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Does Fiction Have the Power to Sway Politics?

Newspaper article International New York Times

Does Fiction Have the Power to Sway Politics?

Article excerpt

Perhaps the clearest case of literature effecting political change is Upton Sinclair's "The Jungle."

Perhaps the clearest case of literature effecting political change is Upton Sinclair's 'The Jungle.'

Poetry makes nothing happen, Auden wrote, but occasionally fiction can get things done. Sadly, it's easier to chart the ways in which literature has changed politics for the worse than to make a case for its positive effect on the course of human events. "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion" and "The Turner Diaries" have confirmed bigots in their bigotry and made new converts to the cause of racism and intolerance. The sacred texts of most religions (let's call them narratives and leave others to debate the question whether they are fact or fiction) have been used to justify unspeakable violence.

But can fiction change history for the better? Many of us have heard how Abraham Lincoln asked Harriet Beecher Stowe if she was the little lady whose big book started the great war. But the story is most likely apocryphal: a literary urban legend. Doubtless Stowe's popular novel helped persuade its readers that slaves were human beings with feelings like those of their masters. But neither Lincoln nor Stowe could seriously have believed that her novel had functioned as an actual call to arms. Interestingly, I know of no similar stories about the authors of celebrated antiwar novels; apparently no one imagines a world leader telling Stephen Crane or Erich Maria Remarque that he would surely have declared war if not for "The Red Badge of Courage" or "All Quiet on the Western Front."

Perhaps the clearest case of literature effecting political change is that of Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel "The Jungle." Its disgusting portrait of the meatpacking industry rapidly led to the passage of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act. So what if Sinclair had hoped that his work would end the oppressive conditions under which industry workers labored rather than merely improving the quality of the protein on middle-class tables?

But while it's difficult to trace the direct -- the quid pro quo - - impact of literature on politics, it's encouraging (certainly for writers) to suggest that our books can change how readers interact with their fellow humans. …

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