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?

Poetry makes nothing happen, opined W.H. Auden. The greatest poem in English, Paradise Lost, has shaped many people’s understanding of Christian myth. It served as evidence that English could rise to the heights of Greek and Latin and therefore justified (along with Shakespeare) the invention of a national literature and culture during the 18th century. It was historically hugely important – but it is impossible to show that it changed history.

The rare literary works that might have participated in historical change are not necessarily of the first order. ‘So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war’, Abraham Lincoln supposedly said to Harriet Beecher Stowe when he met her in 1862. He was referring to her (sentimental) novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, credited with arousing abolitionist zeal. And he was joking, knowing the deeper causes of the American Civil War.

There have been great works of literature that carry religious or political force. Before the 20th century, Pilgrim’s Progress was the most widely known work of fiction in the English language. Over the centuries, many ordinary believers have sworn by it, but no one can show that it shaped events. George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four imagined the inner logic of totalitarian egalitarianism. But did it make anything happen? Both these books still exert their power. Literature does not change the course of history; it does something more miraculous: it survives the course of history.


‘Literature does not function as if it were a sword or a match’

Marion Turner, Professor of English Literature at Jesus College, Oxford and author of Chaucer: A European Life (Princeton University Press, 2019)

The idea that there is a course of history that can be changed implies that history is a river, set to flow in a particular direction unless it is wrenched into a different route. In this concept of history, a book might come along so dramatic that it alters an otherwise inevitable series of events. Suddenly, Piers Plowman appears and makes the peasants revolt; Richard II is performed and causes Essex’s rebellion; Lady Chatterley is banned and finally published, and the sexual revolution is sparked. 

I don’t think literature – or history – works quite like this. History does not progress down an already laid-out track. And literature does not function as if it were a sword or a match, immediately ‘causing’ something else to happen. Maybe the question that is really being asked is does literature matter? Does it make a difference? 

Christine de Pizan, a French writer who lived in the 14th and 15th centuries, tells an anecdote about a man who kept reading the bestseller of the day – a poem called Le Roman de la Rose. This poem is about a lover laying siege to a woman’s virginity and is full of antifeminist commonplaces and misogynist stereotypes. Christine tells us that this reader would work himself up into fury against women as he read and would then beat his wife. Chaucer’s fictional Wife of Bath tells a similar story about her own life, recounting how her husband read about legendary evil women in his Book of Wikked Wives and ultimately hit her. In these examples, the weight of antifeminist literature causes domestic violence and, more broadly, encourages certain ways of thinking about and judging women. 

Literature and life intersect: as the great historian Georges Duby wrote, ‘human beings do not orient their behaviour toward real events and circumstances, but rather to their image of them’. If literature overwhelmingly treats women, or gay people, or people of colour, in one way, that has serious ramifications for society and behaviour. When more voices are heard in literature, when women, for instance, tell their stories too, the arc of history bends more towards justice. 


‘Jonathan Swift had reason to be sanguine that his writing could effect change’

Judith Hawley, Professor of 18th-Century Literature at Royal Holloway, University of London

In the preface to his most famous satire, Jonathan Swift’s alter-ego, Lemuel Gulliver, complains: ‘I cannot learn that my Book hath produced one single Effect according to mine Intentions.’ Yet Swift had reason to be sanguine that his writing could effect change, in government policy if not in human nature. 

In 1724, two years prior to publishing Gulliver’s Travels, his Drapier’s Letters were extraordinarily successful in overturning an unpopular government policy. Posing as a shopkeeper, one ‘M.B. Drapier’, Swift wrote a series of seven pamphlets that attacked the award of a patent to mint copper ha’pennies in Ireland to William Wood, an English entrepreneur. The substance of his argument was that the coinage was debased and would destroy the Irish economy, that the contract had been obtained by bribery and was another attempt by Robert Walpole’s corrupt government to limit the freedom of Ireland. It was greatly aided by the appropriate styles he adopted when he appealed to separate groups of the Irish populace. The tide of sentiment he unleashed and directed forced the government to cancel Wood’s patent. His success earned him the name ‘The Hibernian Patriot’, though he was more antagonistic to the Whig government than sympathetic to the Irish.

In 1711 Swift achieved an even more spectacular change in the course of history, this time while writing for the Tory ministry led by Robert Harley. In a 96-page anonymously published pamphlet, The Conduct of The Allies, Swift attacked the grounds and conduct of the War of Spanish Succession. He argued that Britain had ceded too much power to its European allies, receiving little in return, and that the war was prosecuted to further the interests of the Whig grandees, especially the Marlborough family, and of the emerging monied classes at the expense of the Church and landed interests. Swift turned the tide of debate and hastened the end of the war. While it might be argued that this pamphlet is more propaganda than literature, it is certainly the case that Swift demonstrated the power that a writer can have in steering the course of history.


Ulysses cultivates an aura of being on the right side of history’

Katy Mullin, Senior lecturer in English at the University of Leeds

In the second chapter of Ulysses, James Joyce’s alter ego Stephen Dedalus tells his employer Mr Deasy that ‘History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.’ Deasy – a cantankerous Unionist antisemite – is on the wrong side of history. Yet Ulysses cultivates an aura of being on the right side through keynotes of peculiar prophesy. Although the novel is set on 16 June 1904, and invested in the micro-history of a single day, it nonetheless anticipates the future. Literature might not change the course of history, but it can certainly help us make sense of it.

Ulysses – 100 years old this February – predicts Irish history in foreshadowing Sinn Féin’s transformation from a niche newspaper edited by Arthur Griffith in 1904 to a political movement achieving Irish independence in 1922. The novel’s protagonist, Leopold Bloom, admires Griffith to the extent that drinkers in Barney Kiernan’s pub start a rumour that ‘it was Bloom gave the ideas for Sinn Féin to Griffith to put in his paper’. Bloom’s wife Molly underlines her husband’s political prescience: ‘He says that little man he showed me without the neck is very intelligent the coming man Griffith is he well he doesnt look it thats all I can say.’ 

Bloom’s ‘coming man’ became president of the Irish Free State in January 1922, a mere fortnight before Ulysses’ publication. Griffith’s significance on Bloomsday 1904 is one instance of Joyce’s crystal ball. Drafting the novel in Zurich, Trieste and Paris between 1915 and 1922, he profited from hindsight to foreshadow coming events. If Ulysses does not actually change the course of history, it gives the unsettling illusion of doing so. This uncanny quality accords with Joyce’s sense of history as narrative. As Stephen puts it when struggling to teach reluctant schoolboys, ‘history was a tale like any other’.  

A century from its first publication, Ulysses’ transformative effect on literary history is now a commonplace. Its significance in legal history was assured in 1933, when the US Judge John M. Woolsey overturned its obscene status in a ruling quickly understood as a test case for freedom of expression. Ulysses’ masquerade of prophesy perhaps most clearly shows the impact of history on even the most progressive literature, but also that fiction can point the way forward.