“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…” Imagine a list of great moments in literature that capture the exciting change and recklessness of revolution and its less successful cousin, rioting, and Charles Dickens’ A Tale of Two Cities immediately comes to mind. As do other depictions of the singularly complex French Revolution, from Rafael Sabatini’s Scaramouche to Hilary Mantel’s A Place of Greater Safety. Or for that matter, Jean Renoir’s film, La Marseillaise, which follows the journey of two peasants from the South of France to Paris alongside the increasingly popular revolutionary ditty.
Our own revolution never received such classic treatment, but landed forever in young adult works such as Johnny Tremain and the increasingly anachronistic Drums Along the Mohawk, as well as Kenneth Roberts’ and Bernard Cornwell’s numerous historical novels. Much better the depictions of the Bolsheviks’ uprising in various memoirs, from Leon Trotsky to John Reed’s Ten Days That Shook the World, later remade by Warren Beatty as Reds, or Gabriel Garcia Marquez’s take on political machinations and tumult in his native Mexico.
The same is true of our inner battles during the post-war period, including Civil Rights, the anti-war, and youth movements of the late 1960s and early 1970s, and the state’s pushback after Watergate: The bulk of the story is told in memoirs published at the time, from Abbie Hoffman’s entertainingly revolutionary works (Steal This Book! among them) to Soul on Ice, Norman Mailer’s The Armies of the Night and All the President’s Men.
A few years back I tried getting at the heart of France’s epochal May Day riots only to find several revolutionary screeds from the day…and film.
The best portrayals of revolutionary spirit, the impetus to riot, and the combined courage and impetuosity behind political calls to action have tended to be almost purely fictional, or in film. I’m thinking of Graham Greene’s great novels The Power and the Glory and The Ugly American, James Baldwin’s Another Country, Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto, William Kennedy’s Chango’s Beads and Two-tone Shoes and Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. In film, one need look no further than Do The Right Thing, Fruitvale Station, or Sorry to Bother You, and the entirety of French New Waver Jean Luc Godard’s oeuvre, including the works he’s now making in his late eighties.
Revolution, which marks the shifting of historical eras, can best be understood through a distanced, academic understanding of underlying causes, shifting times, incendiary personalities, and the ways in which times can add up to seismic ripeness. The impulse to riot, which triggers the revolutionary, needs a more empathetic route to clarity. That’s fiction’s job, to get at the human ways in which a person can radicalize in what feels like a natural, honest way.
We suspect great fiction, and eventually new history, will be bred from what’s happening these days. We also suspect that such writing will favor the more progressive sides of what’s shifting. That’s because, in the final rounds, little that’s reactionary ends up eternalized in art.