Have people improved the world by writing? Of course.
Every great movement towards freedom, responsibility, economic viability and health has begun with a thinking person who decides to share his or her ideas in compelling ways that last for generations. In the past 200 years, ideas have been more readily available via the written word shared in articles, essays, novels and speeches that inspire action.
Successful writers not only produced work that changed the world in irreparable ways in their time, but they also communicated their ideas so well that succeeding generations re-read their work to get inspired about taking action in modern situations.
In my life, I’ve been particularly interested in pursuing freedom, promoting Canada’s role in the world, strengthening communities, participating as a responsible citizen to improve democracy, expressing creativity through nonfiction, learning how environmental sustainability promotes health, equality and justice, and lessening the gap between rich and poor. So for me, ten people who improved the world by writing are: Victor Hugo, Harriet Beecher Stowe, H. G. Wells, Stephen Leacock, Louise Beebe Wilder, Martha Gellhorn, Marshall McLuhan, E. F. Schumacher, Bill Mollison and Neil Sheehan.
A description of who these writers were, which works I find inspiring, and how each writers’ work remains current follows. Please share some of your writing heroes in the comments below.
Improving the world by protecting heritage
Victor Marie Hugo
February 26, 1802 – May 22, 1885
Victor Marie Hugo is most known for Les Miserables, his ground-breaking play about love and redemption despite poverty, prostitution, slavery and theft, but I fell in love with him after reading his 1831 novel, Notre Dame de Paris.
Notre Dame de Paris centres on non-literary characters in Paris prior to 1500. Hugo wrote the story to protect the cathedral that gives the book its name by emphasizing how many important stories are encased in gothic architecture. In one section (p182), Hugo pits writing against architecture to show the vulnerability of great buildings in a modern age. He wrote:
To destroy the written word, you need only a torch and a Turk. To demolish the constructed word, you need a social revolution or an earthquake. Barbarism swept over the Colosseum; a deluge, perhaps, over the pyramids.
In the fifteenth century everything changed.
Human intelligence discovered a way of perpetuating itself, one not only more durable and more resistant than architecture, but also simpler and easier. Architecture was dethroned. The stone letters of Orpheus gave way to the lead letters of Gutenberg.”
The book was extremely successful when first published in that a full-scale restoration of Notre Dame Cathedral began in 1845. It continued serving its purpose long after Hugo’s death too; architects behind the modern day restoration that began in 1991 also used the novel as inspiration when renovating the building.
Hugo’s speeches about ending capital punishment, freedom of the press and copyright are also thought-provoking.
Another work worth reading is Claude Gueux, a true-crime story that describes how a man became a murderer due to injustice in 1834.
An organization founded by Hugo in 1878 remains active to this day. The International Literary and Artistic Association (ALAI) holds their next annual congress in Copenhagen on May 18 and 19th, 2017. A Canadian chapter also exists, with active membership in Quebec.
Improving the world by promoting social justice
Harriet Beecher Stowe
June 14, 1811 – July 1, 1896
Harriet Beecher Stowe began writing “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” as a series of articles in an anti-slavery newspaper called The National Era. The first story appeared on June 5, 1851 and ended on April 1, 1852.
Times were tense. The U.S. Congress had passed five bills known as “the Compromise” the previous autumn. These laws outlawed the slave trade but allowed individuals to remain slave-holders, required citizens to help catch fugitives, and set up appointed commissioners who determined who was free and who remained a slave. Commissioners were paid twice as much for slaves as they were for those released.
Stowe responded with a story designed to inspire people to join the abolitionist movement. She based each chapter on first-hand accounts, research, and her own efforts to aid runaways trying to get to Canada, where the British-passed Slavery Abolition Act had been in force since August 1, 1834. Among her sources were the memoirs of Reverand Josiah Henson, who used the Underground Railroad to bring his wife and four children to Ontario, Canada in 1830. The site of the community he established houses the Uncle Tom’s Historic Site.
A month before the newspaper series ended, Boston publisher John P. Jewett published the story as a two-edition book that sold 300,000 copies in the United States and a million copies in Great Britain within a year.
Stowe’s one-time home in Hartford Connecticut now houses The Harriet Beecher Stowe Centre. The centre is just finishing a $3.3 million restoration due to be completed later this spring.
Herbert George Wells
September 21, 1866 – August 13, 1946
Although Wells is known for his science fiction, it’s his non-fiction that inspires me. From his 1901 book, Anticipations of the Reaction of Mechanical and Scientific Progress upon Human Life and Thought about the year 2,000, to his 1920 work entitled The Outline of History, which is still in print, to his 1933 The Shape of Things to Come, Well’s overview of history and how it repeats itself is extremely comprehensive. I admire the second work even more since learning that it was partly based on an unpublished work by Canadian Florence Deeks.
I don’t agree with his idea for a World State as argued in his 1940 book, A New World Order but the ideas encompassed in the 1940 booklet The Rights of Man and incorporated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights eight years later are very sound.
Well’s letters and manuscripts are located in the University Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign, which purchased them in 1954.
