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My country, my enemy”: representing and questioning American politics through radical activism in The Darling by Russell Banks

My country, my enemy”: représentation et remise en cause de la politique américaine à travers l’activisme radical dans The Darling de Russell Banks
My country, my enemy”: la representación y el cuestionamiento de la política estadounidense a través del activismo radical en The Darling de Russell Banks
Marine Paquereau


Dans le roman The Darling, publié par Russell Banks en 2004, une jeune Américaine, Hannah Musgrave, décide de se rebeller contre son éducation bourgeoise dans les années 1960, en épousant le radicalisme du Weather Underground. Recherchée pour terrorisme, elle est contrainte de vivre sous un nom d’emprunt puis finit par fuir les États-Unis et s’installer au Liberia. Cet article se propose d’étudier la façon dont Banks s’appuie sur l’expérience personnelle de son personnage fictionnel pour interroger l’impact des idéaux révolutionnaires sur la société américaine. Les identités multiples de la protagoniste, qui reflètent les bouleversements politiques et les conflits intérieurs de son pays, ainsi que le constant brouillage des frontières entre réalité et fiction permettent à Banks d’offrir une réflexion complexe sur la construction et la mise en scène de l’histoire politique américaine dans la seconde moitié du xxe siècle.

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I/ Introduction

  • 1 Roth’s and Banks’s choice of a female rebel is in keeping with Jacobs’s statement that, inside the (...)

1American Pastoral by Philip Roth (1997) and The Darling by Russell Banks (2004), published just a few years apart, both deal with a young woman’s rebellion against her bourgeois upbringing and her involvement in terrorist activities in 1960s America. In both novels, the main female character1 joins the Weather Underground, an organization advocating armed struggle against American imperialism and racism, as Dan Berger explains in Outlaws of America:

  • 2 The sentence “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”, extracted from Dylan’s (...)

The Weather Underground, initially the Weatherman and eventually the Weather Underground Organization, took its name from a popular Bob Dylan song2 and grew out of Students for a Democratic Society, the biggest and most organized representation of radical white youth of the 1960s. SDS was against the Vietnam War and opposed to racism, but Weather went further, emulating Third World revolutionaries – Cuba and Vietnam were especially the models – by going underground and undertaking armed actions. (Berger 19)

2But while Roth’s novel explores Merry Levov’s radicalization from the perspective of her father (as imagined by the writer Nathan Zuckerman), The Darling adopts the point of view of the rebellious girl herself, Hannah Musgrave, now a woman “in late middle-age” (Banks 33).

  • 3 In an interview, Banks defines the novel as “essentially one long confession” (Roche 157).

3“I don’t want to tell my story. Not to you, not to anyone” (33), says Hannah at first. In fact, this praeteritio is but an introduction to her life story, which reads like the confession3 of a privileged and rather shallow “American darling” (Banks 408) turned terrorist. Her story offers a (fictional) first-hand testimony of the political turmoil of the 1960s, in the United States and abroad, as well as a reflection on what political commitment actually means for “spoiled kids” whose rebellion sometimes seems staged simply to get back at their families. The reader thus follows Hannah’s trajectory as she keeps reinventing herself, first by going undercover in the early 1970s under the name Dawn Carrington, in order to avoid being arrested for her involvement with the Weather Underground, and then by fleeing to Ghana and eventually settling in Liberia, where she marries Woodrow Sundiata, a prominent politician. Her narrative is told in retrospect, after she has guiltily left Liberia (as well as her three young sons and her beloved chimpanzees) and eventually started a new, quiet life as a farmer in the Adirondack Mountains.

  • 4 Through Hannah’s first-person account of resistance, a means of expression which has often been ele (...)

4Banks’s choice of the confessional mode4 interestingly departs from the type of narration used in his previous historical novel: in Cloudsplitter, published in 1998, the retrospective story of another radical activist, the abolitionist John Brown, is told from the point of view of his son Owen, who tries to make sense of his memories of his father’s thoughts and actions. In The Darling, the elusive narrator’s use of the first person leads to manipulations creating an ironic discrepancy between Hannah’s assertions and the author’s analyses.

5In this paper, I will show how Hannah’s individual identity crisis mirrors the inner conflicts of the country that she both rejects and stands for. I will study how Hannah’s personal experience as a radical activist reflects the political unrest of postwar America and allows Banks to assess the impact (or lack thereof) of the Weather Underground’s revolutionary idealism on American society. Then I will explore the motif of the family feud, notably by highlighting how Hannah’s rebellion against the previous generation’s sense of entitlement may amount to little more than a self-centered rejection of her privileged heritage. Finally, I will see how Hannah’s fragmented life story and shifting identity are used to stage the United States’ difficulty establishing a unified national narrative, as the boundaries between reality and fiction, political history and mythmaking, are blurred.

II/ Staging radical activism, between idealism and disillusionment

  • 5 “That September I returned to Massachusetts to attend Harvard Medical School, where I helped form t (...)

