Man Without Qualities

Thursday, June 01, 2006

A Good And Convenient Answer To A Recurring Question

From time to time one sees posed a question along these lines:

Has any work of art substantially changed history?

What normally follows is a series of answers and observations along the lines of "well, I don't know about changing history, but such and such piece of art changed my life" or "I don't know of any particular work of art that changed history, but so-and-so was an artist who had a personal effect on histoy." But these are not what the question asks.

There is a good example of a work of art that probably profoundly changed both American and world history, and whose effects continue to be felt today: Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe.

It was widely believed in 1860, and is still widely believed by American historians today, that Uncle Tom's Cabin was a highly material cause of the election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency of the United States. Of course, there is never a single cause of such an event. But Ms. Stowe's book was and is believed to be an important cause.

The election of Mr. Lincoln, of course, directly precipitated the American Civil War, the ultimate end of American slavery, and the consolidation of the American federal republic into a vastly more unified state than the semistable near-confederacy that prevailed antebellum.

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