Tuesday, September 29, 2015

"Issues novels" and unanticipated consequences

Question: Can novels really bring about social and political changes?

The textbook response to this question is to say confidently that yes, a novel can change the world, the pen being mightier than the sword, and all that.

This bold assertion should be immediately followed by the supporting evidence of Uncle Tom's Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe's tearjerker about slavery in the antebellum American South.

Uncle Tom's Cabin, published in 1852, did indeed exacerbate the sectional conflict that was sharpening in the decade prior to the Civil War.

The novel was a bestseller, passionately embraced by Northern abolitionists and reviled by practically everyone in the South. When Margaret Mitchell began writing Gone with the Wind in 1926, seventy-four years later, one of her major motivations was to write a rebuttal to Uncle Tom's Cabin. (Stowe had portrayed the institution of chattel slavery in an unfavorable light, Mitchell apparently felt.)

There is a story about Harriet Beecher Stowe and Lincoln, almost certainly apocryphal, in which Lincoln is supposed to have addressed the author as, "the little lady who started this great war."

The story was circulated by Stowe's family. The debunking of this probably myth ought not diminish our assessment of the book's impact, though. It is a stretch to say that either Harriet Beecher Stowe or her novel started the Civil War. But Uncle Tom's Cabin did play a major role in pushing already simmering emotions to the boiling point, on both sides of the Mason-Dixon Line.

The moral equation presented by slavery was relatively clear-cut and straightforward material for the novelist. Anyone who read Uncle Tom's Cabin in the 1850s would have understood what Stowe was getting at--regardless of whether they agreed or disagreed.

By the twentieth century, the problems available to the "issues oriented" novelist were far more complicated and nuanced, and there was a real chance of being misunderstood. Case-in-point: Upton Sinclair's 1906 novel, The Jungle.

The Jungle describes the plight of immigrant laborers around the turn of the twentieth century. Upton Sinclair was an American journalist and socialist. He intended The Jungle to be a pro-socialist allegory.

One major section of the novel contains lurid accounts of abuses in the meatpacking industry, which was then largely unregulated. Though Sinclair was regarded as a hyperbolic muckraker even during his lifetime, some of the descriptions were probably accurate. But in his efforts to depict slaughterhouse conditions as hellish, Sinclair may have overplayed his hand.

Theodore Roosevelt was the President of the United States in 1906. Roosevelt, a progressive reformer by the standards of the era, had little patience with disruptive radicals. Roosevelt dismissed Thomas Paine, the author of Common Sense, as a "filthy little atheist". Upton Sinclair did not fare much better in his judgment. Roosevelt had previously called Sinclair a "crackpot". But TR read The Jungle nonetheless.

Roosevelt was horrified: not so much by the descriptions of the working conditions in slaughterhouses, but by the unsanitary practices of the meatpacking industry. Roosevelt, you see, habitually ate sausages with his breakfast.

The novel so affected TR that he supported the passage of the Meat Inspection Act and the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906. The latter established the Bureau of Chemistry, which in 1930 was renamed the Food and Drug Administration. The FDA still exists today.

"Change" to be sure, but not the change that Upton Sinclair had envisioned.

The misfire did not go unnoticed by The Jungle's author. Sinclair said in an interview: "I aimed at the public's heart, and by accident I hit it in the stomach."

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