Eisenhower Derangement Syndrome.

Reading up on President Eisenhower for an upcoming essay on Canadian PM John Diefenbaker, I was reminded of a passage I marked while reading Saul Bellow’s Humboldt’s Gift last year.

saul bellow humboldt's gift

The narrator, Charlie, recalls the reaction of his friend Humboldt, a Jewish radical poet with paranoid tendencies, to Eisenhower’s election in 1952:

I sensed that he was afraid of his back-country neighbors. In his nightmares they burned his house, he shot it out with them, they lynched him and carried off his wife. Humboldt said, “What do we do now? What’s our next move?”

These questions were asked only to introduce the scheme he had in mind.

“Our move?”

“Either we leave the US during this administration, or we dig in.”

“We could ask Harry Truman for asylum in Missouri.”

“Don’t joke with me, Charlie. I have an invitation from the Free University of Berlin to teach American literature.”

“That sounds grand.”

He quickly said, “No, no! Germany is dangerous. I wouldn’t take a chance on Germany.”

“That leaves digging in. Where are you going to dig?”

“I said ‘we.’ The situation is very unsafe. If you had any sense you’d feel the same.”

Threatening to leave the United States if the Republican candidate wins has become such a cliché that even left-wing publications like The Guardian and Cracked roll their eyes; but I hadn’t realized how early that cliché appeared. It wouldn’t have surprised me to read about liberals freaking out over Reagan’s or Nixon’s victories the same way – but harmless, avuncular Ike?

I suppose the tradition dates to the earliest days of the Republican Party. Sore losers reacted to Abe Lincoln’s win by leaving the United States and taking their states with them.


In previous posts I’ve wondered whether Saul Bellow was in real life as exasperatingly articulate as his narrators, and discussed his friendships with Allan Bloom and Martin Amis. I mostly stay away from U.S. politics but back in 2016 I indulged in some last-minute Trump risk calculations before opting for measured optimism.

Update, July 29, 2020: Added cover image and linked to Bibliography page.

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Michael A. Charles is a writer, animator, and musician currently living in the Vancouver area. He used to be the singer and guitarist for the band known as Sea Water Bliss.

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