Revolution and Revolt

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Revolution and Revolt


Thomas Jefferson once said "Let them take arms … What signifies a few lives lost in a century or two? The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots [and] tyrants. It is its natural manure." Jefferson, a member of the political establishment, firmly believed in regular, radical change in government. He wrote the above lines (quoted in Nathan Schachner's book Thomas Jefferson, A Biography) in 1787 in response to Shay's Rebellion, a small revolt that had occurred in Massachusetts the year before. The same year he wrote in another letter (quoted in Schachner), "I hold it, that a little rebellion, now and then, is a good thing, [and] as necessary in the political world as storms in the physical…. It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government."

Revolution has long been a way of changing society by forcing governments to change policy, by resisting the rule of foreign powers, or by wholly overthrowing and replacing governments. And revolts are almost always accompanied by literature. Literature can inspire revolution. The written word can be the spark that starts a revolutionary fire. Literature has always emerged from dissent and thrived on conflict, and both war and revolution have forever been cauldrons for the creation of literature. But literature does not just incite revolutions. It analyzes them, too. One system ends and another begins and someone, historically, feels compelled to examine why it happened and explore what it means. The approach writers have taken toward revolution vary as greatly as the writers themselves, but most works about revolts can be placed into the following categories: Literature as Call to Revolution; Literature as Witness to Revolution; Literature that Looks Back at Revolution; Literature as Warning; and Private Revolutions.

Literature as Call to Revolution

One source of revolution is idealism. Revolutionaries are often seen as idealists, visionaries, or even madmen. They see a world that needs to be remade and by some private effort try to remake it. For revolutionary writers, this usually means analyzing a situation and trying to inspire individuals to take up the fight. It may also mean risking one's own neck. The British poet W. H. Auden did just that. In 1937, he traveled to Spain to support the leftist Loyalist cause in the Spanish Civil War, a battle that is often called a preview of World War II. Auden was young, radical, idealistic, and talented. As a result of this wartime experience, he wrote "Spain, 1937."

The poem is a summation of history and a vision of the future, but most importantly it is a present call to action, with its repetition of the line, "But to-day the struggle." The struggle is about the defeat of fascist forces in Spain, but it is also more. The struggle is for the triumph of an idea, for a more just world. Auden spoke for thousands of idealists who left home and traveled to Spain to fight against fascism and for an ideal. "They floated over the oceans; / They walked the passes: to present their lives," he wrote. The poem is, in the end, a powerful song of idealism, a call to battle, and a call to remake civilization.

Ernesto "Che" Guevara called for action, too, though in a far more practical form. While Auden called somewhat generally for people to remake society, Guevara wrote a handbook explaining how to actually remake it. His Guerrilla Warfare is literally a how-to manual for operating a revolution or insurgency. Guevara had far more experience in war and insurgency than Auden. In 1959, he helped Fidel Castro seize power in Cuba, and then helped Castro build a new Cuban state. However, Guevara was not content to stay in Cuba. He wanted to foster revolution in other countries, so he wrote his book and tried, albeit unsuccessfully, to put insurgency into practice in places like Congo and Bolivia. In the end, his commitment killed him, a common end for many revolutionaries. Guevara was captured and executed by the Bolivian military.

Literature as Witness to Revolution

While some writers are active in revolution, others simply observe. One such witness was American John Reed. Reed, a Harvard-educated journalist, was also an idealist. He was a member of the Communist Party and was in Russia during the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. Unlike Guevara, though, Reed did not take part in the revolution. He merely watched, though he was clearly sympathetic to it. His book Ten Days That Shook the World attempted, in his own words, to present "a slice of intensified history—history as I saw it." As a friend of the Bolshevik leadership, he was able to report from up close as Russia threw off the shackles of the past and stepped into what appeared to be an idealistic future. Reed made no attempt to hide his enthusiasm:

It is still fashionable, after a whole year of the Soviet Government, to speak of the Bolshevik insurrection as an 'adventure.' Adventure it was, and one of the most marvelous mankind ever embarked upon, sweeping into history at the head of the toiling masses, and staking everything on their vast and simple desires.

Given what followed, the book seems almost naïve today. Reed offers no sense that time may prove him terribly wrong and that the revolution, justified as it was, might unleash something even more deadly than what it replaced. Revolutions are about turning over the old order. There is no guarantee that they will provide something better in the long run.

Irish poet William Butler Yeats was a more cautionary witness to rebellion. Yeats was active in Irish nationalist politics at the turn of the twentieth century when Ireland was still under British rule. He was part of both the literary and revolutionary circles of the time. On April 24, 1916, Easter Monday, Irish nationalists, many of whom Yeats knew personally, revolted. They took over the Dublin post office and other parts of the city. The revolt lasted five days and killed hundreds on both sides of the barricades. Its leaders were later tried and executed by the British. Yeats was not in Dublin at the time of the rebellion, but a few months later he wrote a poem about it titled "Easter, 1916." In the poem, Yeats clearly views the insurrection with mixed feelings. He is appalled by the needless deaths of his friends but what astonishes him is how seemingly ordinary people came to act so heroically and so violently. He is amazed that these people, who he has "met … at close of day / Coming with vivid faces / From counter or desk among grey / Eighteenth-century houses," are the same as those martyred for the cause of Ireland. They are "changed utterly," he writes. These ordinary people will be remembered forever in Ireland as heroes. The revolt failed but the revolution succeeded. Irish independence came just five years later in 1921.

