The literary dissident Alexander Solzhenitsyn once wrote that ordinary individuals have a responsibility to "not participate" in lies, but it is "within the power of writers and artists to do much more: to defeat the lie!" His works, and those of other seminal writers, testify to that truth.
Mr. Solzhenitsyn, who died late on Sunday, spent years in Joseph Stalin's chilling slave labor camps. But by writing about these secret camps in his fiction and nonfiction, he helped to liberate his country from the lie of despotism.
His literary labors did not have a direct cause and effect in the downfall of the Soviet Union. But his most famous works, "One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich" (fiction) and the "Gulag Archipelago" trilogy (nonfiction), arguably did more than any other writings to make the slow boil of Soviet-bloc discontent – and nonconsent – boil over and eventually force out communist rule by 1991.
Persistent and courageous, this Nobel Prize winner in literature paid for his truth-telling with imprisonment and exile. After returning to Russia in 1994, he complained that most Russians hadn't read his books. But enough people had – both inside and outside his motherland – to make a difference. His books have sold nearly 30 million copies.
As he knew, the power of the pen to move and change thought lies in its message. The truth of the written word can work in human consciousness to help it climb further. From purely religious works such as the Bible, or the writings of the founder of this newspaper, Mary Baker Eddy, to novels such as Harriet Beecher Stowe's "Uncle Tom's Cabin," the idea that people have rights based on their innate freedom and equality can move mountains.
A text's earthshaking ability starts with exposing lies, capturing public attention – often through storytelling. Beecher Stowe's sister-in-law wrote to her to encourage her to use her narrative skills in the cause of abolition: "If I could use a pen as you can, I would write something that would make this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is." The abolitionist ended up writing a book that helped loose the chains of slavery in America.
After the rooting out of the lie comes the sowing of the truth. Betty Friedan did that with her 1964 bestseller, "The Feminine Mystique," which expanded the concept of individual freedom to millions of American women. Women didn't need to feel guilty by asking themselves such questions as "Who am I, and what do I want out of life?" she wrote in a work that futurist Alvin Toffler once said "pulled the trigger on history."
Marine biologist and writer Rachel Carson built on the work of other writers to expose the untruth that mankind is apart from our surroundings. In her 1962 "Silent Spring," which tracked the effect of pesticides, she showed the connection between people and the environment. Her book advanced the environmental movement.
As Solzhenitsyn correctly observed, writers do have the power to defeat a lie. These days, that influence may come more often through a screenplay or the Internet (his worry about reach is relevant). But as long as it's the truth that's being put forth – and in a compelling way – even a writer can help expose the worst of despotism.