6Russell Banks uses Hannah Musgrave’s personal experience to stage a meticulous recreation of the political atmosphere of 1960s America, notably through references to extratextual reality. The allusions to central political figures and important events of the time, like “the Chicago Days of Rage in 1969” (51), “Lyndon Johnson”, “Nixon” and “Kissinger” (55), the “Kent State” shooting (208), or the “Pentagon bombing” (222), among others, all contribute to reinforcing the verisimilitude of Hannah’s life as an activist engaged in the “antiwar movement” (58) and “committing acts of civil disobedience” (50). When she recounts the peaceful demonstrations she participated in as a student, the part she played in the creation of Harvard’s SDS chapter,5 and her progressive radicalization, her narrative blurs the boundaries between fiction and reality. Thus, when she evokes “Diana, Ted, and Terry, when they blew up the townhouse on West Eleventh Street back in ’70” (57), she seems to be on first-name terms with real members of the Weather Underground, Terry Robbins, Diana Oughton and Ted Gold, who were killed in March 1970 when the nail bomb they were making in a basement accidentally exploded. This reference to the well-known Greenwich Village townhouse explosion as well as her fictional involvement in actual events of the era validate her own existence through metonymical authentication.

7When she talks about her childhood and about how, ironically, she used to be “Exhibit A” (114, 155, 400) for her pediatrician father’s educational methods (before being accused of terrorism and therefore debunking his professional authority), Hannah explains:

But all that was before 1968, before the Chicago Democratic Convention and 1969 and the Days of Rage and my arrest, indictment, and flight, and before the years in the Weather Underground, the bombings, the robberies, the terrorist campaign against the war, against colonialism and U.S. imperialism –all that was before Africa (114).

8That quick summary of her career as a political activist is delivered in one long sentence associating fact and fiction, abstract concepts and their very concrete consequences on her life. The accumulation of events creates a frantic rhythm illustrating the political turmoil of the era and suggesting that Hannah was caught in a seemingly unstoppable movement as she became more and more radical.

9However, although her involvement with the Weathermen made her a “neo-Marxist fugitive under indictment by her own government for acts of civil disobedience and suspicion of terrorism” (106), two very serious accusations turning her into an enemy of the state, Hannah underlines the rather amateurish nature of her activism:

Only the three or four people at the top –the Weather Bureau, we called them– knew what all the cells were supposed to be doing, and they knew only in a general way. We were instructed to invent and implement our own individual attacks on the government cell by cell. Some of the cells were really creative and bold. But others, like mine, were incompetent and timid and more or less driven by fantasy (223).

10Her use of passive forms hints at her lack of initiative, and the dashes separating the Weather Bureau from grassroots activists suggest a somewhat fragmented and disorganized structure lacking a clear orientation.

11In the 1960s, her vision of racial inequality is tinted with stereotypes and highlights an idealism bordering on delusion, as evidenced by her summer spent “[registering] black voters in Mississippi and Louisiana” (12):

I was an innocent, idealistic, Yankee girl whose vision of the South had arisen dripping with magnolia-scented decay and the thrill of racial violence from deep readings of William Faulkner and Flannery O’Connor. A newly minted rebel, fresh faced and romantic, I rode the bus south that summer with hundreds like me into Mississippi, confident that we were about to cleanse our parents’ racist, oppressive world by means of idealism and simple hard work (12‑13).

12Although her self-portrait is mostly made up of meliorative adjectives, she does not try to conceal her past prejudices, which, unsurprisingly for a young New England student, were built upon her bookish knowledge of Southern literary masterpieces. The shift from the singular to the plural through the use of the collective pronoun “we” shows that her idealism was shared by her fellow white, privileged activists, who only had a theoretical understanding of the problems they were trying to fight. In fact, the semantics of fiction and fantasy pervading the passage shows how out of touch with reality they all were at the time, something she has come to understand with hindsight: “Eventually, of course, literature got displaced by reality” (13). She thus observes that, by the end of the 1970s, the enthusiasm of the New Left has faded:

Those who remained on the Left […] were more interested in designing holistic lifestyles than in working for radical social and political change. The very idea of revolution, which in the late sixties and early seventies had seemed ready for immanence, had been turned into a comic metaphor for self-indulgent self-delusion. Not for me, however (349).

  • 6 Charles Taylor played a prominent part in the Liberian Civil War (1998-1997). He was Liberia’s pres (...)
  • 7 It is worth mentioning that in the 1960s King was criticized by the more radical Black Panthers, wh (...)

