Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Battle for Americaby David S. Reynolds
“Fascinating . . . a lively and perceptive cultural history.” —Annette Gordon-Reed, The New YorkerIn this wide-ranging, brilliantly researched work, David S. Reynolds traces the factors that made Uncle Tom’s Cabin the most influential novel ever written by an American. Upon its 1852 publication, the novel’s vivid/em>/p>/em>
“Fascinating . . . a lively and perceptive cultural history.” —Annette Gordon-Reed, The New YorkerIn this wide-ranging, brilliantly researched work, David S. Reynolds traces the factors that made Uncle Tom’s Cabin the most influential novel ever written by an American. Upon its 1852 publication, the novel’s vivid depiction of slavery polarized its American readership, ultimately widening the rift that led to the Civil War. Reynolds also charts the novel’s afterlife—including its adaptation into plays, films, and consumer goods—revealing its lasting impact on American entertainment, advertising, and race relations.
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.
- Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
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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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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  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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