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

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Overview

“Fascinating . . . a lively and perceptive cultural history.” —Annette Gordon-Reed, The New Yorker
In 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...

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

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Overview

“Fascinating . . . a lively and perceptive cultural history.” —Annette Gordon-Reed, The New Yorker
In 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.

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Editorial Reviews

Wall Street Journal
A splendid and subtle history.— Fergus M. Bordewich
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.— Dan Cryer
Dallas Morning News
Reynolds has given us another cultural history of assured mastery, a history that combines deep erudition, lightly worn, with a lively and readable style.— Tim Redman
Fergus M. Bordewich - Wall Street Journal
“A splendid and subtle history.”
Dan Cryer - 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.”
Tim Redman - Dallas Morning News
“Reynolds has given us another cultural history of assured mastery, a history that combines deep erudition, lightly worn, with a lively and readable style.”
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)
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
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393342352
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 6/11/2012
  • Pages: 368
  • Sales rank: 483,687
  • Product dimensions: 5.40 (w) x 8.20 (h) x 1.10 (d)

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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Table of Contents

Introduction ix

1 The Gospel According to Stowe 1

2 Taming Cultural Beasts 43

3 Antislavery Passion 87

4 Igniting the War 117

5 Tom Everywhere 169

6 Tom in Modern Times 213

Abbreviations 275

Notes 277

Acknowledgments 321

Illustration Credits 323

Index 327

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Customer Reviews

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    Posted September 21, 2014

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  • Posted August 8, 2011

    Was the Fugitive Slave Law Repealed by Uncle Tom's Cabin?

    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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    Posted September 16, 2011

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