Stephen P. H. Butler Leacock
December 30, 1869 – March 28, 1944
Stephen Leacock is best known for humour, primarily because of Sunshine Sketches of a Little Town, which was published in 1912 and Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich, published two years later. That legacy remains with the annual Stephen Leacock Award for Humour, a prize that is now worth $15,000 to the winner.
Leacock also published many non-fiction works in politics and history, however, and many make for enlightened reading today.
Of these, Elements of Political Science, which came out in 1906 and then again in 1913, sold best in his lifetime. This basic textbook outlines the classical background to political science and would have been a helpful primer when I began university. It’s one of the few volumes linking Hobbes, Aristotle, international law, economics, history and the evolution of the definition of the state together in a clear insightful way.
I have two other books Leacock wrote. One, Canada, The Foundations of its Future, was published by the House of Seagram in October 1941. Montreal, Seaport and City was published by Doubleday, Doran and Company, Inc. in 1942. Both supply very traditional views of history with a fun dollop of humour. The chapter entitled American Occupation of Montreal, for example, includes a section that reads:
As the Revolution drifted into the past the march became a legend, and heroic accounts were written such as Judge Henry’s ‘Hardships and Sufferings of the Band of Heroes,’ dictated in extreme old age. Such stories tell how the men upset the food in the river, ate their mocccasins, and how a great number deserted. If so, they must have managed very badly. The venerable Canadian historian, Professor Kingsford, who wrote his voluminous pages with the detachment of a mathematician, says that Arnold’s expedition ‘through the wilderness’ was much the same as what Canadians now regard as a camping holiday. The season was just right, too late for flies, too early for winter. The route had all been marked out some years before as a blazed trail by an English military officer. There were no enemies and no casualties. They left friendly people on one side of the divide and found friendly people on the other. Kennebec and Chaudière are still there, and anyone can go and make the portage. If he upsets his canoe and eats his boots he is scarcely a hero.”
Leacock has been criticized for sexism and racism, and his work does include traces of both, but he makes for very entertaining reading nonetheless. He also took on several important issues in his time, including social justice, in which he argued for “adequate food, clothing, education and an opportunity in life” for every child, and conservative economics, in which he argued in favour of the gold standard. I can’t help but agree with him on both counts.
A free audio version of the Unsolved Riddle of Social Justice is available from Librivox.
For nonfiction writers, Leacock is a prime example of how one can ensure that every work includes a very definable voice. I highly recommend him.
Improving the world through positive action
Louise Beebe Wilder
January 30, 1878 – April 20, 1938
How can a prominent journalist and author remain so personally hidden from view while her work continues to inspire gardeners around the world?
That’s the question I ask when confronted with the life of Louise Beebe Wilder, whose ten books about gardening are extremely down-to-earth and practical. She also wrote for Horticulture, House & Garden, and the New York Times, although I haven’t read any of her articles in those outlets. Her founding of the Bronxville Working Gardeners Club in 1925 and the fact she helped run it until her death is the only hint at her activities, and no photos or other personal information is available.
If you’re trying to create a specific flowering garden in, or close to, the Northeast United States, however, her advice will definitely help as long as you’re looking for precise instructions and little story or narrative of any kind.
Consider a passage in What Happens in My Garden that’s typical of her prose:
The phlox masses usually require to be broken up with plants of other forms, such as Globe thistles (echinops), eryngiums, artemesia ‘Silver King’ and A. lactiflora, lyme grass (leymuse), Veronicastrum virginicum (Veronic virginica) and V. subsessilis, sea lavender, the funkias (hostas) and the white gooseneck-flower, Lysmachia cletbroides.”
Such information works very well for individuals looking for specific plants, but isn’t in the least bit revealing about the time or place in which the garden stood, or the people who built it. Still, if you’re a gardener like me, you’ll appreciate Beebe Wilder.
Improving the world by exposing evil
Martha Ellis Gellhorn
November 8, 1908 – February 15, 1998
If you want to learn just a little about the suffering evil causes, read Martha Gellhorn’s article entitled Dachau Experimental Evil, which appeared in Collier’s Magazine on June 23, 1945.
Behind the barbed wire and the electric fence, the skeletons sat in the sun and searched themselves for lice. They have no age and no faces; and like nothing you will ever see if you are lucky. We crossed the wide crowded dusty compound between the prison barracks and went to the hospital. In the hall sat more of the skeletons and from them came the smell of disease and death. They watched us but did not move: No expression shows on a face that is only yellowish stubbly skin stretched across bone.”
Gellhorn covered the depression in the thirties, the rise of fascism in Europe and wars in Spain, Vietnam, El Salvador and Nicaragua.
She also penned several books, including one I own called Travels with Myself and Another that serves as a sort of breathless memoir of the world. The book’s title refers to Ernest Hemingway, who appears in the book as UC or unwilling companion, although I only know that via Wikepedia. He’s not at all important to the story except as a place-marker to time. In this memoir, China became a very odd place thanks to Gellhorn’s description of discussions with a man named Mr. Ma. She reduced Africa to five encounters in an unforgettable landscape, making readers join her in feeling sorry for the animals. Moscow’s complications became evident via conversations with people she didn’t like. In many ways, the book reads like a compendium of blog posts and reminds nonfiction writers how voice and content combine to make lots of complex information easily digestible.
