surveillance in the U.S. predates Trump’s inauguration. Indeed, the elimination of privacy through unrelenting electronic surveillance was a practice inherited, but also expanded, by the Obama administration.
In other words, 1984 is not a needle-sharp critique of Trumpism, but a blunt reminder that the United States is no stranger to repressive measures and state-sanctioned cruelty. In order to fully understand the situation we are in now — how we got there and how to get out of it — we must look to other books.
For instance, Margaret Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale imagines a totalitarian theocracy that has taken over the United States and quickly stripped its female citizens of their rights. In one of its most upsetting scenes — where the Handmaid’s function as a birthing surrogate entails her being raped by her owner while his wife restrains her — perfectly encapsulates the troubling perversity of our newly energized anti-abortion lobby: women are not citizens, they are state property in human form.
Yet, even the Trump regime’s frightening assault on women has much deeper roots that extend beyond female bodies. In spite of her brilliant discussion of The Handmaid’s Tale and our times, Constance Grady’s piece in Vox misses a crucial element that’s also lacking in 1984 comparisons; that oppressive regimes begin by simply extending oppressive measures already in place to other bodies.
After all, stripping Americans of their basic rights and declaring them property is the grotesque foundation — and enduring legacy — of so many U.S. religious, political and cultural logics. This is why I would recommend Harriet Jacobs’ brilliant 1861 autobiography, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, to the list of books to read in the time of Trump.
Incidents’ brilliant psychological profile of the hypocrisy practiced by public figures in private teaches us that Trump’s “PussyGate” wasn’t just about “loutish behavior.” Through Jacobs’ true accounts of run-ins with predatory white Southern men (in her case, judges and Congressmen), we learn that those who condemn the vulnerable as morally deficient usually do so to satisfy their own immoral desires — both publicly and privately.
Richard Wright’s Native Son completes the trilogy of must-read dystopias for the Trump Era. As a Northwestern University colleague recently pointed out in a Chicago Tribune op-ed, Black neighborhoods in Chicago suffer most deeply from mischaracterizations. Rather than being understood as complex human beings with rich cultural ties and deep historical roots, Trump flattens them into residents of “war zones”, dismissing the storied South Side insouciantly as “hell.”
Native Son is a searing warning. It reminds us that reducing people and communities into simplistic, symbolic “problems” — no matter the intent — encourages inhuman “solutions” with very human consequences. And Chicago, as we know, is hardly alone: Black Lives Matter everywhere.
1984, while a fantastic novel with many insights, is almost wholly concerned with the liberties intrinsic to Western democracy’s citizens par excellence: the heterosexual white male. What it misses is what the anti-Trump movement also seems to miss: that legal precedents, historical practices, and cultural beliefs have enabled this democracy to practice slavery, genocide, state-sanctioned rape, and rampant xenophobia long before the alt-right found a winning candidate. And we can’t afford failure. Not now.
Looking to literature to make sense of our world is essential, but we must draw from a wide array of works that speak to the layers and subtleties of our nuanced world. Indeed, now more than ever, such understanding and awareness of the complex and varied human experiences in our social structures will guide us to the greater political awareness we so desperately need.
Michelle M. Wright is Professor of African American Studies and Comparative Literary Studies at Northwestern University and a Public Voices Fellow.