Looking Back at Revolution

Most writers neither inspire nor witness revolution. They take their interest from a distance, looking back and depicting and analyzing what happened, to some literary purpose. Revolution provides great narrative material for writers. One of the most famous is French novelist Victor Hugo. Hugo was himself a revolutionary who took part in the 1848 revolution in France, and afterwards he was forced to live in exile. It was while in exile that he wrote Les Misérables. In the novel, Hugo described another revolt, the failed Paris revolt of 1832. It is an overtly political novel aimed at criticizing an unjust society and the inequality of the classes. Hugo was long a supporter of what we today call human rights. His goal in writing the novel seems nothing short of finding a path to redemption for an entire unjust nation.

In All Soul's Rising (1995), American novelist Madison Smartt Bell looks at the past for a different reason. He presents a fictional account of the only genuinely successful slave revolt in colonial history. The book is the first in a completed trilogy about the events of the time. Modern-day Haiti was then a French colony called Saint Domingue. The rebellion began in 1791 with a former slave named Touissant L'Ouverture emerging as its leader in 1793. By 1801 he had stabilized the country and even invited white land-owners back, and by 1804 Haiti was an independent country. The novel is a glimpse into a society breaking into the new world during and after a revolution. Besides its simple narrative appeal, Bell's purpose in examining the time is an exploration of racial conflict during the time of slavery in early colonial America. Despite the fact that Haiti was a French colony, there is clearly an attempt at reflecting America's experience with slavery and racial strife.

Gloria Miklowitz also goes well back in time for her dramatic narrative of war and revolution. Her young adult novel Masada: The Last Fortress retells the story of the last stand made by Jewish Zealots against their Roman colonial rulers in the first century a.d. Miklowitz sets the story in the fortress at Masada, in what is today Israel. After Jerusalem fell to the Romans in 70 a.d., some 1,000 Jews took refuge in the fortress. The besieged Zealots held out for two years against the siege of the Roman Tenth Legion. Miklowitz brings this rebellion to life through the eyes of seventeen-year-old Simon ben Eleazar, son of the Zealot leader. In addition, she provides a historic glimpse through the eyes of the Roman commander. Through imaginative literature, the reader is able to see the failed revolt from both sides of the walls that separated the warring factions.

Michael Pearson has yet another motive for examining the past. A historian, Pearson takes a revolution and looks at it fully from the opposite side, that is, from that of established power. Specifically, in Those Damned Rebels: The American Revolution as Seen through British Eyes, he gives the reader the British view of the American Revolution. He employs actual documents of the time to present a perspective rarely seen on the events of 1776 and by so doing, provides a form of eyewitness account of events deep in the past. He shows that the period, for what was a major revolution in America in terms of the building of a nation, was seen at the time as a relatively minor defeat for the British monarchy.

Literature as Warning

The literature of revolution looks forward as well. It can serve as warning of what might come to pass. The novella "Benito Cereno," by Herman Melville, is just such a story. Writing in the early 1850s, Melville set his story of a fictional rebellion in 1799, the time of the Haitian slave rebellion. Nonetheless, Melville was not merely interested in analyzing the past. Given the story's publication date of 1856—five years before the start of the American Civil War—Melville certainly had in mind a kind of warning of what was about to engulf the United States. The novella takes the form of a mystery, with an American sea captain visiting a disabled slave ship. He is surprised to find the slaves unshackled, the Spanish crew largely dead and the Spanish captain, Don Benito Cereno, oddly subdued yet impolite. Cereno seems almost mad at times and is continually accompanied by his small black servant Babo. The American captain, unaware that a slave rebellion has taken place, is alternately puzzled and suspicious of what he sees. He does not realize that Benito Cereno is playing a part under threat of death at the hands of Cereno's servant, who is in reality the rebellion leader. Eventually the truth is revealed and the rebellious slaves are captured, though tellingly, "Benito Cereno" ends with a remarkably vivid image. Melville writes of the execution and burning of the rebel Babo, but then adds an ominous detail that can easily be taken as a warning for the future: "but for many days, the head, that hive of subtlety, fixed on a pole in the Plaza, met, unabashed, the gaze of the whites." The rebel Babo remains "unabashed" of his acts, nor is he intimidated by his captors, as though he can be expected to return. It seems to be a warning of what is to come, given the conflict and debate about slavery of Melville's time.

