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Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Battle for America

Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Battle for America

4.0 6
by David S. Reynolds

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A fascinating look at the cultural roots, political impact, and enduring legacy of Harriet Beecher Stowe's revolutionary bestseller.Uncle Tom's Cabin is likely the most influential novel ever written by an American. In a fitting tribute to the two hundredth anniversary of Harriet Beecher Stowe's birth, Bancroft Prize-winning historian David S. Reynolds reveals her


A fascinating look at the cultural roots, political impact, and enduring legacy of Harriet Beecher Stowe's revolutionary bestseller.Uncle Tom's Cabin is likely the most influential novel ever written by an American. In a fitting tribute to the two hundredth anniversary of Harriet Beecher Stowe's birth, Bancroft Prize-winning historian David S. Reynolds reveals her book's impact not only on the abolitionist movement and the American Civil War but also on worldwide events, including the end of serfdom in Russia, down to its influence in the twentieth century. He explores how both Stowe's background as the daughter in a famously intellectual family of preachers and her religious visions were fundamental to the novel. And he demonstrates why the book was beloved by millions—and won over even some southerners—while fueling lasting conflicts over the meaning of America. Although vilified over the years as often as praised, it has remained a cultural landmark, proliferating in the form of plays, songs, films, and merchandise—a rich legacy that has both fed and contested American racial stereotypes.

Editorial Reviews

Michael O'Donnell

Is Uncle Tom's Cabin a force for good, or is it just a mediocre book? More than any other written work, it helped to provoke the Civil War and hasten the end of slavery. In its day (it was published in 1852) it stood as a progressive vision of race and an affirmation of blacks' humanity. Then again, as the book's modern critics have argued, it entrenched pernicious stereotypes of African Americans that have persisted through the years: the mammy in her bandana, the sambo dancing wildly, the impish pickaninny, and of course the meek, submissive Uncle Tom.

The book was read by millions--and the story learned by millions more in plays and films--which spread the stereotypes far and wide. David Reynolds writes in Mightier than the Sword, a study of the book and its place in history, that "It is the height of irony that [Harriet Beecher] Stowe's novel, which had long been hailed by blacks as a chief means of liberation for their race, should yield the damning epithet that was applied to sycophants who compromised integrity and ethics by kowtowing to whites."

In such circumstances it is best to return to the source. Here, taken not quite at random, is Stowe's introduction of the character Topsy, an African-American child:

She was one of the blackest of her race; and her round, shining eyes, glittering as glass beads, moved with quick and restless glances over everything in the room. Her mouth, half open with astonishment at the wonders of the new Mas'r's parlor, displayed a white and brilliant set of teeth. Her woolly hair was braided in sundry little tails, which stuck out in every direction. The expression of her face was an odd mixture of shrewdness and cunning...she was dressed in a single filthy, ragged garment, made of bagging...Altogether, there was something odd and goblin-like about her appearance.

One tries not to miss the forest for the trees, but this racism is ugly and hurtful and difficult for today's reader to overlook. Passages like this--the book is full of them--remind us that Uncle Tom's Cabin belongs to a moment in time, and carried a social and political utility that does not depend on its enduring appeal as art, or indeed as morals. Stowe's racial views were like Lincoln's: benevolent but patronizing, progressive but not radical; ideal, it seems, to appeal to a large swath of the country. Had she gone any further, Uncle Tom's Cabin would have reached far fewer readers. As it is, the book infuriated the entire South.

As literature, Uncle Tom's Cabin is pretty hammy, its style defined by maudlin sentimentalism. Yet as Reynolds notes, it was irresistible to nineteenth-century audiences, with "just the right blend of engaging storytelling and popular culture to make its higher-law, antislavery message palatable to many readers." The narrative broadly follows the fates of two slaves sold by their gentle Kentucky master: Tom, who accepts his lot and, Christ-like, ends up whipped to death by a cruel Louisiana owner, and Eliza, who runs away, staying one step ahead of slave catchers as she and her family race to Canada. Although the story is exciting, the prose is sappy and melodramatic, the narrative interrupted by heavy-handed Christian proselytizing and awkward asides to the reader. One critic aptly labeled it Sunday-school fiction.

