How Governments Influence Literature: Six Books You Didn’t Know Were Propaganda

By Maria Bregman

Propaganda is usually associated with blatant and biased messages that aim to manipulate public opinion and behavior. But propaganda can also be subtle and sophisticated, and sometimes even disguised as art. Literature, in particular, can be a powerful tool for propaganda, as it can shape the way people think and feel about certain issues, events, and characters.

Some of the most celebrated and influential books in history have been used or promoted by governments or ideological groups for political ends. Sometimes, the authors were aware and willing to serve the purposes of the state; other times, they were unaware or unwilling to be used as pawns. In either case, their books have had an impact on the culture and the consciousness of their readers, whether they intended it or not.

Here are six books, all by authors of merit, that are works of propaganda in one way or another.

The Eyes of Asia. By Rudyard Kipling. Kashi House; 128 pages

Rudyard Kipling is best known for his stories and poems about the British Empire, such as “The Jungle Book” and “The White Man’s Burden”. But he was also a propagandist for the empire, who was recruited by British intelligence during the First World War to write fiction that sought to undermine Indian nationalism. In 1916, he was sent the private letters of Indian soldiers fighting in France, and asked to rewrite them to erase any pro-Indian or revolutionary sentiment. He published four of them in American and British magazines, and later in a book, “The Eyes of Asia”. He claimed he had “somewhat amplified the spirit” he saw behind the letters, but in fact, he sanitized and distorted them. He removed complaints and criticisms, and added praises and admiration for Britain and its allies. He also portrayed the Indian soldiers as loyal and grateful subjects of the empire, who were fighting for a noble cause. He hoped to influence the opinions of both the Western and the Indian audiences, and to prevent any sympathy or solidarity between them.

Doctor Zhivago. By Boris Pasternak. Vintage Publishing; 512 pages

Boris Pasternak was one of the most acclaimed and respected writers in the Soviet Union, until he wrote “Doctor Zhivago”, a novel that chronicled the life and love of a physician and poet during the Russian Revolution and the Civil War. The novel was rejected by the Soviet authorities, who deemed it anti-communist and anti-Soviet, and banned it from publication. Pasternak smuggled the manuscript to Italy, where it was published in 1957, and soon became a worldwide sensation. It also became a weapon in the Cold War, as the CIA and the British intelligence secretly helped to distribute it in the Soviet bloc, hoping to undermine the regime and inspire dissent. They also orchestrated a campaign to nominate Pasternak for the Nobel Prize in Literature, which he won in 1958, but was forced to decline under pressure from the Soviet government. Pasternak suffered from persecution and isolation, and died in 1960. His novel, however, survived and inspired generations of readers and writers.

The Quiet American. By Graham Greene. Penguin Classics; 208 pages

Graham Greene was a prolific and popular novelist, who often explored the themes of morality, politics, and religion in his works. He was also a former spy, who worked for the British intelligence during the Second World War, and traveled extensively to various conflict zones. One of his most famous and controversial novels, “The Quiet American”, was based on his experience in Vietnam, where he witnessed the rise of the American involvement and the fall of the French colonial rule. The novel tells the story of a cynical British journalist, a naive American aid worker, and a beautiful Vietnamese woman, who are caught in a triangle of love and betrayal amid the turmoil of war. The novel was a scathing critique of the American intervention and ideology, which Greene saw as arrogant and ignorant. He also predicted the disastrous consequences of the American policy, which would lead to the Vietnam War. The novel was published in 1955, and was denounced by the American critics and officials, who accused Greene of being anti-American and pro-communist. Greene defended his novel as a realistic and honest portrayal of the situation, and as a warning against the folly of imperialism.

Animal Farm. By George Orwell. Penguin Classics; 112 pages

George Orwell was a socialist and a critic of totalitarianism, who wrote two of the most influential and iconic novels of the 20th century, “Animal Farm” and “Nineteen Eighty-Four”. “Animal Farm” was a satirical allegory of the Russian Revolution and the Stalinist regime, which depicted a farm where the animals rebelled against their human oppressors, and established a utopian society, only to be betrayed and corrupted by their own leaders. The novel was a brilliant and biting commentary on the nature and dangers of dictatorship, and a warning against the betrayal of the ideals of socialism. The novel was published in 1945, and was immediately hailed as a masterpiece by the critics and the public. It was also embraced and promoted by the Western governments and agencies, who saw it as a powerful propaganda tool against the Soviet Union and communism. They distributed the novel in various languages and formats, such as comic books, radio broadcasts, and animated films, and used it to influence the opinions and attitudes of the people in the Soviet bloc and beyond. Orwell, however, was not happy with the way his novel was used and misused by the political forces, and he insisted that his novel was not a pro-Western or anti-Soviet work, but a universal and humanist work, that criticized all forms of tyranny and oppression.

The Fountainhead. By Ayn Rand. Penguin Modern Classics; 752 pages

Ayn Rand was a philosopher and a novelist, who developed a system of thought known as Objectivism, which advocated rational egoism, individualism, and capitalism. She was also a fierce opponent of collectivism, altruism, and statism, which she regarded as evil and irrational. Her most famous and influential novel, “The Fountainhead”, was a manifesto of her philosophy, which portrayed the struggle and triumph of an uncompromising and visionary architect, who defied the conventions and expectations of the society, and pursued his own artistic and moral vision. The novel was a celebration of the human spirit and the creative mind, and a rejection of the mediocrity and conformity of the masses. The novel was published in 1943, and was initially rejected by the critics and the publishers, who found it too radical and controversial. But it became a bestseller and a cult classic, thanks to the word-of-mouth and the endorsements of influential figures, such as Cecil B. DeMille, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Ronald Reagan. The novel also inspired and attracted a loyal and devoted following of readers and admirers, who embraced Rand’s philosophy and ideology, and formed a movement and a network that promoted and propagated her ideas and values. The novel also influenced and shaped the political and economic landscape of America and the world, as it inspired and supported the rise of conservatism, libertarianism, and neoliberalism.

The Da Vinci Code. By Dan Brown. Anchor Books; 592 pages

Dan Brown is a bestselling and blockbuster author, who specializes in thrillers that combine history, religion, and conspiracy. His most famous and successful novel, “The Da Vinci Code”, was a phenomenon that captivated and shocked millions of readers around the world. The novel was a mystery and an adventure, that followed the quest of a symbologist and a cryptologist, who uncovered a secret that threatened to shake the foundations of Christianity and the Catholic Church. The novel was a blend of fact and fiction, that incorporated elements of art, architecture, mythology, and esotericism, and challenged the orthodox and official versions of history and faith. The novel was published in 2003, and was an instant hit and a sensation, that sold over 80 million copies and was translated into 44 languages. It was also adapted into a film, starring Tom Hanks and Audrey Tautou, that grossed over $700 million worldwide. The novel was also a controversy and a scandal, that provoked and outraged the religious authorities and groups, who denounced it as a blasphemy and a heresy, and tried to ban and boycott it. The novel also sparked and stimulated a wave of interest and curiosity in the topics and themes it explored, and generated a plethora of books, documentaries, websites, and tours, that either supported or refuted its claims and theories. The novel also influenced and changed the beliefs and attitudes of many people, who questioned and reconsidered their views and values on religion and spirituality.