13Again, the semantics of abstraction in the extract underlines the lack of concrete evidence for a revolutionary project which has failed to materialize. Even if, at that moment, Hannah asserts that her own revolutionary ideals have been rekindled by Charles Taylor’s ambitious program for a better Liberian society,6 the repetition of “self” in the quotation explicitly questions her fellow activists’ actual commitment and challenges the nature of her own dedication by contiguity, especially since she keeps portraying herself as a “solitary, self-absorbed woman” (347, my italics). In fact, by the end of her narrative, Hannah appears entirely disillusioned: “It took a decade for us to admit it, but the dream of a truly democratic socialist revolution in America or anywhere else in the so-called developed world had died shortly after 1969, probably in Chicago at the end of a police club in a cloud of tear gas” (308). The reference to a “dream” undermines the scope of her activism, which was never grounded in reality and never led to a concrete improvement of society. Of course, the term “dream” also brings to mind Martin Luther King’s famous 1963 speech in front of the Lincoln Memorial. Hannah’s utter disappointment, therefore, may also be a consequence of King’s assassination in 1968, a tragedy reinforcing the idea that all hope for a better, more equal American society had already vanished by the end of the 1960s7.

  • 8 Interestingly, Arthur Redding’s article “Darlings of the Weather Underground” quotes Van Gosse’s an (...)

14Consequently, two decades after her Weather Underground activities, when Sam Clement, the American cultural attaché in Liberia, gives Hannah’s husband her FBI file, she summarizes her career as an activist in harsh terms: “It was the CV of a small-time, would-be domestic terrorist. Sad. Pathetic”8 (Banks 222). Her pejorative self-definition emphasizes how uncompromising she has become in her critical questioning of the nature and impact of her past actions. Behind Hannah’s questionings and self-criticism, one may also sense Banks’s ironical perspective as he has his idealistic narrator end up embracing the cause of a future tyrant like Charles Taylor and then abandoning everything and everyone to live on a farm bought thanks to her parents’ money.

III/ Questioning the origins of political commitment

  • 9 Patty Hearst, granddaughter of press tycoon William Randolph Hearst, was kidnapped in Berkeley in 1 (...)

15In fact, Hannah’s Weather Underground experience could be read as the act of rebellion of a spoiled girl, an “American darling” (408), as indicated both in the novel’s title and in its concluding sentence. As Arthur Redding remarks, it is in keeping with what can be seen in many “[novels] of the ‘lost left’” (Redding 73), like Philip Roth’s American Pastoral or Dana Spiotta’s Eat the Document: “In so many of these fictions […], the violent radical is everywhere a woman of marked privilege, sometimes Jewish (one or two generations removed from the working class, as in Merry Levov’s case) but (in fiction) more commonly WASP, usually from an extremely patrician family” (76-77). Redding adds that the focus on class and wealth is historically accurate: “such ‘real life’ fugitives as Kathy Boudin and Cathy Wilkerson, Weather Underground operatives who survived the 1970 townhouse explosion in Greenwich Village not to mention Hearst9 herselfcame from backgrounds of considerable privilege […]” (77). The question of what could urge women from such backgrounds to embrace left-wing radicalism seems to have fascinated writers, historians and the general public alike.

  • 10 Hannah explains rather humorously: “Up to that point, my most radical act had been to attend Brande (...)
  • 11 “Others on the left, Marxist radicals most of all, shared with many political liberals a disdained (...)
  • 12 When Hannah goes back to New England, she feels infantilized by her mother, who also seems to put h (...)

16Hannah describes herself as the only child of a respectable family from Emerson, Massachusetts, a Brandeis student10 rebelling, like her classmates, against her upper-class upbringing: “It was the mid-1960s. […] [O]n our own, outside of class, we read Nietzsche, Heidegger, and Sartre in Anchor paperbacks, loved Godard and Bergman movies and called them ‘films,’ and cultivated what we regarded as morally meaningful alienation from bourgeois society and values” (49-50). Her embrace of European intellectuals and the counterculture movement does resemble what Braunstein and Doyle call “middle class escapism”11 (or even upper-class escapism in Hannah’s case) and what Zack, another privileged child turned Weatherman, dismisses as teenage angst as soon as he sets foot in Africa: “But for Zack, once we’d landed in Accra, all that turned into merely a stage in his life, a phase he claimed to have passed beyond” (Banks 66). The description of 1960s politics as a clash between generations12 will indeed be developed by Banks throughout the narrative.

17When Hannah analyzes her relationship with Zack, the often conflictual nature of which seems mainly due to their being “too much alike” (49), she admits that her behavior in the 1960s also stemmed from a form of personal vendetta against her family and education: “We could see behind each other’s mask of idealism and ideology the face of the privileged, angry kid who, in the name of peace, justice, and racial harmony, had declared war against the state, the university, and, before long, his parents’ entire generation” (49). The recurring motif of the mask throughout the novel partakes in a rhetoric of concealment consistent with the narrator’s situation as an underground agent, in the States and, to some extent, in Liberia. It also serves as a reminder of Hannah’s constant role-playing, as if all her world were a stage, which makes it difficult for the reader to fully grasp her “psychology of radicalism” (Kakutani), i.e., the nature and extent of her revolutionary beliefs, beyond her reference to abstract (and very general) concepts like peace and harmony. Interestingly, Jacobs states that theatricality was central to the Weather Underground’s political activism, especially as a consequence of their growing anxiety and frustration: “the pressure on the Weather Bureau from impending prosecutions, their political isolation, the small turnout at the National War Council, their anger and despair at the backwardness of the white Left, all contributed to […] their reduction of politics to theatrics” (Jacobs 311). In fact, in the same way as the movement’s theoretical motivations may have been overshadowed by its verbal and behavioral excesses, Hannah’s intellectual reasons for joining the organization tend to evade the reader: her outrageous attitude is mostly given a rather conventional psychological interpretation equating her rebellion against the state with a generational conflict. Thus, in the passage quoted above, the semantics of lineage, associated with the gradation in the last part (“the state, the university, […] his parents’ entire generation”), turns activism into a form of family feud.

