'Mightier than the Sword': How 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' changed the course of American history
In "Mightier than the Sword: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Battle for America," author and English professor David S. Reynolds examines every aspect of the novel that changed the course of American history.
Special to The Seattle Times
'Mightier than the Sword: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Battle for America'
by David S. Reynolds
Norton, 352 pp., $27.95
The powerful anti-slavery message of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" fueled the flames leading to the Civil War, making it the most influential novel in American history. But how many people do you know who have actually read it?
David S. Reynolds, professor of English and American Studies at the City University of New York, not only has read it, he has obsessively analyzed virtually every word of the famous 1852 epic by Harriet Beecher Stowe. "Mightier than the Sword" is the result.
Stowe claimed the novel came to her in a vision and God was its true author. Accordingly, her book is weighted with religious symbolism, which Reynolds interprets with typical English professor's zeal. He also examines its impacts not just on public attitudes toward slavery, but on women's rights, temperance, capitalism, minstrel shows, sexual customs and other aspects of mid-19th century American life.
Reynolds dissects dozens of imitative novels, plays and minstrel shows — some against, others for slavery or segregation — and traces the influence of Stowe's novel into modern times, including film spin-offs. He calls D.W. Griffith's silent film "Birth of a Nation," which portrayed the Ku Klux Klan as a heroic group, "the most powerful 'anti-Tom' work in history." He classifies "Gone with the Wind" as a pro-Southern response to Stowe's novel. The television series "Roots," he says, was the American entertainment industry's belated apology for the anti-Tom "pablum it had been serving the American public for decades."
Reynolds tells how Stowe's novel influenced merchandising, inspiring such products as "Uncle Tom" tobacco, peanuts, sugar, root beer and cream of wheat. He also explains how the term "Uncle Tom" unfortunately entered the American lexicon as a derogatory label, ignoring the nobility of the book's namesake character.
Stowe's novel has recently enjoyed "a remarkable resuscitation" to become "one of the must-reads of American literature," Reynolds says. It always has been that, but people still don't seem to be lining up for it in bookstores. They probably won't line up for "Mightier than the Sword," either. It's not easy reading, but it offers virtually everything you ever wanted to know about "Uncle Tom's Cabin" — and probably a lot more.
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