Nadine Gordimer similarly uses her novel July's People to send a warning, although she does so by looking forward. The novel was published in 1981, more than ten years before the South African government changed its system of racial inequality, known as apartheid. Under apartheid a small white minority controlled all aspects of life in South Africa, oppressing a large black majority. In Gordimer's novel, set in a not-so-distant future, a violent civil war has broken out between white and black South Africans. Gordimer envisions revolution as a way of analyzing and criticizing the present. But she is providing, through fiction, a glimpse into South Africa's future, the future that lies beyond the revolutionary change that seems inevitable to come. With the outbreak of violence, the novel's main white characters, Maureen and Bam Smales, are forced to flee Johannesburg and take refuge in the home village of their longtime servant July, a black South African. They exchange their suburban home for a mud hut and July becomes their leader, as it were. This reversal of power roles, in which a white family is suddenly reliant on a black family for basic food and shelter, previews what Gordimer expected to eventually happen in South Africa. Old power relations have to be dissolved, Gordimer is suggesting, and new relations must be formed, if South Africa is going to survive peacefully. The country did change relatively peacefully. Gordimer's future revolution took place without much violence, and the relationships she envisioned were not far off the mark.

Private Revolutions

Revolutions do not always occur in the large public sphere. They occur in private spaces, too. Few writers have written as much about revolution as French novelist and philosopher Albert Camus. For Camus, revolt was not solely a political act. Rebellion was a philosophy, a personal choice. In his short story "The Guest," Camus offers a glimpse of how rebellion and war end up placing people in complex situations, and what the implications of choice are to the individual. A schoolmaster named Daru lives on a remote Algerian plateau. It is a time when native Arab Algerians were in violent revolt against their French colonial rulers. An Algerian-born Frenchman, Daru feels removed from such concerns until one day, when he is presented with a captured Arab rebel and told he must escort him to a nearby town. Daru, not wanting to help the French establishment but not wanting to defy them either, tells the policeman he will not do it, but accepts the Arab prisoner anyway. Daru unshackles the man, hoping he will run away, but he does not. He then escorts the prisoner away, but leaves him alone at a crossroads, telling him that one way goes to prison, the other way to freedom. Daru thinks he is rebelling against the colonial authorities, but what he really doing is refusing to make a choice, leaving the rebel himself to choose. As he heads home, Daru sees the prisoner walking towards prison, and upon reaching home, Daru finds a shock. The rebels, thinking Daru has indeed escorted the prisoner to jail, have left him a threatening note. Daru's private choice, his private rebellion against authority, is viewed as a rebellion against the rebels themselves. His attempt to have things both ways, to neither collaborate nor to simply free the man, may now cost him dearly.

Finally, literature itself is revolutionary. In Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, Chinese writer Dai Sijie shows how revolt can be a strictly private endeavor. The novel is set in 1971 during the oppressive "Cultural Revolution" of Chinese leader Chairman Mao Zedong. Two teenage boys, the sons of doctors, are sent to a mountain village for a brutal reeducation among the peasants. But they are educated city boys and soon begin to entertain the villagers by retelling the stories of films they have seen. They obtain a suitcase full of forbidden literature and begin to read to the villagers, particularly to the "little seamstress," as they call the daughter of a local tailor. This simple act of reading becomes a revolutionary moment. Storytelling replaces the guerrilla warfare of Che Guevara or the idealism of the young Auden as ways of freeing individuals. Literature does not merely inspire, witness, analyze, or warn against revolution; it is revolution itself. Reading becomes a powerful form of revolt and revolution, an act of defiance and independence, and a new way for the self to emerge.


Auden, W. H., "Spain, 1937," in Modern Poetry: Studies in Practical Criticism by C. B. Cox and A. E. Dyson, Edward Arnold Publishers, Ltd., 1963, pp. 90-93.

Bell, Madison Smartt, All Soul's Rising, Vintage Books, 2004.

Camus, Albert, Exile and the Kingdom, Penguin Books, 2002.

Dai, Sijie, Balzac and the Little Chinese Seamstress, Anchor Books/Doubleday, 2002.

Gordimer, Nadine, July's People, Penguin Books, 1982.

Guevara, Che, Guerrilla Warfare, University of Nebraska Press, 2002.

Hugo, Victor Les Miserables, Signet Books, 1987.

Melville, Herman, Four Short Novels, Bantam Books, 1957, p. 193.

Miklowitz, Gloria D., Masada: The Last Fortress, William B. Eerdmans, 1999.

Pearson, Michael, Those Damned Rebels: The American Revolution as Seen Through British Eyes, Da Capo Press, 2000.

Reed, John, Ten Days That Shook the World, International Publishers, 1989, p. xxxiii, xxxviii.

Schachner, Nathan, Thomas Jefferson, A Biography, Yoseloff, 1957, p. 325, 343.

Yeats, William Butler, "Easter, 1916," in Modern Poetry: Studies in Practical Criticism by C. B. Cox and A. E. Dyson, Edward Arnold Publishers, Ltd., 1963, pp. 57-59.