This is the first of a two-part series. The second essay, “Robert Fuller’s Writings: Part II, His Non-Fiction,” will soon follow.
Many of you who have read Robert Fuller’s essays on the Los Angeles Progressive and Hollywood Progressive may be surprised to learn that he has written a good novel of more than 500 pages, The Rowan Tree (2013). When I saw that a free Kindle edition of it was available at Amazon, I downloaded it and thought I’d at least skim through it. What a pleasant surprise it was! I not only skimmed it, but read it all thoroughly, stopping occasionally to ponder some of the many ideas championed in it, almost all of which most progressives would applaud.
In Fuller’s Belonging: A Memoir (2013), which I’ll deal with more later in Part II of this essay, he writes that he worked on The Rowan Tree almost twenty years, and that “fiction shows; non-fiction explains.” Often, he believes, “the two genres are complementary and mutually illuminating. They certainly were for me.” In his novel, Fuller provides his hero Rowan Ellway with many of the same experiences he had, from being a college president when only in his thirties—Fuller at Oberlin College from 1970 to 1974—to embracing many of the same positions that Fuller later fully spelled out in various non-fiction books, mostly in the twenty-first century.
Last September in The New York Times, two writers discussed “Whatever Happened to the Novel of Ideas?” One of them, Pankaj Mishra, mentioned the lack of ideas in U.S. novels and quoted another writer, the deceased David Foster Wallace, who stated that Dostoevsky “appears to possess degrees of passion, conviction and engagement with deep moral issues that we—here, today—cannot or do not permit ourselves,” and that unlike some of the Russian writers, “the novelists of our own place and time look so thematically shallow and lightweight, so morally impoverished.”
About a half century earlier, Irving Howe in his Politics and the Novel noted that U. S. writers were generally not inclined to write novels of ideas, especially dealing with political ideas. He also wrote that “at its best, the political novel generates such intense heat that the ideas it appropriates are melted into its movement and fused with the emotions of its characters.”
The Rowan Tree, however, defies the two main generalizations of Mishra and Howe: it is both a novel of ideas, engaged “with deep moral issues,” and a political novel whose ideas are “fused with the emotions of its characters.” But it is not just the ideas (more about them later) that are appealing, so too are the book’s main characters, their adventures from 1970 to an imagined future of 2029, and Fuller’s clear, well-paced prose. Professional literary critics might find some faults with the book’s literary qualities, but many readers commenting on the Amazon site have praised it.
The title suggests who the main characters are, Rowan Ellway and his descendants and friends, but to avoid spilling out some of the novel’s surprises—and there are several major ones—I’ll limit what I here reveal.
Despite the similarities between Rowan and his author Fuller, the latter takes the liberties to which any fiction writer is entitled. A good example is his creation of one of his main characters in The Rowan Tree, the African-American Easter Blue, with whom the married (and white) Rowan falls in love while she is still a student (and he the president) at Jefferson College. Throughout the rest of the novel, she will remain significant and be the main love of Rowan’s life.
In his memoir, however, Fuller says only that in the late 1950’s “the tale of interracial love that [Jack] Kerouac told in The Subterraneans triggered an inward one [quest in him]. An African-American graduate student frequented one of the buildings in which I took economics classes, and though I admired her from afar, all I ever learned of her was her name—Easter.” In his memoir, rather than any love relationship with an African-American, Fuller only recounts his three marriages with white women.
Most of the novel’s first 200-plus pages concentrate on Rowan, his wife Sara, and Easter Blue, from 1970 to 1992. Almost two decades after Rowan resigns as the college’s president, Easter assumes the same job—the years from 1972 to 1990 are barely treated except in brief flashbacks. But the pages dealing with Rowan and then Easter attempting to exercise presidential leadership at Jefferson reflect a thorough knowledge of campus politics, especially as typified in the early 1970s.
One example from Easter’s presidency in the early 1990s was the question of professors’ sexual relations, if any with students. A college committee outlined three alternatives: the first, a “laissez-faire” approach, where the administration would issue no prohibitive edict; “the second, ‘limited ban,’ ruled out sex between faculty and students enrolled in their current classes. The third, ‘complete ban,’ prohibited all sexual relations between students and faculty or staff.” Partly because of their own experience two decades earlier, which would have violated any complete ban, Rowan and Easter oppose such a sweeping restriction on the grounds that a college administration should not interfere with the private lives of two consenting adults who have no classroom teacher-student relationship.
