Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Battle for America
by David S. Reynolds
Reviewed by Drew Gilpin Faust
The New Republic
As the obsolescence and even the demise of the book are widely foretold, it is all the more important -- and comforting -- to recognize how a book can change the world. It is hard to think of many that have done so more emphatically than Uncle Tom's Cabin. Lincoln is famously said to have greeted its author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, in 1862 by inquiring, "So this is the little lady who started this great war?" And whether he actually ever made the remark or not, the very fact of her visit to the White House and the emergence of the legend of his respectful, if somewhat patronizing, salutation are sufficient evidence of the remarkable influence that Stowe's words claimed in mid-nineteenth-century America.
Uncle Tom's Cabin was at once a novel and an "event," as Theodore Parker proclaimed soon after it appeared. Today its publication is appropriately included -- along with such occurrences as the Dred Scott decision and John Brown's raid -- on timelines of incidents that propelled the nation towards civil war. In the mounting sectional conflict, words assumed the power of deeds, acts of political as well as social transformation. Originating as a serial, Uncle Tom's Cabin appeared in book form in the spring of 1852. By mid-October, 120,000 copies had been sold; by the following spring, 310,000. In England it was even more successful, with sales of a million within a year. Michael Winship has called it "the world's first true blockbuster." It may also have been the first bestseller to produce spin-offs-which came to be known as "Tomitudes": engravings, games, puzzles, songs and sheet music, dramatizations-in Europe as well as the United States. The book was a phenomenon, in its popularity and its influence.
Yet by the early twentieth century it was out of print and would remain so for decades. "Uncle Tom" became an epithet, representing not the admirable saintliness and sacrifice with which Stowe had sought to imbue her protagonist, but -- in the eyes of African Americans such as W.E.B. DuBois and James Baldwin -- an embarrassing embodiment of black obsequiousness and self-loathing. In the white segregated South, scorn for Stowe's book claimed different origins: it was seen as part of a long tradition of Northern meddling in Southern racial arrangements. In South Carolina in 1900, a teacher might well make his students raise their right hands and swear never to read Uncle Tom's Cabin -- an unwitting nod to the book's power as well as an affirmation of the white South's racial solidarity. Uncle Tom's Cabin was certainly never taught as literature in the North or the South, because it was seen by critics and scholars as sentimental and overwrought -- less art than propaganda. Hawthorne dismissed Stowe as one of his era's "scribbling women."
But Stowe and Uncle Tom's Cabin never did disappear entirely. Perhaps the first modern appreciation of her and her masterwork came from Edmund Wilson, not the easiest or the most gentle of critics. His great book Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War, which appeared in 1962 at the very outset of the conflict's centennial, opens with a lengthy chapter on Stowe. Wilson emerges from his consideration a grudging admirer, acknowledging the prejudices he brought to the text, but demonstrating a thorough conversion. "To expose oneself in maturity to Uncle Tom," he confessed, was "a startling experience." He admitted that "it is a much more impressive work than one has ever been allowed to suspect." Wilson hailed the "vitality" of its characters, the book's "eruptive force," the clear evidence of the author's "critical mind." Comparing her favorably with Dickens and Gogol, he concluded she was "no contemptible novelist." He became a fan in spite of himself.
The Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and '60s drew more attention to Uncle Tom's Cabin as a vehicle of scorn than to either the literary power or the abolitionist sympathies of the novel. It was the emergence of Second Wave feminism and the resultant growth of interest in women's history that ultimately led to a systematic rehabilitation of the book as an essential example of the moral authority and reach of nineteenth-century American women. The cult of domesticity, the centrality of evangelical religion, the influence of social reform, and the impact of the female pen shaped mid-century society and culture in ways that reached well beyond the home. The era's "scribbling women" -- with Stowe the most successful among them -- were both the cause and the result of this transformation.