  • 13 “And so began the period when my life made no sense to me. I stayed home and shopped and cooked wit (...)

18As Hannah remarks, even their choice of a partner is guided by their rejection of their family: “At that age, sex is usually part of one’s family drama, and at college Zack had a hankering for middle-class black and Jewish girls, anyone not like Mom, and I was attracted only to middle-class black and Jewish boys, anyone not like Dad” (Banks 50). The parallel structure illustrates the symmetry of their experience, while the anaphora “anyone not like” insists on the fact that their primary motive is based on an opposition to their parents, although what they reproach them for is never entirely clear. Hannah’s comment explains why Jon Wiener’s review of the novel should point out that “Banks gives us terrorism as Oedipal rebellion, the leading cliché about the sources of Weatherman temptation” (Wiener 103). In the same way, in her article “Radical Motherhoods”, Aliki Varvogli observes that Hannah’s actual motivations are questioned throughout the novel and that “her political struggle appears less motivated by a desire to better the lives of others, and more of a war waged against her family, her upbringing, and the roles expected of her as wife and mother” (Varvogli 666). Hannah’s trajectory is indeed interspersed with various forms of break-ups which she never fully justifies: in New England, she cuts all ties with her parents when she goes undercover; in Liberia, her marriage to Woodrow Sundiata soon falls apart, and she never really manages to embrace motherhood, although she apparently tries her best to act the part.13

19Ironically, though, The Darling repeatedly shows how Hannah’s rebellion is in fact a legacy from the parents she so desperately tried to detach from. Thus, her father’s obituary foregrounds his own political commitment by associating him with real-life anti-war activists:

  • 14 By mocking people whose political convictions seem easily surpassed by the self-centered pleasure o (...)

The New York Times and the Boston Globe each gave him a half-page obituary with a photograph from the early 1970s of Daddy marching arm in arm with the Berrigan brothers in Washington at the march that earned him two whole paragraphs in Norman Mailer’s book Armies of the Night, a point that had been of considerable pride for him14 (285).

20The passage refers to the 1967 march on the Pentagon to protest the Vietnam War, suggesting Hannah’s father shared her convictions. In fact, Hannah’s beliefs seem inherited from past generations of WASP activists:

Practically from childhood, and especially in high school and college –thanks to my father’s old-time New England hierarchy of values, I’m sure, and his heavy emphasis on noblesse oblige– my heroes had been the nineteenth-century white abolitionists, most of whom were educated, upper-class women from New England. Like me (59).

  • 15 Hannah is well aware of the influence of this Puritan heritage of guilt over her political commitme (...)

21Her own political awareness is described as being part of her family values rather than resulting from an entirely individual process. The concept of “noblesse oblige”, an expression of the paternalistic condescension of the American upper class, can also be found in her mother’s discourse, which, again, calls Hannah’s personal convictions into question: “Mother always viewed my political commitment the same as she viewed her own, as noblesse oblige, as a modest way of acknowledging that one had only by accident acquired social and financial privilege” (159). Political activism, then, is viewed both as an apology for one’s position on the social ladder and as an expression of white guilt,15 as shown by the allusion to slavery in the previous quotation. When Hannah admits:

I could no more alter my relationship with the Africans who surrounded me in Ghana than I’d been able in the United States to alter my relationship with the Americans whose African ancestors had been enslaved and shipped to the New World. In the United States I’d been stuck with being white; in Africa I was stuck with being American (72‑73),

  • 16 As Berger explains, the issue of race and of white privilege was also central to the Weather Underg (...)

she again refers to slavery as the root of evil leading to a seemingly unbridgeable racial division, and points to the inescapability of her guilt-ridden WASP heritage.16

22Interestingly, Hannah does not seem to fully grasp the extent of her parents’ influence on her personality and behavior. Thus, years after her involvement with the Weather Underground, as she describes how she set up a sanctuary for chimpanzees in Liberia, she explains that she is trying to “keep them from being exploited or killed, as if they were my disadvantaged neighbors and I, by accident of birth, had the power and privilege and the right to do so” (Banks 349). Through the notions of “accident of birth” and “privilege”, which Hannah ascribed to her mother’s patronizing commitment earlier, Banks seems to suggest that she has fully integrated her parents’ discourse, maybe in spite of herself.

