The Novel that Changed the World

“So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war,” Abraham Lincoln reportedly said upon first meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, whose 200th birthday was this past Monday.  When it comes to literature changing lives, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is the gold standard for what is possible.

As CUNY American Studies professor David Reynolds notes in a recent New York Times article,

The book was enormously popular in the North during the 1850s and helped solidify support behind the antislavery movement. As the black intellectual W. E. B. Du Bois later wrote, “Thus to a frail overburdened Yankee woman with a steadfast moral purpose we Americans, both black and white, owe our gratitude for the freedom and the union that exist today in these United States.”

The book stoked fires overseas, too. In Russia it influenced the 1861 emancipation of the serfs and later inspired Vladimir Lenin, who recalled it as his favorite book in childhood. It was the first American novel to be translated and published in China, and it fueled antislavery causes in Cuba and Brazil.

In his article Reynolds also explains why popular misconceptions about the work have arisen and how “Uncle Tom” came to be used as a derogatory term, especially by black authors and activists in the 1960’s and early 1970’s.

Apparently the image of a meek man who acquiesces to white oppression grew out of the popular “Uncle Tom” plays that became tremendously popular in the latter half of the 19th century and on into the 20th.  White audiences wouldn’t countenance someone with the fire of Stowe’s Uncle Tom—Lynching was systematically used to intimidate such men—so he and Eva had to be toned down.  “As the story moved from the book to the stage, Reynolds writes,

Stowe’s revolutionary themes were drowned in sentimentality and spectacle. Eva’s death was frequently a syrupy scene in which the actress was hauled heavenward by rope or piano wire against a backdrop of angels and billowing clouds. Uncle Tom, meanwhile, was often presented as a stooped, obedient old fool, the model image of a submissive black man.

Even without the theater version, however, I believe the book might have suffered the same fate.  During the period of black militancy, many blacks were interested in working separately rather than through coalitions with whites.  The mere fact that Stowe was a white writing on behalf of blacks was enough to disqualify her.  Therefore, they seized on “Uncle Tom” as an epithet to hurl at those who advocated a less confrontational path.

In retrospect, some of the “so-called” Uncle Toms—Jackie Robinson, Louie Armstrong, Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks—are the ones we remember as having pushed civil rights forward whereas few now know the names of militants such as Stokely Carmichael, H. Rap Brown, Eldridge Cleaver, and Fred Hampton.  Uncle Tom, especially the Uncle Tom of the novel, looks much better to us now.

Maybe the Civil War would have happened without Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  But its gripping characters and story made is easier for Lincoln to marshal the sustained support he needed for a long and difficult engagement. And without the North winning the Civil War, slavery would have hung on for a lot longer than it did, not only in the United States but in the rest of the western hemisphere.

Don’t underestimate novels.

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