Demon Copperhead: the American Protest Novel Revisited

To write her most recent novel, (2022; 549 pages; $32.50; Harper Collins) her tenth in the past 35 years, Barbara Kingsolver turned for inspiration to Charles Dickens whom she calls her “genius friend.” In the acknowledgements, she writes, “I’m grateful to Charles Dickens for writing David Copperfield, his impassioned critique of institutional poverty and its damaging effects on children in his society.” She adds, “Those problems are still with us.” Isn’t that obvious? Why hit us over the head with it?

In the body of the novel, Kingsolver’s protagonist and narrator— a poor white kid, a drug addict, an orphan and a born again artist— explains that while Dickens was a “seriously old guy, dead and a foreigner, but Jesus Christ did he get the picture on kids and orphans getting screwed over and nobody giving a rat’s ass. You’d think he was from around here.” For Copperhead, whose hair is the color of copper wire, “around here” means Appalachia, where Kingsolver lives on a farm with her husband. The time is now, though there are very few references to contemporary events. The Iraq war is one of them.

Readers who welcome and relish protest fiction, whether Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, and Erich Maria Remarque’s All Quiet on the Western Front, might enjoy Kingsolver’s novel.

Readers who are wary of protest fiction as a genre will likely be put off by Kingsolver’s hammering away at social issues including injustice and inequality, the evils of tobacco, alcohol and OxyContin as well as her indignation about the stereotyping of “hillbillies,” “rednecks” and “melungeons”— the Appalachian ethnic group descended from poor whites, American Indians and Black slaves.

No one has accused Kingsolver of cultural appropriation, though they might. She’s not impoverished, doesn’t belong to the drug culture or to Appalachia’s under class. Still Appalachia is her backyard. She has plummeted its depths and feels its pain.

But she is no Charles Dickens; to try to lodge herself in his literary company only sets her up for unfavorable comparisons. Were he alive today what would he write about and where would he set his novels? Probably not in Appalachia and not among the rural poor, but rather in Philadelphia, New York, or Los Angeles where he’d skewered the movie industry, the culture of celebrities and explore the hell of homelessness.

To focus on Dickens as a novelist who offers critiques of the ills of society is to reduce him to a stereotype of an author waging cultural warfare against his society. That perspective leaves out his comedy, his love of the grotesque and his creativity as a literary architect who built big complex novels with suspense, mystery and inimitable characters.

Among all of Dickens’ many novels, including Oliver Twist, Martin Chuzzlewit, Hard Times—and his late masterpieces, Bleak House, Our Mutual Friend and Little DorritDavid Copperfield clearly offered Kingsolver the most accessible. Like David Copperfield, Demon Copperhead is told in the first person by a young man finding and losing and finding his way in the world. Kingsolver adopts the role of a ventriloquist and speaks through her “dummy,” who is much wiser than his years.

As a narrator, Copperhead is largely unconvincing. Had he sounded like poor white and southern Huck Finn he might have been more believable, but then Kingsolver would have had to add race and caste to her picture and that would have been much more than she could have handled.

He does sound like Thomas Wolfe, the author of Look Homeward Angel and You Can’t Go Home Again—who was born in North Carolina, on the edge of Appalachia— when he waxes poetical and says, “It was that fall type of day where the world feels like it’s about to change its mind on everything.”

Unlike Dickens’ Copperfield, Kingsolver’s Copperhead provides  no characters as memorable as Mr. Micawber, Uriah Heap and Copperfield himself whom Dickens describes as “the hero of the story.” Kingsolver doesn’t call Copperhead a hero. He’s too tarnished and too implicated in his own use of drugs and downfall to be dubbed heroic.

The real demon in the novel— that might be called “addiction fiction”—isn’t the main character but rather OxyContin and the opioid crisis brought on by Fentanyl, the drug that has afflicted the entire nation, including poor whites in Appalachia. At the end of Demon Copperhead, Kingsolver thanks Dr. Art Van Zee “for his groundbreaking exposure of dangerous prescription opioids.” Along with a nun and a lawyer (his wife), Dr. Van Zee led the charge against Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin, nearly three decades ago, when his crusading might have saved lives. Sadly, very few people listened to him and his team. Now, more deaths are on the way with little relief in sight.