23In Hannah’s mind and in her narrative, her personal rebellion against her parents and her whole generation’s war against the values and actions of the United States are superimposed:

In those years, I was bone weary of my war against everything American. The war against American racism, the war against the Vietnam War, the war against the System –all of it. It felt like I’d been at war my entire life, even as a child and adolescent waging the war against my parents. I hadn’t realized it until after I’d left Ghana and Zack, my last links to the Movement, but by the time I arrived in Monrovia, I was in a sense shell shocked (110).

24The rhetoric of warfare, which lists the causes pitting her and her fellow activists against their own country, echoes her vision of the US as “[her] enemy” (90, italics in the text) a few pages earlier. The dash, however, suggests that, once in Liberia, she tries to distance herself from the accumulation of conflictual relationships, marked by the anaphora of “the war”, which have come to define her American life.

  • 17 Samuel Doe became the leader of Liberia in 1980 after a violent coup during which several politicia (...)

25Nevertheless, the motif of the family feud is explored in the Liberian passages as well: Banks’s description of the civil war that erupted in Liberia in the 1980s elaborates on the theme of the rebellious children, both metaphorically and very concretely, since Hannah’s three sons become soldiers after their father’s brutal assassination by President Doe’s hitmen.17 The author also takes advantage of Hannah’s discovery of Liberia to comment on the United States’ meddling in Africa. When she arrives there, Hannah admits: “I knew almost nothing then of the history of Liberia and its deep and abiding connections to my country, my enemy” (90, italics in the text). Her research is therefore used by Banks as a pretext to explore “the destructive parent-child relationship that characterizes the US's relationship with Liberia” (Varvogli 666), based on numerous political maneuvers, and to describe at length the creation of the Liberian country from scratch, thanks to the influence of white Americans who were both anxious to get rid of freed black slaves and interested in “installing a man in West Africa” (Banks 91). As a member of the Liberian elite thanks to her marriage, Hannah is well-placed to bear witness to the sometimes-harmful influence of her homeland on her adopted country, as illustrated for example by the semantics of destruction in her description of the capital city: “The city of Monrovia was a burnt-out shell of what it once had been. The long civil war and pandemic corruption and the abandonment of Liberia by the Americans had nearly killed it” (402-403). Interestingly, her own trajectory can be interpreted as “installing a man in West Africa”, since she eventually comes to understand, in a conversation with the American cultural attaché, that she unknowingly worked for the system she rejected all along:

‘I was working for you, then. The Americans. The CIA.’
‘Let’s just say you were a protected asset. Still are’ (393).

26That revelation is but the last example of Hannah’s constant political blindness, something which her confession both exposes and may enable her to atone for.

IV/ (De)constructing an individual and national historical narrative

  • 18 Banks’s choice of the name “Hannah”, which is a palindrome, also plays on the concept of the mirror (...)

27In fact, Hannah’s multiple experiences and various identities at different stages of her life are used by Banks to represent different aspects of American politics and “help shed light on the cultural history of postwar America” (Varvogli 663). As Hannah Musgrave, she first epitomizes, and then challenges, WASP New England; as Dawn Carrington, her underground self, she embodies the rebellious spirit of the 1960s and the disillusionment that ensued; as Mrs. Sundiata, the white American wife of a promising Liberian politician, she represents US interference on the African continent. Ironically, the “mother country [revolutionary]” (Jacobs I) who was wanted by the FBI ends up working for the imperialist nation she tried to destroy. Her shifting identity therefore mirrors18 the multifaceted nature of American reality.

  • 19 Hannah frequently resorts to analepses and prolepses in the course of the narrative. For example, w (...)

28Hannah’s refusal of the conventions of her upper-class background and, later, of the expectations of marriage and motherhood is reflected in the unconventional narrative structure of her life story, which begins not with her infancy, but when her life seems over, in “this old house in the middle of the Adirondack Mountains” (Banks 3). Her narrative is interspersed with anecdotes about her parents’ childhood and courtship and about her life at the farm; it contains letters to and from her parents as well as a detailed account of the history of Liberia. Moreover, it keeps going back and forth in time, thus disrupting the strict chronology of events.19 Hannah’s fragmented personal story can also be interpreted as a comment on the difficulty offering a coherent, globalizing narrative of twentieth-century America, which is divided by political, social and racial tensions.

29The Darling’s narrative instability, which reflects the political instability of the United States, is reinforced by the fact that Hannah keeps debunking her own authority by repeatedly alluding to her manipulation of the truth, thus undermining the scope of her confession. For example, when she first meets her future husband, she explains:

I told him the story of my life, most of it, a version of it, and he told me his, and in the telling both storytellers came to believe that their stories were true. […] I had no choice but to alter, delete, revise and invent whole chapters of my story. Just as, for the same reasons, I am doing here, telling it to you (106).

