The Presidents of American Fiction: Fashioning the U.S. Political Imaginary

Guest post by Michael J. Blouin

Many Americans spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about presidents.

Whether they memorialize the halcyon days of earlier presidents, or invest themselves in a particular president-to-come as a panacea to cure what ails them, countless Americans rely upon stories of the president to instill a sense of order in their lives. Presidential birthdays dot the calendar, presidential comings-and-goings fills the daily newsfeed, and presidential elections define one’s relationship to their neighbors as well as one’s understanding of a shared (or, perhaps more commonly, distinctive) national identity. And the issue is not a strictly partisan one. While different in meaningful ways, supporters of Barack Obama and Donald Trump ostensibly share the common goal of putting a period at the end of the national story with the election of their preferred commander in chief. In short, the fiction of the presidency remains an all-consuming one.

The Presidents of American Fiction is my attempt to account for this long-standing obsession. The book covers a lot of ground—from James Fenimore Cooper’s fictionalized story about George Washington, to the pedagogical presidents of the dime novel, to Gore Vidal’s vitriolic novels about presidential overreach. It was important to me, as I was researching the book, that I include as many literary examples as possible, so that I could prove—beyond a shadow of a doubt—the prevalence of fictional presidents. I suspect, however, that future scholars will find other texts of note that complicate understandings of POTUS as a fiction. For me, that’s a very exciting prospect; there is invaluable work left for literary critics to do.

Now, when I use the term “fiction” to describe the president, I anticipate a complaint: the American presidency cannot be reduced to a fiction, critics will quite reasonably interject, because it has such a sizable real-world impact. But I want to insist that, historically speaking, fictional depictions of the president have played a pivotal role in fashioning the political imaginaries of the United States. Indeed, to go a step further, I would suggest that it is through a return to these fictional representatives that audiences might alleviate a painful obsession with the office and its holder.

To understand the president as a powerful fiction is to re-open the figure as a rich symbol instead of a mere soundbite. Today, American consumers typically encounter the president via visual clips, speeches, or memes. By treating the president as a text, which is to say, as a written representation—as opposed to, say, consuming the president with an illusion of direct access, thanks to recorded sound and endless cameras—readers might interrogate how they have been asked to construct as well as deconstruct this monumental icon. For instance, what if audience members were to think about the presidency in dialogue with popular genres, such as the romance or the western? Or what if audience members were to unpack this symbol through a discussion of its poetic slipperiness, or what it doesn’t say—as opposed to what it presumably encapsulates? I wrote this book because I feel that literature empowers readers to interrogate pervasive preoccupations with the nation’s top executive. By framing the president as a fiction, Americans could re-engage with a figurehead that has become so ubiquitous as to have lost some of its potential as a tool for advancing the democratic project. In truth, fictional presidents continue to shape America’s political fantasies in unexpected ways—as placeholders for a vast, restless notion of belonging; as fetishes that thinly veil feelings of displacement, loneliness, and existential incompleteness. To explore how these fantasies actually work is to help break the spell and thus begin to build a society that does not invest too much of its energy in the president. Simply put, I believe that fictional presidents will prove to be an invaluable resource in ongoing fights to save America’s democracy.

Michael J. Blouin is Associate Professor of English and the Humanities at Milligan University, USA, where he co-founded and now directs the Honors Program. He serves as chair for Literature, Politics, and Society for the Popular Culture Association (PCA/ACA), and is the author of Stephen King and American Politics (2021) and Mass-Market Fiction and the Crisis of American Liberalism, 1972 – 2017 (2018).