Apparently I’m an idealist. Or a perfectionist. Or maybe they’re the same thing, applied differently.
What that means is that for a very long time, I’ve thought it important to do my part to work toward what I see as a better future. The very first book that inspired and led to a big impact in my daily habits was Upton Sinclair’s 1906 novel The Jungle. Here’s one of the many passages that spurred the United States to pass the Pure Food and Drug Act (among other legislation) not long after the book was released:
“The meat would be shoveled into carts, and the man who did the shoveling would not trouble to lift out a rat even when he saw one—there were things that went into the sausage in comparison with which a poisoned rat was a tidbit. There was no place for the men to wash their hands before they ate their dinner, and so they made a practice of washing them in the water that was to be ladled into the sausage. There were the butt-ends of smoked meat, and the scraps of corned beef, and all the odds and ends of the waste of the plants, that would be dumped into old barrels in the cellar and left there. Under the system of rigid economy which the packers enforced, there were some jobs that it only paid to do once in a long time, and among these was the cleaning out of the waste barrels. Every spring they did it; and in the barrels would be dirt and rust and old nails and stale water—and cartload after cartload of it would be taken up and dumped into the hoppers with fresh meat, and sent out to the public’s breakfast.”
The book didn’t exactly make me vegetarian. But it did keep me there, with its descriptions of the havoc the meat packing industry was creating for the poor Rudkus family, recent immigrants from Lithuania just trying to survive in a new country. Whether it was an anonymous worker falling in a vat and made into lard, or poor Marija, cutting her hand and almost losing it from infection, the novel was fantastic and tawdry. It was only coincidence that I decided to read this book shortly after deciding to try vegetarianism, but it cemented in my mind that I had absolutely done the right thing.
Another book that was instrumental as an agent of social change was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which I just finished writing a big paper about. At the time Stowe was writing the story, she lived in Cincinnati—right across the Ohio River from Kentucky, a major slave state. Escaped slaves using the Underground Railroad were the source of much drama in Cincinnati. When the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850, making it a crime for anyone to assist an escaped slave, Stowe officially solidified her alliance with the abolitionist movement.
She decided to combine the political arguments of the abolitionists with dramatic and sentimental fiction. Stowe depicted her African American characters as having distinct voices and feelings, rousing empathy in the reader that they may not have had before, and influencing their stance on slavery. Uncle Tom’s Cabin had an immense impact in the US and around the world. Legend suggests that the book was the single cause of the US Civil War—although that makes a good story, it’s perhaps a bit simplistic.
The point is though, that stories about sympathetic fictional characters set against a socio-political backdrop is a really effective method of changing people’s minds about the world around them.
Do you have any favorite novels of social change? What books could you envision having this sort of success in changing the world today?