30Her heavy use of the semantics of fiction writing encourages readers to look critically at what is being narrated, both in terms of shape and content. The readers’ attention is drawn to the fact that what they are reading is a tale, a fictional reinvention of her life. The insistence on the fact that Hannah’s identity and story, which have been shown as inseparable from those of the United States, are constructs also questions the trustworthiness of the historical discourses upon which the nation is founded. In that sense, The Darling exemplifies what Linda Hutcheon calls “historiographic metafiction” in A Poetics of Postmodernism, a concept applying to novels “which are both intensely self-reflexive and yet paradoxically also lay claim to historical events and personages” (Hutcheon 5). The recounting of Hannah’s experience both draws upon actual facts and problematizes their discursive use.

31In fact, by exploring the boundaries between reality and fiction in the description of her life as an activist (for instance, when she asserts that “It’s easy to construct a believable false story from a miscellany of partial truths” [Banks 25]), she both questions the accurateness of political and historical discourses and participates, through personal recreation, in the building of a national American mythology of rebellion. Wasn’t the American nation born out of a revolution against an oppressive state? Hannah’s political commitment, then, can be seen as a reenactment of the defense of the democratic ideals of liberty and equality that presided over the emergence of the United States. Her engagement echoes the principles of the Declaration of Independence, which states that “it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish [a form of government]” which “becomes destructive” of these ideals. From this standpoint, the radical actions of the Weather Underground aim at forcing the hypocritical mother country to live up to the yet unfulfilled promises of its founding text.

32In an interview, Banks himself elaborated on the notion of American history as a myth in progress (notably based on the ideologies listed in Bercovitch’s The Rites of Assent: “Puritan errand, national mission, manifest destiny, the dream” [Bercovitch 8]) which fiction can contribute to:

I think there is a master narrative that becomes dominant over time and controls the imagination of a people. But I think it is always historically a collective, or rather a collaborative narrative over time. Historians, filmmakers, novelists, poets all work with it, towards creating this dominant mythology that to such an enormous degree controls the imagination of a people for generations (Roche 144).

33The porosity of the boundaries between history and artistic creation, which underlies Hannah’s whole narrative, is also made obvious at the very end of the novel, when the character’s fictional return to the States coincides with the reality of the 9/11 attacks, a horrifying event leading to a redefinition of American history:

And that is how I got to Abidjan, where I boarded a Ghana Airways flight to New York and made my way home to a nation terrorized and grieving on a scale that no American had imagined before, a nation whose entire history was being rapidly rewritten. In the months that followed, I saw that the story of my life could have no significance in the larger world. In the new history of America, mine was merely the story of an American darling, and had been from the beginning (Banks 408).

  • 20 In his interview with Locoge, Banks explains: “One of the things a novelist does is preserve memory (...)
  • 21 In her review of The Darling, Kakutani describes Hannah’s attitude as epitomizing a “brand of Ameri (...)

34Hannah underlines the irrelevance of her individual, egocentric perspective in a traumatized country, through an opposition between the individual and the national levels. The nation’s sudden transformation seems to annihilate the legacy of 1960s-1970s activism: “There is not much more to tell. It was September 10, 2001, and one dark era was about to end and another, darker era to begin, one in which my story could never have happened, my life not possibly been lived.” (407) In Hannah’s opinion, there is simply no space for rebellion in post-9/11 America. As Valentin Locoge remarks in an interview with Banks, the character’s conclusion that “her story is irrelevant […] puts into question the very purpose of [the] novel” (Roche 160): if Hannah is ready to admit that her actions were vain, and that they belong to a past world which no longer makes sense, “[w]hy write the story at all?” (160). Actually, although Banks states that, on a down-to-earth level, “in this post-9/11 world her principle of opposition to the government, to its policies, and the ways in which it was expressed could not occur” (161) because American society is “much more carefully secured and enforced” (161), he still believes that Hannah’s life “does have meaning in a larger world” (162). In fact, he uses her as a connection between the necessary preservation of the memory of the 1960s20 and the recording of “a historical shift” (161) after 2001, which enables him to comment on the course of American history. Hannah’s hubristic behavior21 throughout the novel, based on her ability to constantly reinvent herself, “to [leave] [her] old life and [enter] a new life, as if walking from one empty room into another” (Banks 77), seems to encapsulate the nation’s blind faith in a well-known myth: “[t]hat’s the real American Dream, don’t you think? That you can start over, shape-change, disappear and later reappear as someone else” (267). But though Hannah’s definition of the Dream as a clean slate hints at the possibility of a rebirth for her deeply traumatized homeland, the reader can still feel Banks’s biting irony behind its shallow optimism and appreciate the author’s implicit warning about the danger of starting anew without acknowledging past errors.

V/ Conclusion

35In a 1987 interview, Russell Banks stressed the importance of writing “fiction with a sense of history” (Roche 19). Thus, in The Darling, real historical events of twentieth-century America are intermingled with the fictional life of a former Weather Underground member, which enables the author to scrutinize the tensions of postwar America and to assess the legacy of 1960s political rebellion at the turn of the century.

