Thrice-Told Tales

Politics and tale-telling are virtually inseparable activities. Great political events—wars, rebellions, social crusades—do not exert their full measure of influence until they are whittled into legends. More than one British statesman has derived his understanding of the Wars of the Roses from Shakespeare's Histories, and in the United States the stories of Washington at Valley Forge, Lincoln the man of sorrows, and Teddy Roosevelt at San Juan Hill have been told and retold, written down, footnoted, played upon the stage, and filmed so often that we are scarcely aware of them. Our heroes are a part of our experience and define, more than anything else, the aspirations of the American character.

There is, however, another side to this union of politics and myth: powerful plays, novels, and (perhaps) films have a way of becoming political matters. Richard II put Shakespeare in danger, when the Earl of Essex had it performed on the eve of his rebellion. (Elizabeth was understandably uncomfortable with the depiction of usurpation and regicide.) Addison's Cato was cheered not only by the Whigs, for whom it was written, but also by the Tories who wished to appropriate the message and convert resistance to royal authority into a defense of legitimate government.

But it is not only overtly political works which stir up such controversy. Huckleberry Finn remains a subject...

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