August 12, 2004

Lynne Cheney: Novelist Extraordinaire

If you ever wonder about the effects that grad school can have on its students' souls, consider this shocking revelation: I've been known to waste my few spare moments reading mediocre novels by well-known politicians. (No one would ever read Spiro Agnew's The Canfield Decision for its literary merits, after all, but it's fascinating to read a political thriller by one of America's most mediocre vice presidents.) I was intrigued, then, to see this column in yesterday's Los Angeles Times; in it, Morrison discusses Sisters, a 1981 historical novel by Lynne Cheney that complicates the standard liberal image of the Second Lady as a right-wing culture warrior:

Throughout its pages are fornication (the heroine with her late sister's husband), incest (half brother knocks up half sister), adultery (the heroine, with her first husband's friend), contraception (by the wed and the unwed) and lesbian couplings (the heroine's sister and an older woman). And incidentally, lynchings, dogicide, cattle theft and robber-baronism.


A proposal this spring to reissue the book was deep-sixed by Cheney, whose lawyer explained it wasn't her best work. It doesn't show up in her White House website biography. During the 2000 campaign, she told the New York Times she hoped the book would start "flying off the shelves." Now she doesn't want it to fly at all. What a flip-flopper.

Naturally, demand is in inverse proportion to availability. In March, the New York Theatre Workshop staged a performance of choice scenes. The snicker factor is obvious, with passages like "Let us go away together, away from the anger and imperatives of men," and "Eve and Eve, loving one another" in "a passionate, loving intimacy." So is the hypocrisy potential, when both Cheneys and their lesbian younger daughter are laboring to reelect a man who regards Adam-and-Steve nuptials as the death knell for civilization.

The book as a whole, though, is even more radical. "This is a very feminist book," said Elaine Showalter. She's a Princeton English professor emeritus who ran across "Sisters" at a Paris bookstall about a dozen years ago and wrote about it for a scholarly publication. I reached her on vacation, which I hoped was being financed by a five-figure sale of that long-ago copy, but wouldn't you know it she'd sold it some years ago for $25.

"I couldn't believe it was Lynne Cheney," Showalter told me. "At that point she was head of the National Endowment for the Humanities. I've had many not personal but institutional dealings with her; she had a reputation as being pretty tough on women's history and feminist criticism."

Showalter thought the book did a "wonderful job" of dramatizing "the role of women in the West she'd clearly read [the historical research] and wrote sympathetically. It's about women breaking away from the dollhouse and striking out on their own." If Cheney ever did allow a reprint, Showalter would probably be delighted to write a jacket blurb.

I found the Los Angeles Times column a little too cute, but if you want more information on Cheney's novels, check out this fascinating article on the subject, published by Elaine Showalter in The Chronicle of Higher Education four years ago.

Update: Are you intrigued? Are you rich? If you answered "yes" to both those questions, you can buy Cheney's book here. (Thanks to Ralph Luker for the link.)

Posted by Ed at August 12, 2004 11:15 AM
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