36The novel focuses on the thoughts and actions of Hannah Musgrave, a rebel with(out) a cause whose radical activism may be more of an idealistic fantasy aimed at making up for her privileged background than the expression of a deep political commitment. The concrete impact of her and her fellow activists’ revolutionary ideals on American society, therefore, appears very limited. Still, Hannah’s personal story turns into a microcosmic representation of the national history of her country, and her fragmented identity is metonymically associated with that of her homeland, which is presented as divided over numerous political issues, notably the civil rights movement, the Vietnam War, and the United States’ interference abroad, from the creation of the state of Liberia in the nineteenth century to the events that led to the collective trauma of 9/11.

37Through Hannah’s non-linear and self-reflexive narrative, Banks calls into question the global coherence and reliability of American historical discourses, by pondering on the power of storytelling and mythmaking, especially with regards to the United States’ take on rebellion. Finally, Hannah’s own vision of rebellion as self-recreation may announce her shell-shocked country’s reinvention as a new page of American political history is being written after 9/11, although the assessment of her past mistakes is also a way for Banks to warn his readers about the tragic consequences of historical ignorance and political blindness.

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BANKS, Russell. The Darling. 2004. London: Bloomsbury, 2005.

BERCOVITCH, Sacvan. The Rites of Assent: Transformations in the Symbolic Construction of America. New York: Routledge, 1993.

BERGER, Dan. Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity. Oakland, CA: AK Press, 2006.

BRAUNSTEIN, Peter and Michael William DOYLE, eds. Imagine Nation: The American Counterculture of the 1960s and ‘70s. New York: Routledge, 2002.

HUTCHEON, Linda. A Poetics of Postmodernism. 1988. New York: Routledge, 2005.

JACOBS, Harold (ed.). Weatherman. Berkeley: Ramparts Press, 1970.

KAKUTANI, Michiko. “A Radical Uninnocent Abroad”. The New York Times [online]. [12 October 2004, last visit 31 January 2022].

REDDING, Arthur. “Darlings of the Weather Underground: Political Desire and Fictions of Radical Women”. Minnesota Review. 2018, issue 90, p. 70‑88

ROCHE, David (ed.). Conversations with Russell Banks. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2010.

VARVOGLI, Aliki. “Radical Motherhood: Narcissism and Empathy in Russell Banks’s The Darling and Dana Spiotta's Eat the Document”. Journal of American Studies. November 2010, vol. 33, issue 4, p. 657‑673.

WIENER, Jon. “The Weatherman Temptation”. Dissent. Spring 2007, vol. 54, issue 2, p. 100‑104.

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1 Roth’s and Banks’s choice of a female rebel is in keeping with Jacobs’s statement that, inside the organization, “a number of the most significant actions were led, organized, and carried out by Weatherwomen” (Jacobs 137).

2 The sentence “You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows”, extracted from Dylan’s song “Subterranean Homesick Blues” (1965), is said to have been the inspiration for the name of the organization.

3 In an interview, Banks defines the novel as “essentially one long confession” (Roche 157).

4 Through Hannah’s first-person account of resistance, a means of expression which has often been elected by real-life activists (like Frederick Douglass in his autobiographical Narrative or Thoreau in Walden, for instance) to prevent their voice and experience from being distorted or even confiscated by the authorities, Banks inscribes his novel in the historical and literary tradition of American dissent.

5 “That September I returned to Massachusetts to attend Harvard Medical School, where I helped form the SDS chapter, got myself arrested twice by the Cambridge police for disturbing the peace –committing acts of civil disobedience, we called it, blocking entry to the provost’s office and disrupting military recruiters on campus” (50).

6 Charles Taylor played a prominent part in the Liberian Civil War (1998-1997). He was Liberia’s president from 1997 to 2003 before being forced into exile and accused of war crimes and crimes against humanity. In the novel, Hannah helps him escape his American prison in the 1980s.

7 It is worth mentioning that in the 1960s King was criticized by the more radical Black Panthers, whom the Weather Underground supported, for being too meek, indeed too much of a “dreamer”. But maybe Hannah’s reference to her shattered dreams is a way for Banks to suggest that her and the whole Weather Underground’s ideals were in fact closer to King’s activism than they were willing to admit.

8 Interestingly, Arthur Redding’s article “Darlings of the Weather Underground” quotes Van Gosse’s analysis of the Weather Underground, in which the very same adjectives as those used by Hannah in this passage can be found: “Most historical accounts of the New Left, I have noticed, aim retrospectively to distinguish between a ‘good’ Left and the ‘bad,’ often by dismissing the excesses of the movement as the self-indulgent posturing of bored rich white kids. In his largely optimistic study of the New Left, for example, historian Van Gosse (2005) characterizes the Weather Underground Organization as ‘sad, if not pathetic, . . . their revolutionary dream no more than wishful thinking’ (101)” (Redding 82, my italics). It thus seems that Hannah’s severe assessment of her and her fellow activists’ revolutionary ideals has been shared by several other critics of the period.