 There’s plenty of material for a novelist of Kingsolver’s caliber to get worked up about and indignant over, and a long shelf of addiction fiction worth expanding, including William Burroughs’ Junkie and Naked Lunch, Nelson Algren’s The Man with the Golden Arm, Jim Carroll’s Basketball Diaries, Phillip K. Dick’s A Scanner Darkly, and the progenitor of them all, Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an Opium-Eater from 1821.

Demon Copperhead doesn’t come remotely near any of them, though the Guardian described the novel as a masterpiece that Kingsolver was “born to write.” In 2022, Oprah selected it for her book club, which has translated into a mass audience and big sales.

Writing in The New York Times, novelist and critic Molly Young, who has recently touted Phillip K. Dick’s fiction, offered a voice of moderation and noted that the optimism of both Kingsolver and her main character “takes on the quality of delusion.” There’s something smug about the book, as though the author knows it all.

“I have the disturbing idea that I’m writing the same book again and again,” Kingsolver noted years ago. In a review of her 1990 novel Animal Dreams, novelist and critic Jane Smiley wrote “Ms. Kingsolver never really wrestles with the larger concerns that she raises. For one thing, there are simply too many of them.” Much the same might be said of Demon Copperhead which wrestles with rural poverty, drug addiction and the abuse of children.

In his pivotal 1955 essay, “Everyone’s Protest Novel,” which tackles Uncle Tom’s Cabin, James Baldwin, no stranger to protest, offers a quotation from a man he calls “an American liberal” who tells him that as long as protest novels are “being published everything will be alright.” Indeed, the protest novel, along with idealistic protesters, social causes, and do-good organizations make up the bedrock of American liberalism that Baldwin loathed as much as he detested racism and segregation.

“It must be remembered,” Baldwin wrote “that the oppressed and the oppressor are bound together within the same society.” He added, “the failure of the protest novel lies in its rejection of life, the human being, the denial of his beauty, dread, power in its insistence that it is his categorization alone which is real and which cannot be transcended.”  That’s a blanket condemnation that’s difficult to swallow. Baldwin might have gone overboard, though he rightly recognized that “The ‘protest’ novel is an accepted and comforting aspect of the American scene.”

In The Underground Railroad, Colson Whitehead’s 2015 novel of bondage and freedom, in which the real and the phantasmagoric merge, the escaped slave, Cora Randall, and the slave catcher, Arnold Ridgeway, literally embrace one another in one of the narrative’s most vivid scenes. The “enterprise” of slavery, Colson writes, “bound slave and master alike.” The Underground Railroad isn’t a protest novel, though it depicts slavery as a brutal institution that dehumanizes both the enslaved, who are chained and whipped, and the slaver who does the whipping and the chaining.  There’s a fine line between the novel that protests social conditions and the novel that calls for empathy and compassion.

All protest novels, it seems, must depict “a shit show,” to borrow a phrase that frequently appears in Demon Copperhead. They must exaggerate, stir up moral indignation and call upon readers to do something to change the world for the better. Easier said than done. Kurt Vonnegut, the author of Slaughterhouse-Five, his 1969 autobiographical anti-war novel, noted that anti-war novels have never stopped wars.

B. Traven, the author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, and six linked novels about oppression and liberation in Mexico, observed that while newspapers expose injustices and briefly capture the attention of readers they don’t end injustices. True enough, but that point of view has never prevented novelists, journalists, poets and playwrights from aiming to sound alarms and awaken readers to the horrors of war, slavery and the immorality of the criminal injustice system.

 In 1945, nearly one hundred years after the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin George Orwell wrote “I would back Uncle Tom’s Cabin to outlive the complete works of Virginia Woolf.” One wonders what readers will think of Demon Copperhead in one hundred years.

Jonah Raskin is the author of Beat Blues, San Francisco, 1955.