The other day, I received a letter from my teenage niece. In response to me telling her about some of the leftist organizing I’ve been doing, she replied that the only protest she does is through her writings for English class, and how few people she was able to reach with that. This got me thinking about the revolutionary novel and how sometimes it is easier to reach people through a story than through theory. In particular it made me think of this passage from The Grapes of Wrath, a novel I consider one of the most profound depictions of the conditions that lead to social change.
One man, one family driven from the land; this rusty car creaking along the highway to the west. I lost my land, a single tractor took my land. I am alone and I am bewildered. And in the night one family camps in a ditch and another family pulls in and the tents come out. The two men squat on their hams and the women and children listen. Here is the node, you who hate chance and fear revolution. Keep these two men squatting apart; make them hate, fear, suspect each other. Here is the anlage of the thing you fear. This is the zygote. For here “I lost my land” is changed; a cell is split and from its splitting grows the thing you hate–“We lost our land.” The danger is here, for two men are not as lonely and perplexed as one. And from this first “we” there grows a still more dangerous thing: “I have a little food” plus “I have none.” If from this problem the sum is “We have a little food,” the thing is on its way, the movement has direction. Only a little multiplication now, and this land, this tractor are ours. The two men squatting in a ditch, the little fire, the side-meat stewing in a single pot, the silent, stone-eyed women; behind, the children listening with their souls to words their minds do not understand. The night draws down. The baby has a cold. Here, take this blanket. It’s wool. It was my mother’s blanket–take it for the baby. This is the thing to bomb. This is the beginning–from “I” to “we.”
If you who own the things people must have could understand this, you might preserve yourself. If you could separate the causes from the results, if you could know that Paine, Marx, Jefferson, Lenin, were results, not causes, you might survive. But that you cannot know. For the quality of owning freezes you forever into “I,” and cuts you off forever from the “we.”
Marx and Bakunin and Kropotkin have never spoken to me as simply and as straightforwardly as that passage does. There are humans in that passage. There are not workers or proletariat, but men and women and children. They are not the means of the production, but people camping by the roadside, cooking their dinner, creating revolution in simple acts of solidarity.
Some of the other works of fiction that speak similarly are:
“The Yellow Wallpaper” by Charlotte Perkins Gilman. This short story about a woman forced to undertake a bedrest cure for depression, who ultimately sees a woman struggling to break free from behind what looks like bars in the yellow wallpaper of the room she’s confined to is a feminist classic. What happens to women who don’t fit into society’s molds? What if the people who care about us and love us best are enabling our confinement and seclusion from the world around us until we do fit into those molds? And what happens to the woman stuck behind those bars?
The Monkeywrench Gang by Edward Abbey. This novel about a group of people out to avenge the natural world for the injustices committed against it is a bit over-masculine (despite one of its protagonists being a woman and a feminist), but did inspire groups like Earth First! Watching the gang destroy the mechanisms that destroy the world around us is a cathartic experience (even if it’s not the best-written thing ever).
1984 by George Orwell. When I walk down the streets in New York City, I count the security cameras I see. I read the user agreements of the Xbox Kinect about how the cameras inside it (inside your living room, too!) own everything they record. I see advertisements for how the bus lanes in NYC are now camera enforced (the ads say, “Smiling won’t help you!”). And again and again I come back to this book. And how Big Brother watches us more and more every day.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. Supposedly when Abraham Lincoln met Stowe, he said (oh, how condescending men can be!), “So you’re the little lady who started all this trouble.” This book is credited with laying the actual groundwork for the Civil War. Beat that.
Fire On the Mountain by Terry Bisson. One of my absolute favorite revolutionary novels. In it, John Brown enlists the help of Harriet Tubman and succeeds in the raid on Harper’s Ferry. They set up a rebel army in the Appalachian Mountains which eventually succeeds in the freeing of all slaves. In this alternate history, the real-life outcome of the Civil War was a failure by comparison. (I also get some hometown pride moments when the Molly Maguires, a secret society of Irish Coal Miners in Pennsylvania, join the ranks of the rebel army.)