The past quarter century has witnessed sustained interest in Uncle Tom's Cabin and its author. The book's original popularity derived in no small part from its invocation of so many of the critical concerns of nineteenth-century American culture. As a result it can serve as an almost unsurpassed point of entry into the assumptions of that historical moment. It is a marvelous book to teach -- as I have done with undergraduates, graduate students, and summer seminars of high school teachers. It is a document that captures the sensibilities of people both like and unlike ourselves, and it describes a past world with voices and characters that speak to us across the barriers of space and time -- Tom, Topsy, Eva, Cassy, Mrs. Bird, St. Clare, Ophelia -- even Simon Legree. That Stowe achieved such influence in a period when American feminism was making its first appearances, and that she did so with a text intended to advance the anti-slavery cause, further contributes to its present day relevance, for these two nineteenth-century social movements have had modern manifestations that have shaped our age as fundamentally as they did hers.
Through the work of Jane Tompkins, Mary Kelley, and others, Uncle Tom's Cabin has played a key role in reorienting the study of the American Renaissance to include women alongside its iconic men -- Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Melville. In 1995, Joan Hedrick won a Pulitzer Prize for the first full-scale biography of Stowe in half a century. And Uncle Tom entered promptly into the digital era as well. In 1852, the book had strained the technological capacities of its time, requiring, according to its publisher, that three paper mills and more than a hundred book binders remain constantly at work to meet the demand of eager readers. Today's technology has extended Tom's reach through a website created at the University of Virginia that has served as a founding model for the digital humanities. "Uncle Tom's Cabin and American Culture: A Multi Media Archive" is directed by Stephen Railton and funded by the National Endowment for the Humanities, offering texts, images, songs, poems, even film that document the book's origins, its later renditions on stage and screen, as well as assessments of its history and impact by a range of distinguished scholars. The website makes twelve editions of the book available on a virtual shelf.
David Reynolds, the author of widely read volumes on the nineteenth century, has not only joined the twenty-first century chorus of appreciation for Stowe and her novel. He has reached well beyond his predecessors in his claims for its influence. His book is true to its excessive title: it represents Uncle Tom's Cabin as not just an influence on American life, but a force nearly unmatched in its social and cultural impact. For Reynolds, Uncle Tom's Cabin was "central to redefining American democracy on a more egalitarian basis"; it made the Bible "relevant to contemporary life," and it "replaced the venal religion of the churches with a new, abolitionist Christianity." It also "established a whole new school of popular antislavery literature," and at the same time gave rise to the pro-slavery argument, which is customarily seen as emerging in force in the 1830s but in Reynolds's portrayal does not substantially appear until prompted by Stowe's novel more than twenty years later.
The book's dramatic versions were equally revolutionary, in Reynolds's account, serving even as a "major step toward making theatergoing respectable" and leading also to the creation of the matinee and the long theatrical run. Uncle Tom's Cabin also influenced James and Howells, and profoundly shaped realist fiction and, later, D.W. Griffiths and the emergence of realist film. By century's end, moreover, Uncle Tom's Cabin had set off a "chain reaction" that led to Birth of a Nation "and the revitalized Ku Klux Klan" and also "the self-assertion and protest on the part of DuBois and other African-Americans," resulting in the establishment of the NAACP. Even more than seventy-five years after the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin, the appearance of Gone With the Wind was, Reynolds finds, "largely in reply to Stowe."
This one book did all that? "Chain reaction" with its invocation of nuclear force, seems a more apt metaphor than the "sword" of Reynolds's title to capture his assessment of the book and its might. Lincoln may have suggested that Stowe caused a war, but Reynolds offers much more: he assigns to Stowe central responsibility for the unfolding history of much of the following century. As we enter into the sesquicentennial celebration of the Civil War, Harriet Beecher Stowe's achievement reminds us that we must remember more than battles and statesmen if we are to understand the causes, the conflict and its aftermath. But swords and statesmen and armies and governments and writers and preachers all played their complex and interdependent parts in what Reynolds calls the "Battle for America." DuBois, Margaret Mitchell, D.W. Griffiths, and Henry James, not to mention Lee, Grant, and Lincoln, would likely be surprised to learn that the twenty-first century could imagine that the battle over race and power, not to mention culture and values, was really all about Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Drew Gilpin Faust is president of Harvard University and the author, most recently, of This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War (Knopf).