In Transit

Literature and Engagement:

The Power of Words


Russell Banks


Novelists, story-writers, and poets have nearly always positioned themselves in support of justice, human rights, and equality. As individuals, that is. As citizens of a particular nation or even as citizens of the world. And on those occasions when they have taken up their pens as journalists and essayists, they have inevitably written in defense of humanity against the forces of… well, the forces of inhumanity. In general, when they speak out as individuals, this is true also of philosophers and scientists, of musicians, of social scientists, and so on - the intelligentsia. And why not? For who among us would position himself against justice, human rights, and equality? It’s an easy vote to cast, no matter what your political party or ideology or religion happens to be.

But a novel is not a vote, and a novelist writing is not a voter or, for that matter, a citizen of a particular nation or of the world. Not when he is writing his novels. And he is certainly not a politician. Nor is he a political activist working for change, writing in support of a policy or set of policies or of candidates for office. A novelist writing is simply a person sitting alone in a room with his sentences, composing them by the thousands one at a time, learning from each new sentence that he writes what the next sentence will be. The novelist speaks for no one but himself and writes solely to penetrate what would otherwise remain mysterious to him, morally or metaphysically or socially, or all three- mysterious and impenetrable, except by means of the silent, solitary act of writing a novel, this novel, the one at hand. And the very same conditions will prevail when, after finishing this novel, he sits down in his room and begins to write another.

Perhaps this is why, in the nearly three-hundred-year history of American literature, only one novel has managed to be a significant force for social change. Ï speak of Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, published in 1852, a runaway best-seller that electrified the anti- slavery movement and brought into the Abolitionist fold thousands of decent white Americans who, until they read her novel, had not known where they stood on the greatest moral question we Americans have had to face. When towards the end of the Civil War Stowe was introduced at the White House to President Lincoln, he said, “So this is the little lady who started this great big war.” Which was not exactly true, of course, as she did not wish for war, merely the end of slavery, but her novel certainly helped start it.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a mawkish melodrama. Because we all now know where we stand on the question of slavery, it is not much read today, except in high schools and colleges, usually as part of the curriculum concerned with the Abolitionist movement and the causes of the Civil War. It’s not read as literature, as a work of art. Probably it never was, not even when it was first published. It was read as argument, a powerful argument against the enslavement of three million African-Americans. In a broad, sentimental, two-dimensional way, by means of a simple, highly contrived story, fussy Victorian prose, and a cast of stereotyped white and black characters, the novel, in spite of its aesthetic and artistic limitations, humanized for white Americans a people that had been de-humanized, thus making the argument against slavery convincing for those hundreds of thousands of readers of popular fiction who up to that point had not thought much about the subject or whose opinions on the subject had depended upon the received opinions of their political leaders and clergy and other public spokesmen and women.

In spite of its importance in the history of race in America, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is not a novel I would like to have written. There have been many like it, and there will be many more, I’m sure, novels that in the interests of justice, human rights, and equality aspire to inspire significant political or social change -“protest novels,” we call them. They are written with as close an eye on the audience as the most calculating best-seller, for more honorable reasons, of course. A true novelist, that is to say, one who aspires to create a work of narrative art, has no thought of his or her audience. At least not when he or she is a novelist writing. Later, perhaps, when one has gone from being a novelist writing to being an Author, one thinks of his audience, naturally- usually with anxiety, because it’s too late by then to change anything. But not while actually engaged in the writing of the novel. Not when submitting oneself to the discipline and rigor and tradition of the history of the form, which require that one be at all times wholly honest and non-judgmental and as intelligent as possible -that one be, as Henry James prescribed, a person “on whom nothing is lost.”

Yet if the only kind of novel that seems capable of fostering change in the larger world is the protest-novel, an argument disguised as a story, propaganda- for good or ill, it matters not- wrapped in narrative, why have so few serious literary artists deigned to write them? They can’t be that difficult to write. And why, then, do we agree with the great Englishman, Samuel Johnson, who in the eighteenth century declared in the Preface to his dictionary that “the chief glory of every people arises from its authors”? He did not mean ornamental glory, after all, a cultural bauble whose existence points to its owner’s good taste and refinement. He meant that a people’s expression of its essential nature depends upon its authors, its poets, story-tellers, and novelists. For better or worse.

The true task of the novelist is to dramatize first for himself and ultimately for the rest of us what it is to be human in our time and for all time, in our place and for every place. The history of the novel from Cervantes to Rushdie and DeLillo shows us this. Our rulers and moral arbiters would have us believe that human beings are fundamentally either right or wrong, good or evil, and that our behavior and beliefs, therefore, are meant to be ruled and arbitrated by others who, by virtue of their office, education, class, or birthright, are more qualified to judge our behavior and beliefs than we ourselves are.

In as much as the novelist in the act of writing his novels opposes this view, he or she is a saboteur of received opinion. The serious novelist (who is often, perhaps usually, comic), by example and through his art, affirms the transcendent value of the individual and that individual’s private consciousness of being briefly alive and not permanently dead. In this sense, and it is a crucially defining sense, for as long as human beings tell stories to themselves and to one another, the novelist is committed to a life of opposition, of speaking truth to power, of challenging and overthrowing received wisdom. This is why so many of them have been censored, imprisoned, exiled, or even killed. The novelist does not speak in his books for others; the novelist listens to others. Especially to those who otherwise would go unheard. The novelist does not step forward in public to be seen by others; he sees others. Especially those who otherwise would remain invisible. And by his example, as well as by the work itself, he inspires others to listen and to see.

If by means of a novel the individual human being and his or her consciousness of being alive on this planet for a few flickering days or years or decades are signified- are made significant- then those who would deny that significance and all the rights and privileges that go with it will be exposed as deaf and blind at best and as criminals at worst. The individual human being might be anyone- rich or poor, white or black, Christian or Muslim or Jew. He might be you. But when we enter the fictional world of the novel in which he resides and live with him there for the duration, we will never see or hear his representative on earth again in the same way. Things don’t really change at the center; they merely get renovated. The bloody century just ended has taught us that much at least. Change occurs only at the edges, one human being at a time. And it occurs most significantly and in a viral, exponential way by means of words. Words made into sentences, sentences made into stories, stories made into novels.