9 Patty Hearst, granddaughter of press tycoon William Randolph Hearst, was kidnapped in Berkeley in 1974 by a small left-wing group called the “Symbionese Liberation Army” (SLA). She then joined the group and participated in a bank robbery and other criminal activities before being arrested, along with a fellow SLA member, in 1975.

10 Hannah explains rather humorously: “Up to that point, my most radical act had been to attend Brandeis instead of Smith” (Banks 13). Although Hannah does not elaborate on her choice (which does not appear that bold since both colleges are prestigious and close to her parents’ home in Massachusetts), her decision not to attend a women’s college enables her to meet Zack and other Weathermen. Moreover, Brandeis was originally founded and sponsored by the Jewish community, which contrasts with her own Christian background.

11 “Others on the left, Marxist radicals most of all, shared with many political liberals a disdained for the counterculture, viewing it as so much middle class escapism that both estranged the working class from any potential worker-student alliance and siphoned energy away from pressing political tasks” (Braunstein and Doyle 101).

12 When Hannah goes back to New England, she feels infantilized by her mother, who also seems to put her commitment down to teenage angst: “My mother took me in. She housed and fed and clothed me as if I were a child again, an errant teenager come reluctantly back to the nest” (399, italics mine).

13 “And so began the period when my life made no sense to me. I stayed home and shopped and cooked with Jeannine and supervised her care of my sons, the care of my house, even the care of my husband, and did little else, and acted as though it were normal, even desirable, to live this way. Time passed quickly, as it does when you don’t question the role you’re playing, when you’re barely even aware of it as a role. Everything and everyone else fits –the script is written, all the other actors know their cues and lines and where to stand, and the play continues without intermission or interruption day in and out, twenty-four hours a day, season after season, year after year, until you don’t even know you’re in a play” (Banks 196). Again, she presents her life as a theatrical (and rather pointless) performance. The reference to role playing is reminiscent of the motif of the mask, used repeatedly in her narrative, which prevents the readers from going beyond the smooth surface she allows them to see. Consequently, they are unable to fully grasp her intentions.

14 By mocking people whose political convictions seem easily surpassed by the self-centered pleasure of appearing in a book, Banks may also ironically question his own reasons for writing a novel about the period.

15 Hannah is well aware of the influence of this Puritan heritage of guilt over her political commitment: “Over the years, I had learned to live with guilt and had even come to embrace it, for I was the strictly engineered product of an old New England puritan line, starting in the seventeenth century and ending with my parents. With my father in particular, who believed in his bones that one’s consciousness of guilt led straight to good works and awareness of God. One’s awareness of guilt was a barometer of one’s virtue.” (73)

16 As Berger explains, the issue of race and of white privilege was also central to the Weather Underground ideology: “Weather was heavily inspired by the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements as well. The Black Panthers were its heroes, and Weather viewed the underground as a way to express its solidarity with the Third World, within and outside the United States” (Berger 19). Jacobs also states that, as white supporters of the Black Panthers, its members were convinced of the necessity to wage war against “white, honky, racist Amerika itself” (Jacobs 311).

17 Samuel Doe became the leader of Liberia in 1980 after a violent coup during which several politicians, including then-president Tolbert, were executed. Doe was overthrown after a bloody civil war and murdered in 1990.

18 Banks’s choice of the name “Hannah”, which is a palindrome, also plays on the concept of the mirror and contributes to the portrait of Hannah as a reflecting surface, i.e. both an individual whose personal experience mirrors the collective experience of the American nation and an unseizable character the understanding of whom remains superficial for the reader.

19 Hannah frequently resorts to analepses and prolepses in the course of the narrative. For example, when she first meets her future husband Woodrow Sundiata, she describes him as “the man whom in a few short months I would marry, the man whose three sons, in less than two years, I would bear. The husband whom I would deceive and abandon and to whom I would later return. The man who would betray and forsake me and who would later beg for my forgiveness and receive it. The man who would be chopped down and killed before my eyes. You may not believe me, but in those few brief seconds I saw what was coming”¿(101-102). She immediately announces the different steps of the tragedy that is about to unfold, but the larger picture, notably the political implications of Woodrow’s death, will only be disclosed gradually.

20 In his interview with Locoge, Banks explains: “One of the things a novelist does is preserve memory because we forget so fast” (161).

21 In her review of The Darling, Kakutani describes Hannah’s attitude as epitomizing a “brand of American hubris that posits the possibility of continually remaking oneself and the world.”

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Marine Paquereau, « My country, my enemy”: representing and questioning American politics through radical activism in The Darling by Russell Banks  »L’Ordinaire des Amériques [En ligne], 230 | 2023, mis en ligne le 24 mars 2023, consulté le 08 juin 2023. URL : ; DOI :

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