Using Lit to Figure Out Mitt

“Who in God’s name is Mitt Romney?” asks Frank Rich in a New York article, voicing a question that is on the minds of many. Erica Fry of the Columbia Journalism Review lists a number of possible answers and then links to articles written by others attempting to pin down the Republican candidate. So far, she says, no one has been successful.

Here’s my own continuing attempt to find the answer through the use of literature.  In the past I’ve wondered if Romney is a Faustus who has sold his soul, a Chauncey Gardener (from Jerzy Kosinski’s Being There) who serves as a point of projection, and (in the same post) Gertrude Stein’s Oakland (“There’s no there there”). In another post I compared him to T. S. Eliot’s hollow men, “behaving as the wind behaves” and “shape without form, shade without color.”

Is he E. A. Robinson’s Richard Cory? I looked up the poem, finding some details that fit and others that don’t:

Whenever Richard Cory went down town,
We people on the pavement looked at him:
He was a gentleman from sole to crown,
Clean favored, and imperially slim.

And he was always quietly arrayed,
And he was always human when he talked;
But still he fluttered pulses when he said,
“Good-morning,” and he glittered when he walked.

And he was rich—yes, richer than a king—
And admirably schooled in every grace:
In fine, we thought that he was everything
To make us wish that we were in his place.

So on we worked, and waited for the light,
And went without the meat, and cursed the bread;
And Richard Cory, one calm summer night,
Went home and put a bullet through his head.

“Gentleman from sole to crown,” “clean favored,” imperially slim” (or at least not overweight), “quietly arrayed,” “richer than a king,”—so far so good.

But “always human when he talked”?  Let just say that, if this were true of him, he would have wrapped up the nomination a long time ago. (Heck, he might even be president now.)  Republican operatives dream of the candidate that can bridge the patrician-working class divide. Not too many pulses have been fluttering in Romney’s case, however.  It’s more a case of many being prepared to hold their noses and vote for “the most electable.”

Do we wish we were in his place? He claims that attacks on his wealth stem from envy, but I’m not so sure.  Romney-land seems a bit too sterile for most Americans.

The main reason the Richard Cory comparison doesn’t work for me, however, is because Cory is capable of having an existential crisis. Maybe he snaps because he sees a gap between an exterior where he seems to have it all and an inner emptiness.  I see no sign that Romney is aware of such a gap.

So is he just empty and dumb like Tom Buchanan in The Great Gatsby? I can’t imagine Buchanan pulling off the governorship of Massachusetts. No, Romney doesn’t seem dumb, even though campaigning for him seems to involve saying anything people want to hear and singing “America the Beautiful.”

Is he the Station Manager in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness, whose power lies (as far as narrator Marlow can figure out) in his ability to inspire uneasiness in others.  There is something to be said for keeping people from figuring you out, Marlow says:

But he was great. He was great by this little thing that it was impossible to tell what could control such a man. He never gave that secret away. Perhaps there was nothing within him.

Paul Waldman of American Prospect might agree with this. Searching for Romney’s soul, Waldman turns to Phillip Pullman’s fantasy classic The Golden Compass and comes up empty:

I thought of Phillip Pullman’s Dark Materials trilogy (of which The Golden Compass is the first book), in which every person’s soul is embodied in an animal-formed “daemon” that walks around with them and reflects their innermost being. A commanding character’s daemon is a snow leopard, an evil character’s daemon is a scary golden monkey, servants have dogs for daemons, a conniving nobody might have a bug for a daemon. So what would Mitt Romney’s daemon be? The easy answer is a chameleon, but chameleons change color to camouflage themselves so you won’t even see them, while Mitt’s daemon would have to change to be whatever your daemon is, so his and yours can get along famously. And such an animal doesn’t exist.

In the end, as I’ve done before, I find myself coming back to Holden Caulfield’s favorite word. One can imagine Salinger’s protagonist responding to a Romney speech with the following line from the book:

Grand. There’s a word I really hate. It’s phony. I could puke every time I hear it.

And then there’s Holden’s description of lawyers, which I have no doubt he’d be willing to extend to managers of private equity firms. This in response to his little sister’s question about what he wants to be when he grows up:

“Lawyers are all right, I guess – but it doesn’t appeal to me,” I said. “I mean they’re all right if they go around saving innocent guys’ lives all the time, and like that, but you don’t do that kind of stuff if you’re a lawyer. All you do is make a lot of dough and play golf and play bridge and buy cars and drink Martinis and look like a hot-shot. How would you know you weren’t being a phony? The trouble is, you wouldn’t.”

Holden isn’t the most reliable of narrators, of course.  In fact, he’s a bit of a phony himself.  But like many teenagers, he’s very good at sniffing out B.S.  I suspect that Mitt won’t be capturing much of the youth vote.

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  • Literature is as vital to our lives as food and shelter. Stories and poems help us work through the challenges we face, from everyday irritations to loneliness, heartache, and death. Literature is meant to mix it up with life. This website explores how it does so.

    Please feel free to e-mail me [rrbates (at) smcm (dot) edu]. I would be honored to hear your thoughts and questions about literature.

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