Four Important Novels That Have Changed History

By Ona Russell
[5 minute read]

When you hear the word “literature,” you might think poetry, novels, essays and plays. Or perhaps entertainment, invention or fiction. Not on that list would likely be the law, a term usually associated with facts, justice and truth (if only theoretically). But the two seemingly distinct disciplines actually have a storied past, the one informed and impacted by the other. And for my purposes here, storied is the key. Or rather stories, novels that have been catalysts for political action, righting of social wrongs, changes in the law. How can a work of the imagination have such real-world effects? Because stories can do what an unadorned recitation of facts often cannot: elicit empathy, the first step in recognizing the needs of others.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriett Beecher Stowe

Abraham Lincoln called Harriett Beecher Stowe, “the little lady that started this great war.” Perhaps a bit hyperbolic, but not entirely untrue. Lincoln was referring to the fact that Stowe’s novel shook the antebellum public to its core. The terrible facts of slavery had been known for years, but it took Stowe’s depictions, especially of children being ripped from their families—sound familiar?—that sparked enough outrage to turn the tide. Stowe called out to white mothers, in particular, asking them to imagine how they would feel in the same circumstance—“If it were your Harry or Willie that were going to be torn from you by a brutal trader tomorrow morning—how fast could you walk?” Stowe was a product of her time, so some of her portrayals are stereotypical, the most infamous being the acquiescent Uncle Tom himself (though I would argue that’s too simplistic of a reading). But the novel helped to usher in the Civil War and with it the end of slavery.

The Jungle by Upton Sinclair

"I aimed at people’s hearts and, by accident, hit them in the stomach.” That was Sinclair’s response to his novel being instrumental in the formation of the 1906 Federal Meat Inspection Act. In his Chicago-based story, the exploitation of immigrant laborers is the author’s subject in making his case for socialism. But his depictions of the unsanitary conditions in the meatpacking industry were what spoke to readers most, initiating a number of reforms in addition to the Act. His visceral imagery of the stockyards sights and smells not only elicited empathy for the workers that had to endure them but made readers question the healthiness of the meat they consumed. Today salmonella, e-coli and other food-borne illnesses are on the rise, often caused by lax regulations. Meatpackers have also been hit particularly hard by Covid-19. Perhaps it’s time for The Jungle, Part 2.

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck

The Joads. A fictional family of Dust Bowl farmers, devastated by both their unforgiving land and the Great Depression. Traveling from the Midwest to California, they seek a better life. The Joads. Imaginative but iconic. Seared into the memory of many a reader. Steinbeck won a Pulitzer for the 1939 novel, and Bruce Springsteen even paid tribute in his song, “Ghost of Tom Joad.” In creating unique but deeply relatable characters, Steinbeck attempted to expose the appalling conditions of farmworkers, to make readers walk in their hole-ridden shoes. Steinbeck, too, was condemned for his socialist leanings. But Eleanor Roosevelt loved the story, and the book led to hearings on wages and farm regulations. When you drive by pickers—today mostly of Mexican descent—toiling in the fields, look for the ghost of Tom Joad. He’s there still, trying to improve their lot.

The House of God by Samuel Shem

If you have a television, you are undoubtedly bombarded by commercials about pharmaceuticals. Take this pill, and you’ll be okay…if you don’t die from it. Providing patients with such information is a relatively new phenomenon. Doctors used to hold the keys to diagnosis and medication, were trusted as the ones who knew best. But they had their own sordid history, laid out in The House of God, published in 1978. In his satiric novel of hospital life, Shem shows that doctors aren’t the gods we were taught to think they were. In particular, he alerts the public to potential dangers—today we’ve all heard of surgeries gone wrong, drug-resistant infections, and now, of course, overburdened intensive care units. Shem especially shows the harsh working conditions for interns--the brutal schedules and lack of sleep that can lead to mistakes. The book was rebuked by older physicians but led to a reassessment of some intern practices.

About the author:

Ona Russell is teaching Let Me Tell You a Story: Literature and the Law. She first developed the course in 2004 and returns to explore the topic with new students this fall. Joining her in the virtual classroom is her co-instructor, author and lawyer, Dare Delano.

Russell’s newest work was released in September of 2020 and is available everywhere books are sold. Her synopsis is below.

Son of Nothingness by Ona Russell

No, my new novel about a 1940s Chicano attorney with a disappearing leg has not changed the law…yet! But it does grapple with the challenges of dual identity faced by so many hyphenated Americans, then and now. My protagonist, Andrés Martinez, is not an easy man to like, but his story is important, and so I include a few traits that hopefully elicit empathy. He has a parrot, for example, to which he is completely devoted. In part, the narrative is a critique of the American judicial system, how it favors the rich and powerful. But it also exposes a part of U.S. history that tragically is being repeated today. A female character in the book undergoes forced sterilization while in prison simply because she is Mexican. The practice occurred in California in the first part of the twentieth century and was legal. Never, however, could I have imagined the contemporary relevance of the depiction. As recently reported in the news, detained female immigrants at the border have undergone something similar, a tragedy of unimaginable proportions. William Faulkner said the past is never dead: it’s not even past. Unfortunately, he was righter than he knew.

Do you have any favorite novels that were also instrumental in creating change? Tell us about it in the comments.

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