Mightier than the Sword is a valuable and engaging survey of the book's genesis and legacy, from its role in antebellum culture and politics to its echoes in milestone films and novels like The Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind, and Roots. Uncle Tom's Cabin's greatest historical impact, Reynolds contends, was to awaken northern middle-class sentiment to the horrors of slavery. Squabbling anti-slavery factions united behind its message, and southerners grimly put it down and began closing ranks. The book was everywhere. Mightier than the Sword contains a fascinating discussion and photograph collection of the many Uncle Tom products ("Tomitudes") that saturated the country, including card games, engravings, jigsaw puzzles, and trinkets. Slapped onto every snuffbox, Uncle Tom was as ubiquitous as a Disney character. As it happens, Mickey Mouse played him in blackface in 1933.

Reynolds deeply admires Stowe's novel--a little too much. He argues that her characters consistently exceed society's limitations, and that the book "invested blacks with beauty and power to a degree that no other pre-Civil War novel began to approach." This enthusiasm leads him to overstep, as when he insists that the Uncle Tom slur is a major distortion of Stowe's character's quiet strength and dignity. To Stowe, Tom's goodness derives, disturbingly, from his "impregnable simplicity of nature, strengthened by Christian faith." She believed that blacks are generally credulous and therefore more pious than skeptical, thinking whites. Reynolds pushes such objections to the side as cavils, to the point where he seems to be willing the glass more than half full. In truth, 160 years on, Uncle Tom's Cabin deserves its mixed legacy. Thank goodness Stowe wrote it. But it's a hard book for today's reader to love.

--Michael O'Donnell

Publishers Weekly
In 1868, a writer in the Nation coined the phrase "the great American novel" to describe Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1851 Uncle Tom's Cabin. Distinguished historian Reynolds (Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson) does his best to support this debatable epithet, quoting endless contemporaries who asserted that Stowe's novel ignited the Civil War and emancipated the slaves, its impact extending well into the 20th century. Reynolds's most fascinating research illuminates Stowe's skillful use of popular culture—from Stephen Foster's songs to the cult of domesticity—and her Christian faith (exemplified by Tom and little Eva St. Clare) to make her radical antislavery stance palatable to Northerners indifferent to the brutality of slavery and the humanity of the black slaves. As Reynolds shows, Uncle Tom's Cabin itself became a cultural phenomenon, with commercial tie-ins (called Tomitudes), Southern ripostes, and myriad Uncle Tom plays and movies. He discusses these in more detail than any but cultural historians will need, digressing into Gone with the Wind and the depiction of blacks in early movies. Reynolds's narrow focus on Stowe and her novel also leads him to skim important events leading to the war, and relegate giants like Frederick Douglass to supporting roles. But Reynolds's discussion of the novel's mid-20th-century ill repute and the "Uncle Tom" slur comes full circle with the novel's recent literary resurrection, to which he contributes with his exacting research. By highlighting the book's immense impact and literary value, and by showing Tom as not subservient but a strong, dignified man who sacrificed his life in defying his cruel master, Simon Legree, Reynolds shows Stowe's novel to be a passionate, powerful, acid-etched critique of slavery that remains an American classic. 15 illus. (June)
The New Yorker - Annette Gordon-Reed
“Fascinating…a lively and perceptive cultural history.”
Jay Winik
“You can always count on David Reynolds to surprise and delight, and in his latest work, he does not disappoint. This time, he sets his sights on the far-ranging and fascinating impact of Harriet Beecher Stowe's mammoth bestseller, Uncle Tom's Cabin. In Reynolds’s gifted hands, Mightier Than The Sword is nothing less than an intellectual feast. Bravo for yet another superb book.”
Joan Hedrick
“A wonderful history of what may justly be considered America’s national epic.”
Debby Applegate
“Deeply researched and compulsively readable…Both the definitive account of the strange but true career of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and a sweeping two-hundred year history of race in America.”
The New Yorker
"Fascinating…a lively and perceptive cultural history." --(Annette Gordon-Reed)