In the last 300 pages or so the focus shifts more to Rowan’s daughter, Marisol, a ballet dancer, and Adam, a son born to Easter in Africa after she had left Jefferson College to pursue additional studies. At the time Marisol and Adam meet he is a star basketball player at Princeton, and they are soon flying to Paris, where they stay at Adam’s boyhood town house and meet François, whom Adam has always assumed is his father. François was the son of a French admiral and of the sister of Senegal’s poet-president, Léopold Senghor, and François met Easter when she was studying in Senegal. In Paris, that stereotypical city of love, Marisol and Adam experience a full blooming of their mutual passion.
What occurs in the pages which follow is what is found in a Bildungsroman, or coming-of-age novel, in which the hero (or in this case both Marisol and Adam) discover by trial and error some of life’s truths. (I must confess that one of the reasons I enjoyed The Rowan Tree so much was that it reflects so many experiences and opinions that are similar to mine. See here, for example, on the importance I place upon young people thinking carefully about what type of future work they wish to do. Some of the travel and living experiences depicted in the book such as in the USSR/Russia [including Siberia], France, and our nation’s capital are also similar to ones I’ve known.)
Adam eventually goes into politics, becomes Speaker of the U. S. House of Representatives, and from 2023 to 2029 President Adam Blue. Rowan lives into his nineties and Adam appoints him as a special emissary to China. It is in this last section of the book, primarily through the voice of Adam, and to a lesser extent through Rowan’s advice to him, that many of Fuller’s ideas are spelled out.
The Rowan Tree: Some Important Ideas
Like Fuller, Rowan teaches Physics before he becomes a college president in 1970, and his scientific training leaves a permanent mark on him. Both Rowan and Adam, whose background is in mathematics, approach problems in the spirit of science—trying to be objective, marshaling evidence, and testing hypotheses before coming to conclusions. Neither man is close-minded.
The importance of dignity is perhaps the novel’s most significant idea, and “Dignity” is the title of its third, and last, major section. That concept is linked to two other important Fuller ideas, “rankism” and the distinction between somebodies and nobodies.
When he first ran for Congress in 2010 in Massachusetts, Adam’s main message was that “the paramount purpose of politics should be to secure and defend equal dignity for all.”
Dignity for all meant dignity for everyone, I told the voters of western Massachusetts— young and old, black and white, immigrant and native-born, progressive and conservative, urban and rural, gay and straight, blue- and white-collar, people with and without disabilities, those of every ethnicity and religion, and, I’d say—pointing to folks in the audience— that includes you, and you, and you.
On foreign policy, I took the position that affirming other nations’ dignity was in our national interest. While I was speaking, volunteers went through the audience handing out bumper stickers that read NOLO: NO ONE LEFT OUT, or HUMILIATION IS MORE DANGEROUS THAN PLUTONIUM.
Later on, borrowing the branding idea from Roosevelt’s New Deal and Truman’s Fair Deal, he advanced the idea that his Democratic Party should campaign under the banner of advocating a “Dignity Deal.” After his party followed his advice and swept the mid-term elections of 2022, he, at age 49, became Speaker.
The following year, after the death of the vice-president and then president, he assumes the presidency and vows “then that in place of politics as usual, my presidency would espouse the politics of dignity. If everyone’s right to dignity were recognized and secured, this would mark a turning point in human affairs. The idea made my heart soar.”
Adams explains what he means by dignity and why he sees it “as an indispensable foundation for human relationships and governance. . . . Dignity means belonging, membership, a secure place in the ‘tribe.’ Quite simply, dignity means ‘in’; indignity ‘out.’ Psychologically, dignity means inclusion and recognition. Socially, it means equal opportunity to contribute. Materially, dignity means having the essentials required to pursue happiness— health, education, income sufficient to live securely, and a voice in governance.”
After being elected to a four-year term of his own in 2024, Adam uses his inaugural address in January 2005 “to suggest that the only thing as important as how we treat the planet is how we treat each other.” Before the address he receives advice from Rowan, who tells him,
If the dispossessed cannot live in dignity, they increasingly have it within their power to see that no one else does either. The price of social peace and economic prosperity is equal opportunity and equitable recognition for everyone in the global community. . . .The issue is whether we’ll invite those who are currently taken for nobodies into the human family or force them to crash our gates.
People want dignity for themselves more than they want to humiliate their oppressors. In this proposition lies hope for humanity. If it’s right, the poor will choose an escape from relative poverty over the fleeting satisfaction of bringing down the privileged. . . .
Recommended for You
. . . Since most manmade indignities stem from abuses of power—rankism— the operational recipe for building a dignitarian society is to disallow rankism (in much the same way that building a multicultural world required that we dismantle racist institutions and disallow racist practices).
To gain support for the grand bargain, we must not frame it as either a victory or a defeat for liberty or equality. To move beyond libertarian and egalitarian ideologies, we need a dignitarian synthesis that incorporates the partial truths the Right and Left have long championed. . . .
