DYCHE OPINION | Mark Helprin and the Great Conservative Novel - WDRB 41 Louisville News

DYCHE OPINION | Mark Helprin and the Great Conservative Novel


Conservatism is not merely, or even mainly, a political philosophy or a set of positions on political issues.  Properly understood, it is a disposition or temperament about life, which includes, but transcends, things political.

Sometimes the essence of conservatism can be better expressed in fiction or verse than in texts or treatises.  So one often finds novelists and short story writers, like Nathaniel Hawthorne and Tom Wolfe, and poets, such as T. S. Eliot, in collections of conservative writing. 

Authors who can do conservatism justice in both fiction and non-fiction genres are few and far between, however.  Mark Helprin is one of these.  He is also an indisputable and inimitable genius who may be, as one reviewer recently said, "the best living conservative American writer, [and] perhaps the best plain and simple."

Helprin, 66, has graduate and undergraduate degrees from Harvard, did postgraduate work at Oxford, Princeton, and Columbia, and after being physically disqualified from U. S. military duty, has served in the British Merchant Navy, the Israeli infantry, and the Israeli Air Force.  He is a Senior Fellow of the Claremont Institute for the Study of Statesmanship and Political Philosophy.

His "Parthian Shot" columns, usually dealing trenchantly with foreign affairs and national defense, conclude each issue of the Claremont Review of Books, often after having appeared in the Wall Street Journal.  A sampling of his work of this sort is available online at http://markhelprin.com/writings.

Helprin's prolific output also includes three short story collections, three children's books, and six novels.  The most recent of the latter, In Sunlight and In Shadow, merits consideration for the title of "The Great Conservative Novel," although it deals with politics only obliquely, if at all.

Primarily it is a love story, a paean to post-war New York, and a warning that although war is terrible, the fight between good and evil is unavoidable even in peacetime.  Helprin reaffirms that there are things worth fighting for, and that the battle in defense of them takes on different forms and must be courageously and consistently waged at home even when the nation and its warriors are worn out from combat.

Set in 1946, Helprin's tome has two heroes.  Harry Copeland has just returned to his family's high-quality leather goods business from his life-changing service leading a team of pathfinder paratroopers who operated largely on their own behind enemy lines in the European theater.  Harry meets and immediately falls in love with heiress and emerging Broadway singing star Catherine Hale, who happens to be engaged to a despicable someone else.

With big, descriptive, powerful prose in the manner, but not the style, of Robert Penn Warren, Helprin brings to life the metropolis that is metaphor for American beauty, greatness, and potential.  Harry and Catherine's romance is replete with passion and embodies the noblest classical virtues. 

The book extols the social value of both small, self-made family businesses and large inherited fortunes.  Helprin also vividly contrasts the American ideal, fresh from defeating fascism abroad, with the corruption and worse that returning troops find back at the home front and against which good men must maintain the struggle. 

These destructive traits include lust without love, wealth without character, and power without principle.  Harry is compelled to confront these enemies when mafia extortion threatens his company, which is already struggling to survive against an onslaught of cheap foreign goods. 

The beautiful and talented Catherine faces the demoralizing power of the press, which is inexplicably and unjustly hostile to her stage performances that audiences adore and peers recognize as outstanding.  The challenges she faces as a child of privilege are different, but no less real than those that force Harry and his comrades in arms back to war, but this time of a surprising domestic sort. 

Neither the narrative pace nor the moral power ever falters over 705 pages.  Helprin masterfully moves the plot and the theme in tandem through chapters about Harry's World War II combat, the carefree existence of Catherine's rich parents, or an ascendant America in a changed postwar world.  To disclose much more would be to risk spoiling a denouement that deserves to be read fresh and without preview.

In a recent essay surveying Helprin's entire literary output, Algis Valiunas listed truths his subject swears by.  Among them are that "life is a sacred mystery, in which God can be apprehended by human perception deeper than reason," and that "hardship, pain, and loss constitute the inexorable terms of existence."  Helprin cleaves to these fundamentally conservative tenets, Valiunas says, although "they are unpopular, even scorned in an age of irony and moral hideousness."

Indeed, they are and he does.  And he has also written what is, at bottom, just a darned good book.


John David Dyche is a Louisville attorney and political commentator for WDRB.com.  His e-mail is jddyche@yahoo.com.

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