Can a novel start a war, free serfs, break up marriages, drive readers to suicide, close factories, bring about a law change, swing an election, or serve as a weapon in a national or international struggle? These are some of the large-scale, direct, social and political effects which have been ascribed to certain exceptional novels and other works of narrative fiction over the last two hundred years or so.1F How seriously should we take such claims?
In their crudest form, assertions of this kind are obviously naïve, oversimplifying the complex ways in which literary texts can be said to “work in the world” and oversimplifying, too, the causal processes required to account for a major social or political change. But is it possible to modify or refine such claims in the light of contemporary theory and historical research so that the mechanisms by which each text has engaged with the political forces of the time are adequately described? This book explores that general question through the close examination of five works, from several different countries and periods, for which remarkable direct political effects of one kind or another have been claimed. It is an inquiry both at the level of theory (in what sense, and by what mechanisms, might literary works conceivably be said to start wars, swing national opinion, and so on?) and at the level of history (what evidence can be gathered on the influence which a particular fictional narrative has had in a given place and at a given time?).
The first two works studied, Ivan Turgenev’s A Sportsman’s Notebook and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (both published in volume form in 1852), are probably the pieces of narrative fiction for which the most spectacular claims have been made. It was Turgenev’s boast, echoed later by many historians and literary critics, that his A Sportsman’s Notebook, a collection of short stories and sketches rather than a novel, was directly responsible for convincing Tsar Alexander II to abolish serfdom in Russia. And it was Abraham Lincoln, no less, who addressed Harriet Beecher Stowe, when they met in late 1862, with the words: “So this is the little lady who made this great war” (the American Civil War). Although Lincoln probably did not mean his words to be taken at face value, many politicians and historians in the years that followed independently attributed to Uncle Tom’s Cabin a major role in bringing about the war and thereby hastening the abolition of slavery.
Ignazio Silone’s novel Fontamara (1933), the third work studied, is remarkable not only for the fact that it is claimed to have played a significant role in turning around the broadly favorable opinion of Mussolini’s Fascism still held by large numbers of political commentators in the United States and Europe in the early 1930s, but for having achieved several more, distinct, politically significant receptions since its first publication, including in Italy during the Second World War and in the Third World countries in the postwar period.
In the case of Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962), whose publication Khrushchev personally authorized to further his discrediting of Stalin, it is not a question of the novel’s having achieved a specific reform (as Solzhenitsyn complained, the labor camps continued to operate fairly much unchanged) but of its having engaged in an extraordinarily dramatic way with the mechanisms of power of a relatively closed political system.