I foresee a two-stage process. The first is to communicate the dignitarian idea in every language, culture, and society. Then, when a broad social consensus is in place, a worldwide institutional base will have to be built to secure dignity at all levels of human interaction. Your life has equipped you for the first of these tasks. It’s apt to fall to future generations to institutionalize the politics of dignity.
In his 2025 address, President Blue outlines his “plans for a domestic Dignity Deal,” and concluded with his “reasons for believing that securing global peace and prosperity depended on replacing the UN Security Council with a new institution . . . called the Dignity Council.
Just a few more words about rankism and the somebody/nobody nexus are needed. In his Belonging: A Memoir Fuller defines rankism as “the phenomenon of putting and keeping others down.” It is not opposed to ranks but to “all forms of degrading assertions of rank (bullying, harassment, self-aggrandizement, favoritism, racism, sexism, ageism, homophobia, etc.). The identification and naming of rankism moves the fight for dignity beyond the limited agendas of identity politics— which seek equity and justice for members of groups defined by a common trait— to the wider struggle for dignity and justice for everyone.”
A few times in The Rowan Tree, Fuller refers to an Emily Dickenson poem about being a nobody and a somebody. Also, long after he has ceased to be president of Jefferson College, Rowan tells Adam that “denying that their interests have changed is why so many academics lose their spark. You have to choose between being a real nobody or a fake somebody. Actually, I’m a nobody, and I like it that way, so long as I’m still trying to work things out. But in disarmament circles [he is later referred to “one of the architects of nuclear disarmament”] I suppose people still see me as a somebody.” However, in his memoir and in a whole 200-plus page book, Somebodies and Nobodies: Overcoming the Abuse of Rank (2004), Fuller has much more to say on the subject. In the Rowan Tree he is more concerned with just speaking in behalf of treating everyone, whether they be considered a somebody or nobody, with dignity.
The importance and acceptance of diversity and tolerance, both on the national and international levels, is another idea that weaves its way throughout The Rowan Tree.
Before going on to several other important ideas in the novel, we should note that Fuller’s ideas on dignity preceded several “Revolutions of Dignity,” a label that has been applied to the Arab revolutions of 2011 and to the Ukrainian revolution of 2014. (See here and here for more on the subject.) He co-authored Dignity for All: How to Create a World Without Rankism in 2008. In his 2013 memoir, he notes that “President Obama invokes the notion of dignity in virtually every speech, and Dignity Now! is the common demand and rallying cry of uprisings that have toppled authoritarian regimes from North Africa to the Middle East. Despite ebbs and flows, I believe that a dignitarian tide is rising.”
The importance and acceptance of diversity and tolerance, both on the national and international levels, is another idea that weaves its way throughout The Rowan Tree. Early in the book when a Jefferson College search committee is interviewing Rowan for the job of heading the college, “one thing had come up again and again: While he was teaching physics at Columbia, Rowan had also taught science in a predominately black Harlem high school. Jefferson’s white liberals couldn’t get enough of it. They seemed to want to believe that, when it came to race, he was a step ahead of them.”
When serving as college president in the early 1970s, Rowan tells a member of the Board of Trustees: “Before you tell me your views, you should know that it’s a principle of mine, and one for which Jefferson College has long stood, that there is no alternative to equal dignity for everyone in the Jefferson community. As long as I’m president that commitment includes minorities, women, gays, the disabled, and other marginalized groups struggling to find their voices.” To show his support for such groups he attends, when asked by the Gay and Lesbian Alliance, what the group proclaims is “the first openly gay dance on an American campus.” He is also successful at increasing both student and faculty/staff diversity—one consequence of working to do so is meeting and working with the black student Easter Blue, whom he came to love.
After Adam enters politics his chief of staff is openly lesbian, and his secretary of defense is a very capable woman.
Both Rowan and Adam have a great appreciation for travel and foreign cultures. After his college-presidency years, Rowan travels to such countries as Vietnam and the USSR and by 1990 is working on nuclear disarmament in Moscow and the Siberian city of Novosibirsk. He also enrolls his daughter, Marisol, in ballet school in Moscow. By the time he becomes special emissary to China decades later Rowan has long had an appreciation for the ancient Chinese thinkers Mo Zi (Mo Tzu) and Confucius. Rowan thought of the former as an advocate of universal love and the latter “as an early advocate of dignitarian governance.”
