Has Literature Ever Changed the Course of History?

On the 100th anniversary of its publication, James Joyce’s Ulysses is widely regarded as a groundbreaking work of fiction, but can literature have any impact outside the confines of culture? 

Cover from ‘The Makers of Modern Literature Series’, 1941. The New York Public Library.

‘The rare literary works that might have participated in historical change are not necessarily of the first order’

John Mullan, Lord Northcliffe Chair of Modern English Literature at University College London

Books have changed the course of history, but has literature? We should not cheat, by calling, say, the King James Bible a work of literature. Let us discount everything but fiction, drama and poetry. Melvyn Bragg’s 12 Books that Changed the World had only one literary work on its list: Shakespeare’s First Folio, published in 1623. The imaginations of millions of people have been influenced by Shakespeare’s characters and plots. Where would our understanding of introspection be without Hamlet, our understanding of evil without Macbeth? But would history have been any different without it?

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