SIMON LEGREE BEATS UNCLE TOMIt is said that when Harriet Beecher Stowe was greeted by Abraham Lincoln at a White House reception in December 1862, the president looked down at the diminutive author of Uncle Tom's Cabin and said "Is this the little woman who made this great war?"
Whether the statement is apocryphal or not hardly matters. The influence of the anti-slavery novel, the best selling book of the 19th century after the Bible, was immense and 200 years after Stowe's birth it remains a lightning rod for controversy, praised by white scholars for its far-reaching influence and more often than not disparaged -- unfairly, in my view -- by many blacks, for whom the name Uncle Tom is an epithet for the submissive black man.
That controversy will never be settled, but there is no question in the mind of American Studies professor David S. Reynolds that Uncle Tom's Cabin, in mobilizing public opinion against slavery, helped Lincoln get elected and in doing so lit the spark that plunged the nation into civil war.
Reynolds is the author of the just-published Mightier Than The Sword: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Battle For America, which vigorously explores the world in which Stowe lived, the inevitability of the Civil War and, most interesting for me, the capacity of a white woman to understand the feelings, beliefs and desires of blacks, and in doing so redefining American democracy on a more egalitarian basis.
* * * * *The pious Stowe, who throughout her life went through periods of metaphysical angst and deep skepticism about her faith and later became interested in spiritualism, would later tell people that there was a simple explanation for the success of Uncle Tom's Cabin: God wrote it. She emphasized the visionary nature of the book, telling a friend that "It all came before me in visions, one after another, and I put them down in words."
Uncle Tom's Cabin was written amidst an American literary renaissance. But Reynolds notes that unlike Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Dickinson and other Transcendentalists, she wanted to connect religion closely to common life and everyday language.
Reynolds writes that Stowe:
"[T]ook advantage of an alternate characteristic of the American spirit: democracy and social equality. Walt Whitman noted that the great paradox of America was that it bred radical individualism and, at the same time, democratic union and love. Harriet used the latter impulses to change her relationship to those around her and to God."
That is reflected in Stowe's earliest writings and religious themes, of course, are central to Uncle Tom's Cabin. (See the plot synopsis in the sidebar below this post.)
"Eva is both a Virgin Mary figure and a female Christ, whose death redeems others. The repentant Cassy, who tends to the wounded Tom, is the novel's Mary Magdalene. Tom is the male Christ who willingly endures great suffering as an example of self-sacrificing love. The Passion resonates in the text. As Tom nears death, he reads about Jesus's last days."
For Stowe, blacks exhibited religious qualities she believed many whites lacked, and Reynolds writes that one of her goals was to show the wrongheadedness of whites' contempt for them. She imagined a future civilization in Africa where Christian blacks would form the "noblest" society on earth, exhibiting "the highest form of the peculiarly Christian life" based on simplicity and surrender to God.
Uncle Tom's Cabin, published in 1852, grew out of 10 fictional magazine sketches of slaves, including Eliza, Cassy and Uncle Tom himself. It sold a mere 5,000 copies in the first year but nearly 300,000 the second and over a million copies in Britain, where slavery had been abolished in 1772 and in its colonies in 1833.
Timing, of course, is everything, and Uncle Tom's Cabin appeared as what was the inevitable march to civil war accelerated.
The great black orator Frederick Douglass, among others, declared Stowe had "baptized with holy fire myriads who before cared nothing for the bleeding slave." (Reynolds says that it probably was Douglass who first used the term "Uncle Tom" as an epithet.) Meanwhile, Stowe's indictment of slavery through the brutal slave owner Simon Legree was seen as an attack on all things Southern in the South even though Stowe strove to present Southerns as favorably as possible even as she condemned "their peculiar institution."
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Stowe's view of blacks seem like racial stereotyping in a contemporary context, but it was progressive for an era when 12 American presidents had owned slaves and even the most committed antislavery proponents expressed racist views, including Lincoln, who often referred to black as "niggers." That truth has become blurred beyond comprehension because Uncle Tom became a staple of American popular entertainment, as well as jigsaw puzzles, dolls, card games, and such.
Reynolds traces the ebb and flow of the novel's reputation, which peaked during the Civil War years and bottomed out when Gone With the Wind, Margaret Mitchell's highly romanticized view of the antebellum South, became a bestselling book and a hit movie.
No matter how one views Uncle Tom's Cabin, it is an important part of our heritage and Mightier Than The Sword is a masterful overview of the life and afterlife of arguably the most influential book in American history.