A Martha Gellhorn Prize for Journalism used to exist in the United Kingdom, but it wasn’t funded in 2015 or 2016. I hope they revive it for 2017.
Improving the world by explaining patterns
Herbert Marshall McLuhan
July 21, 1911 – December 31, 1980
Herbert Marshall McLuhan has become famous as the key academic who explained the Age of Information despite dying prior to the existance of the World Wide Web.
For me, his key work is Understanding Media, a book published in 1964. He makes several points about how the-then electronic technology changed not only how people think, but who they can be and how such a process will continue throughout time as more and more new technologies extend of human capacities.
On page 128, he writes:
Lighting as an extension of our powers affords the clearest-cut example of how such extensions alter our perceptions. If people are inclined to doubt whether the wheel or typography or the plane could change our habits of sense perception, their doubts end with electric lighting. In this domain, the medium is the message, and when the light is on there is a world of sense that disappears when the light is off.”
Understanding Media forecasts gamification, issues with student drop-outs and the destruction of conventional forms of the press. It remains a very worthwhile read.
McLuhan’s estate runs a webpage with an almost-daily blog post that ensures that his work remains relevant.
Ernst Friedrich Schumacher
August 19, 1911 – September 4, 1977
E. F. Schumacher lived in Britain, New York and Germany prior to World War II, but moved back to Britain from Germany before war broke out. He then spent twenty years promoting the coal industry, thirty years as president of the soil association (an organic gardening movement) and wrote.
His most popular work was a 1973 treatise called Small is Beautiful. Subtitled “A study of economics as if people mattered,” the work argues against globalization, rampant chemical use, colonial-style development and nationalism in ways that designed for modern consumption. Consider his anti-development argument on page 163, for instance.
Anyone who has taken the trouble to look systematically at actual ‘development’ projects – instead of merely studying development plans and econometric models – knows of countless such cases: soap factories producing luxury soap by such sensitive processes that only highly refined materials can be used, which must be imported at high prices while the local raw materials are exported at low prices; food-processing plants; packing stations; motorisation, and so on – all on the rich man’s pattern. In many cases, local fruit goes to waste because the consumer allegedly demands quality standards which relate solely to eye-appeal and can be met only by fruit imported from Australia or California where the application of an immense science and a fantastic technology ensures that every apple is of the same size and without the slightest visible blemish. The examples could be multiplied without end. Poor countries slip – and are pushed – into the adoption of production methods and consumption standards which destroy the possibilities of self-reliance and self-help. The results are unintentional neocolonialism and hopelessness for the poor.”
Today, we are at the point where even developed countries striving for self-sufficiency are challenged, not by the governments of richer countries, but instead by multi-national corporations that benefit from rights that supersede government regulation.
Bruce Charles “Bill” Mollison
May 4, 1928 – September 24, 2016
As a certified permaculture designer, I was sorry to read about Bill Mollison’s death last September. The principles that inspire me were developed by Mollison and David Holmgren in 1974. Their principals insist that one work with nature, observe before acting and consider how systematic functions evolve before coming up with a design for a space or a life.
My favourite work by Mollison is his 1988 Permaculture, A Designers’ Manual. His preface begins:
To many of us who experienced the ferment of the late 1960’s, there seemed to be no positive direction forward, although almost everybody could define those aspects of the global society that they rejected, and these include military adventurism, the bomb, ruthless land exploitation, the arrogance of polluters, and a general insensitivity to human and environmental needs…Great changes are taking place. These are not as a result of any one group or teaching, but as a result of millions of people defining one or more ways in which they can conserve energy, aid local self-reliance, or provide for themselves. All of us would acknowledge our own work as modest; it is the totality of such modest work that is impressive.”
Joining in the work of Mollison feels like a sacred trust.
Cornelius Mahoney “Neil” Sheehan
Born: Oct 27, 1936
I first learned about Neil Sheehan, the reporter who received the Pentagon Papers from Daniel Ellsburg and made sure they were published by the New York Times, from the book Without Fear or Favor, a history of the New York Times by Harrison E. Salisbury. He was the key focus of a chapter called “A Question of Trust.”
It was these characteristics of devotion to detail, bulldog tenacity, of an almost perfect nose for news coupled with that fire in the belly which for centuries kept the Irish cause aglow in which was rooted Sheehan’s great project.”
Sheehan specializes in telling complicated stories about intrigue and politics. He is co-credited with helping expose a South Vietnamese cover-up in 1963. He also earned a Pulitzer for his book, A Bright Shining Lie: John Paul Vann and America in Vietnam, in 1986. His story about the Cold War, called A Fiery Peace in a Cold War, came out in 2009. Both of these books are impressive models for how one can use a single narrative to make complicated points about a specific war.
Do you know of others who improved the world by writing?
I hope that you have a chance to check out the work of each of these writers and that they will also inspire you. If you have other notable non-fiction mentors, let me know in the comments below.