Thursday, August 9, 2012

Just Finished Reading

Several months back I read Professor Anne E. Marshall's excellent article, "The 1906 Uncle Tom's Cabin Law and the Politics of Race and Memory in Early-Twentieth-Century Kentucky" in an edition of the Journal of the Civil War Era, so I had an idea that the impact of Harriet Beecher Stowe's book went well past the 1850s, the Civil War and Reconstruction. But, I guess I didn't realize how popular this book, and later theatrical presentations, were and continued to be for such a long time. It spurred a merchandising spree and even came to the big screen in the silent film era.

David S. Reynolds', Mightier Than The Sword: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Battle for America, revealed to me some of Stowe's biography; something I knew little about. Her Calvinist upbringing certainly influenced her writing, but not so much as to ruin a good story of self-sacrifice, love for others, or the effect one can have on others that they meet in life. Stowe, too, was influenced by spiritualism. Both she, and her husband Calvin, believed in communicating with the dead - an emerging and popular practice in the era - and according to Stowe, guided or inspired her in writing the epic novel.

Reynolds highlights how well Stowe covered her bases in her writing. She seemingly included something for everyone in Uncle Tom's Cabin and thought out her characters well to combat a great deal of the criticism that the book did eventually receive. Much of the book was set in Kentucky - mythicly thought to be then and many years thereafter to be a region of the mildest form of slavery - with kind masters like the Shelbys. But, it too included the terribly sadistic, Simon Legree, a northerner moved South turned slave owner. It covered, somewhat covertly, the sexual exploitation that many female slaves experienced at the hands of their masters through the character of Cassie. And, it showed through characters like Eliza and George Harris that slaves would take desperate measures in the fight for their freedom.

Despite all of Stowe's proactive plot line and character development efforts, the novel was, not surprisingly, maligned by the slave states during the antebellum era, the Civil War, Reconstruction and well into the Jim Crow years. Reynolds contends that the backlash from Uncle Tom's Cabin's continuing popularity produced such works as Thomas Dixon's The Clansman, which in turn inspired D.W. Griffith's epic silent film Birth of a Nation. In the antebellum years it brought forth a whole string of proslavery counter novels such as Aunt Phillis's Cabin, The Lofty and the Lowly, and Uncle Robin in His Cabin in Virginia and Tom in His One in Boston.

Stowe borrowed from many books, current events and first-hand experiences to create her story and characters. Period slave narratives from men such as Josiah Henson, Lewis Clarke and others helped shape Uncle Tom. And, Stowe apparently received some of her information on the institution when she visited Washington,  Kentucky (Mason County) in the 1830s while she was a resident of nearby Cincinnati.

Reynolds interestingly, but briefly, discusses the history of the derogatory label, "Uncle Tom." According to his research the term was first used by Frederick Douglass in 1865 in reference to what African American soldiers were proving they were not. Reynolds explains that the term was used by Douglass and other later black leaders to "goad fellow blacks toward pride and self assertion..."

Mightier Than The Sword is a well written book. I think anyone that wants a better understanding of this extremely influential novel and its author will enjoy and benefit from reading it.  On scale of 1 to 5, I give it a 4.5. 

1 comment:

  1. Delete my previous comment. The Stowe House in Brunswick Maine was a restaurant for years, and is now a private residence owned by Bowdoin College. Stowe and her husband lived here from 1850-1852 and it is here where she wrote the novel.