- - Friday, August 26, 2011

MIGHTIER THAN THE SWORD: UNCLE TOM’S CABIN AND THE BATTLE FOR AMERICA
By David S. Reynolds
Norton, $27.95, 351 pages, illustrated

Is “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” the most influential work of fiction ever written in America? In all likelihood, yes. Not only was it an overwhelming best-seller - more than 300,000 copies were sold in the year after its publication - but it addressed the most divisive issue in the country: slavery. Many think “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” exacerbated the sectional differences that led to civil war.

The author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, was born in 1811, the daughter of a Calvinist preacher and the sister of five other clergymen. She showed an early aptitude for writing, which initially took the form of religious reflections and temperance tracts. Stowe was a bit of a prude. She was critical of Charles Dickens, whose writings highlighted “the strong flavor of brandy and water, and spiritous drink of all sorts.” In an article on popular culture, she wrote, “Any one who has [followed] what is called the trash literature of the day, must have noticed … it has run very much in a foul and muddy current, full of the slang and filth of low and degraded society.”

Mr. Reynolds, a historian who has written extensively on the period leading up to the Civil War, observes that Uncle Tom’s Cabin “flowed from Stowe’s deepest religious convictions, bringing many of them together in this single work.” Mr. Reynolds thinks “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” contributed to revolutionary movements in Europe as well as America.

Slavery was Stowe’s obsession, and in 1852, she poured her indignation over the Fugitive Slave Law - which required all Americans to assist in the capture of escaped slaves - into the melodramatic novel that brought her fame. Unlike most anti-slavery literature of the day, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” has an action-filled plot. Two slave lovers, George and Eliza, escape baying bloodhounds across the ice-filled Ohio River. Tom, sold by a kindly but financially distressed master, is taken south by riverboat but saves the life of Eva, the daughter of a wealthy planter, Augustine St. Clair, who purchases and then befriends Tom.

Uncle Tom spends two happy years with the St. Clairs, but when Eva and her father both die, Tom is sold to the villainous Simon Legree who, infuriated by Tom’s Christian faith, beats him to death. Tom, with his dying breath, forgives his tormentor.

The book infuriated most Southerners. One critic wrote that “Mrs. Stowe throws an ultra Christian hue over all her writings” but was in fact a mouthpiece for “the Abolitionists, the Communists … the Spirit Rappers, and the whole confederacy of social humbugs.” As recently as 1906, the Daughters of the Confederacy declared that “the incidents of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ are not typical of slave life in the South” and presented “a false idea of … history.”

Stowe’s great work has had a remarkable shelf life. Not only did the book go through repeated editions in many languages, but it became a hit on the stage. For decades after the Civil War - a period in which Stowe’s anti-slavery message was not especially relevant - Uncle Tom plays were being shown in much of the Western world. In Europe as in America, wheels turned, wires tightened, and Little Eva was duly hoisted into heaven. Producers often decided that Eliza’s escape across the ice floes - generally wooden boxes painted white - had to be made especially dramatic. Offstage, actors barked into wooden barrels to simulate pursuing bloodhounds.

“There were dozens of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ companies,” one playgoer recalled, “and they came back year after year to every hamlet in the nation.” The author thinks Uncle Tom shows “were among the primitive beginnings of mass entertainment in America.”

Mr. Reynolds writes, not entirely convincingly, that “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” fueled revolutionary sentiment in Europe, especially Russia. Vladimir Lenin purportedly called “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” the favorite book of his childhood. Because Lenin and his wife once escaped their czarist pursuers across an ice-filled sound, Mr. Reynolds asks, rhetorically, “Did ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ save Lenin’s life and thus make possible the October Revolution of 1917?” I doubt it.

Even as 20th-century playgoers became sated with Uncle Tom, he was rediscovered by America’s black community. What were civil rights activists to make of the slave who asked forgiveness for his tormenter? Black Americans reflected on Uncle Tom in a time when negative stereotypes of blacks were common. Yet so radical a representative of black America as W.E.B. Du Bois spoke of the debt blacks owed to Stowe, “a frail overburdened Yankee woman with a steadfast moral purpose.”

More recently, radical black spokesmen have made “Uncle Tom” an epithet applied to moderate blacks. Marcus Garvey, an apostle of black separatism, charged Du Bois with allowing himself to be used “even as Uncle Tom and his bunch were used for hundreds of years.” So it is that “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” remains as controversial today as in 1854.

But the best assessment of Stowe’s book may be that of poet John Greenleaf Whittier, who wrote, “To her who in our evil time/ Dragged into light the nation’s crime/ With strength beyond the strength of men/ And, mightier than their sword, her pen.”

• Biographer and historian John M. Taylor lives in McLean.