New York Times Book Review
Wall Street Journal
“A subtle and splendid history of the novel’s effect on American culture.”
Dallas Morning News
“Bravura work….Reynolds has given us another cultural history of assured mastery, a history that combines deep erudition, lightly worn, with a lively and readable style.”
The Boston Globe
“Consistently enlightening…Mightier Than the Sword deftly explores the social-intellectual context and personal experience out of which Stowe’s novel evolved into a grand entertainment and a titanic engine of change.”
Library Journal
For Reynolds (English & American studies, CUNY; Walt Whitman's America) Uncle Tom's Cabin (1851) is a kind of antebellum Talk Soup into which Harriet Beecher Stowe stirred all the Christian reform movements of her era, including abolitionism, temperance, socialism, perfectionism, and many more. In the more compelling first half of his book, Reynolds's dogged research demonstrates that Stowe's best-selling book blended all these currents of thought and feeling to spur Northerners from polite distaste for slavery to ardent abolitionism that led to war. In his even more thoroughly researched second half, Reynolds shows how the book and its characters continued to pervade American popular culture after the war, often through dramatized versions (not by Stowe) performed everywhere and often for 50 years or more. Reynolds convincingly argues that even in popular 20th-century renditions of the Old South, e.g., Thomas Dixon's The Clansman: An Historical Romance of the Ku Klux Klan and Margaret Mitchell's Gone with the Wind, Southern writers were still trying to refute Stowe's critique of slavery. VERDICT While this book may prove to be heavy going for the general reader, all serious students of 19th-century American literature and culture will want to read it.—Stewart Desmond, New York
Kirkus Reviews

A provocative overview of the life and afterlife of one of American literature's most important texts.

Published in 1852,Uncle Tom's Cabinhas a battered reputation, not least in the way the term "Uncle Tom" has become an epithet for somebody who sells out his own race. But Reynolds (English and American Studies/City Univ. of New York; Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson, 2008, etc.) successfully repositions the novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896) as a major political work, crucial not just to the abolitionist movement, but as kindling for the Civil War and an important inspiration to cultural discussions of race relations through most of the 20th century. In the early chapters, Reynolds examines aspects of Stowe's character that inspired the book: a brand of Christianity that made her sympathetic to abolitionism, an intuitive understanding of adventure stories that captured the public imagination and a sentimental style that prompted readers to rethink their prejudices without feeling provoked. That last element earned Stowe a reputation as a soft antislavery agitator, but there's no questionUncle Tom's Cabinstruck a chord. It sold so well, in fact, that it inspired a whole shelf of anti-Stowe novels; among the most prominent was Thomas Dixon Jr.'s novelThe Clansman, which in turn inspired D.W. Griffith's "adeptly made yet thematically abhorrent filmThe Birth of a Nation." ButUncle Tom's Cabininfluenced the civil-rights movement as well. In the decades after the Civil War, there were few communities that hadn't seen a "Tom play," a stage version of the novel. Reynolds somewhat soft-pedals how these plays perpetuated racist stereotypes, but it's clear that Uncle Tom himself largely retained his status as a symbol of nonviolent resistance, not self-denying passivity. To that end, Stowe's vision endured, as seen in the acts of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. and other activists for racial equality. In showing how that sentiment played out not just in the novel and plays but in Shirley Temple films, Mickey Mouse cartoons, magazines ads,Roots and more, Reynolds defends Stowe's influence, even if that influence was frustratingly slow.

A sharp work of cross-disciplinary criticism that gives new power to a diminished novel.

