Wall, children, whar dar is so much racket dar must be somethin- out of kilter. -- Soujourner Truth (1797-1883)
With the world "out of kilter," is it the responsibility of literary artists to make a "racket" with literature? Certainly, in writing works of protest literature, writers like Harriet Beecher Stowe, Charles Dickens, Henry David Thoreau, and Upton Sinclair brought about real-world changes that lasted far beyond their lives. As William James once wrote, "The great use of life is to spend it for something that will outlast it."
But, how did these writers manage to reach out? How did they make a difference? And did anything really change?
Writing As Communication
When we write, we reach out to other human beings, hoping they'll understand and perhaps that they will respond. But, literature is much more than simple communication. "Communication may be made in broken words," Robert Louis Stevenson writes, but "that is not what we call literature."
The true business of a literary artist is, as Stevenson says, "to plait or weave meaning, involving it around itself; so that each sentence, by successive phrases, shall first come into a kind of knot, and then, after a moment of suspended meaning, solve and clear itself."
In the interweaving of words and meaning, writers use literature as a form of protest, perhaps because they want to make a difference, because they want to reach the masses, or because they recognize the great power of creating literature. As Baron Lytton said, "The pen is mightier than the sword." And, with the might of the written word, writers attempt to affect real-world changes.
If writing is "the act of discovering what we believe," as David Hare suggests, then protest literature is a logical outcome. When writers discover what they believe, and then see that the actions of the governmental and industrial organizations are at odds with fundamental beliefs about human rightness, they strike out with essays, books and poetry against human injustice and oppression.