But it’s Adam’s travels that are most extensively described. In Paris, through François’s work as a member of the board of the Paris-based Doctors Without Borders, he meets Dr. Élodie Pham Fleury, the daughter of a Frenchman and Vietnamese mother. She talks him into accompanying her to famine-stricken Somalia, where he photographs the misery, helping to raise funds for the famished. Decades later, he recalls that he had “visited her [Dr. Fleury] in a good many of the places she’s been posted to over the last thirty years: Somalia, Pakistan, Sarajevo, Darfur, Haiti, Gaza, Dhaka, and, most recently, the Maldives.” He also traveled with her in China and Russia. On other occasions he went to Japan, India, South Africa and Israel, where he met his good friend Ben, a Jewish-American, and also a star basketball player at Princeton and later in the NBA.
Meanwhile, in the early nineties Rowan’s daughter, Marisol, had earned a “Ph.D. in Russian Politics and Culture from Johns Hopkins University.” Later after Adam entered politics, she became his “personal advisor on all things Russian.” Ben’s daughter Galia had also studied for her doctorate at John Hopkins. But partly because her mother was a Chinese-American friend of Marisol, and like her a New York ballet dancer, Galia’s area of expertise was China, where she had spent a year during her undergraduate years at the University of California at Berkeley.
Later, after Ben becomes president, Galia’s “fluency in spoken and written Chinese would be a huge asset,” as would her friendship with the Chinese president’s son. When Rowan becomes Adam’s special envoy to China, he takes Galia along as his interpreter and assistant.
President Adam Blue reflects on this talented young lady:
If my generation had traveled the world, Galia’s friends were at home in it. My friends had studied French, Spanish, or German, and tended to speak one of these “foreign” languages haltingly. Galia had friends who were fluent in Arabic, Chinese, Hindi, Bangla, Farsi, Malay, Tagalog, and Swahili. By her early twenties, she’d met the cultural and political elite of the world. Her voracious curiosity had exposed her to rural poverty in China, Indonesia, and Brazil, and to the urban slums of Dhaka, Mumbai, and Karachi. On one occasion, when I’d heard her discussing politics with her friends, it crossed my mind that if human beings managed to create a just and equitable world, it would be the achievement of her generation, not mine.
Fuller’s stress on dignity and appreciation for national and international diversity and tolerance provide the background for understanding his approach to foreign countries and to war, peace, and terrorism. As president Adam establishes good relations with both Russia and China, partly because they both see the need to cooperate, and do so, with the USA against terrorism and partly because of the good personal contacts between these two major powers and the United States.
Regarding Russia, not only do Rowan and Marisol have personal contacts with Russians, but so too does Adam’s secretary of defense, Hazel Chilton, who in the Yeltsin era had been an exchange student in Russia. During that time she became friendly with Dimitri Ivanov, who now like her, heads his nation’s defenses.
While acting as Adam’s emissary in China, Rowan sends him a long memo which displays deep empathy for a Chinese leadership which realizes the need for reform and more respect for dignity, but by taking steps more in keeping with its own Chinese tradition as opposed to just copying U. S. methods.
While accepting the need to use force against terrorists, President Blue seems to agree with an observation that Rowan made soon after 9/11/2001:“Terrorism is a tactic used by the weak to protest chronic indignity. . . . We’ll hunt them down and bring them to justice, one way or another. But until we break the cycle of indignities that fuels terror, the threat will remain.”
President Blue’s general approach to foreign policy is to emphasize dignity, tolerance, and mutual understanding and to shun the “American exceptionalism and bellicosity favored by the hawks.” He appoints as secretary of state a pragmatic Republican who shares his approach.
Fuller devotes less space to other ideas of varying importance, just a few of which are mentioned below.
At the time of his predecessor’s death in office, his successor, Adam Blue, was in the Maldives (an island nation south of India) in order “to draw attention to the impact of climate change on low-lying island nations and to see Dr. Élodie Fleury, who was helping to prepare for the evacuation of its population.” (At the Paris Climate Conference in December 2015, the Maldives pushed hard to get nations to lower the amount of future-tolerated global temperature increase.)
Since both Rowan and Easter Blue were both presidents of Jefferson College, and Rowan and his first wife Sara both had been college professors earlier (he at Columbia and Sara at NYU, where she continued to teach after Rowan moved to Jefferson), The Rowan Tree reflects many of Fuller’s thoughts about higher education. Rowan, Marisol, and Adam are all strong believers in physical fitness—even after turning 90, Rowan works out at the U. S. embassy gym in Beijing, and Adam occasionally plays basketball on a White House court. Finally, Adam criticizes some of the flaws of the U. S. political system, like the prominence of “paid lobbyists and media demagogues.”
Reading The Rowan Tree in the midst of presidential campaigns in full swing makes one realize how stale, unimaginative, and undignified so many of the political remedies now being offered are, at least by many of the candidates. President Adam Blue may be a fictional creation too good to be true, but he does indicate that our political initiatives, both domestic and foreign, could be much more creative than they are.
Walter G. Moss