Product Details

Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
Publication date:
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 9.40(h) x 1.50(d)

What People are Saying About This

Jay Winik
"You can always count on David Reynolds to surprise and delight…Mightier than the Sword is nothing less than an intellectual feast. Bravo for yet another superb book." --(Jay Winik, author of April 1865 and The Great Upheaval)

Annette Gordon-Reed
Fascinating…a lively and perceptive cultural history.— The New Yorker
Debby Applegate
"Deeply researched and compulsively readable…Both the definitive account of the strange but true career of Uncle Tom's Cabin and a sweeping two-hundred year history of race in America." --(Debby Applegate, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher)

Joan Hedrick
"A wonderful history of what may justly be considered America's national epic." --(Joan Hedrick, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life)

Meet the Author

David S. Reynolds is Distinguished Professor of English and American Studies at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York. His books include Walt Whitman’s America: A Cultural Biography; John Brown, Abolitionist; Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville; Mightier Than the Sword: “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and the Battle for America; Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson; Walt Whitman; George Lippard; and Faith in Fiction: The Emergence of Religious Literature in America. Reynolds is the editor or coeditor of seven books, including Whitman’s Leaves of Grass: The 150th Anniversary Edition, A Historical Guide to Walt Whitman, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin: The Splendid Edition, and George Lippard’s The Quaker City; or, The Monks of Monk Hall. He is the winner of the Bancroft Prize, the Christian Gauss Award, the Ambassador Book Award, the Gustavus Myers Outstanding Book Prize and has been a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. He is a regular contributor to the New York Times Book Review.

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Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Battle for America 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 6 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
French kisses u
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
civiwarlibrarian More than 1 year ago
Before the Civil War Uncle Tom's Cabin: Life Among The Lowly was banned in the slave holding states and readers were jailed if found with a copy. In December 1862, Lincoln greeted the author "Is this the little woman who made this great war?" This remark may be a false memory written down three decades later by the author's relative but it reveals that maybe Uncle Tom's Cabin is better remembered as a provoking piece of literature than it is for plot and characters. Is the novel's reputation more important than its contents? Other novels, such as Jack Kerouac's One The Road [1957] and poems such as Allen Ginsburg's Howl[ 1955] have had similar fate. People know enough about them to get the Jeopardy question right, but haven't read them. Starting with the June 5, 1851 issue, Uncle Tom's Cabin appeared as a weekly serial in theNational Era, an abolitionist newspaper. The serialized story, like Charles Dicken's serialized works, began to change hearts and minds from 'I don't care' to 'Maybe slave holding is wrong.' The book was published in 1852. It is estimated that each copy of Uncle Tom's Cabin before the Civil War had ten readers or listeners. At a time when reading aloud to the household was typical, each copy served an audience that discussed it immediately afterward. In this modern era it is difficult to read Uncle Tom's Cabin; CWL started it twice. The dialects were too thick to read either silently or aloud. The problem was solved by securing an audio book read by an professional reader. It worked not only for CWL but also for his children, who on more than one occasion refused to leave the car until a chapter was concluded. Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Battle for America, is a biography of the life of a book in the context of 150 years of American literary, social, political, and entertainment history. David S. Reynolds knows this history well; his biographies of Walt Whitman and the notorious John Brown are fine examples that teach their readers as much about American culture as they do Whitman and Brown. Reynolds shows that Uncle Tom's Cabinwas central not only to the antebellum era but also from the Reconstruction era through today. The themes of fairness, family, and the empowerment of marginalized minorities are constant themes in American life and groups. The novel speaks to African-Americans, women, social and political protest movements that struggle within the confines of the American democratic republic. Reynolds offers interpretations of religion, reform, literature [both literary and pulp fiction] and theater. He examines two plot lines from the novel. The Northern one involves the escape of a slave family from Kentucky to Canada and the Southern one traces the painful separation of Tom, a slave, from his family when he is sold from Kentucky to Mississippi. For Reynolds, Stowe realistic human narrative had "a crystal clear social point: slavery was evil, and so were the political and economic institutions that supported it." [xii]. What made slavery wrong? For Stowe, the central issue was that slavery destroyed families.
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Anonymous More than 1 year ago
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