David S. Reynolds' Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Battle for America: Did Harriet Beecher Stowe's…

Reading between the lines.
July 18 2011 6:44 AM

The Strange Career of Uncle Tom

How the little Yankee woman's book got so big.

Harriet Beecher-Stowe. Click image to expand.

Who can recite from memory even a single line of dialogue or description from Uncle Tom's Cabin, the most influential novel in American history? Anybody? No, I didn't think so. Yet almost everyone who knows anything at all about Harriet Beecher Stowe's book can recall Abraham Lincoln's famous remark testifying to its earthshaking impact. When the author dropped by to meet the president one day in 1862, he supposedly clasped her dainty hand in his oversize paw and said: "Is this the little woman who made this great war?"

Lincoln's quip may well be apocryphal. It wasn't written down until 34 years later, and even Stowe's visit to the White House is fuzzily documented at best. Still, the story—like so many literary anecdotes—points to a larger truth: Uncle Tom's Cabin remainsbetter-known for its consequences than its contents. Almost from the moment of the book's publication in 1852, it seemed to spawn a life of its own, its pages becoming a kind of potting soil for all sorts of strange and luxuriant clambering vines: music, plays, social causes, political movements, wars.

Mightier Than the Sword, David S. Reynolds' new book is, for the most part, neither a biography of Stowe nor an exploration of her role in the struggle over slavery and abolition. It is, rather, a kind of biography of the novel itself, tracing an arc that spans two whole centuries, from Stowe's birth in 1811 to the present. In a sense, it is also a history of American culture from the era of Transcendentalism to that of television miniseries.

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Reynolds—the author of similarly expansive and illuminating studies of Walt Whitman's America and the Jacksonian era, among others—makes no small claims about his subject. In his telling, Uncle Tom's Cabin did not merely spark the Civil War, it "was central to redefining American democracy on a more egalitarian basis" and also "gave impetus to revolutions in Russia, China, Brazil, Cuba, and elsewhere." He goes so far as to say, in the book's final paragraph, that Stowe's work "ushered into the world" the "spirit of interracial sympathy and true democratic justice" that culminated in the Civil Rights era of the 1960s.

Might all this be going just a bit over the top? More than a few modern scholars, as Reynolds himself notes, have minimized the impact of Stowe's novel. One recent critic called its political effects "negligible," while another asked, rhetorically, "In what sense does a novel have the power to lead a nation to battle?"

Yet one need not trust Reynolds—or Lincoln, for that matter—to become convinced of the book's astonishingly far-flung repercussions. One of the pleasures of Mightier Than the Sword is discovering that Uncle Tom's fingerprints on history are almost everywhere, attested to by a motley assortment of observers. The novelist William Dean Howells said that it "move[d] the whole world more than any other book has moved it." Lenin cited it as his favorite childhood book, declaring that it provided "a charge to last a lifetime." James Weldon Johnson recorded that it "opened my eyes to who and what I was … in fact, it gave me my being." One of America's greatest historians and civil rights advocates, W.E.B. DuBois, wrote of Stowe: "Thus to a frail overburdened Yankee woman with a steadfast moral purpose we Americans, black and white, owe gratitude for the freedom and union that exist today in the United States of America."

Nor was it only Stowe's fans who acknowledged her power. The white Southern writer Thomas Dixon, whose novel The Clansman was adapted into the film Birth of a Nation, wrote: "A little Yankee woman wrote a book. The single act of that woman's will caused the war, killed a million people, desolated and ruined the South, and changed the history of the world." (By now you may be wondering just how tall this "little" Yankee woman really was. Answer: five feet even.)

Opening Stowe's actual book after all these awestruck encomiums and blistering excoriations, a first-time reader might expect to find thunder and lightning between its covers in place of ink and paper. Uncle Tom's Cabin is not actually as turgid a work as some have made it out to be. For the most part, the story moves along briskly and suspensefully, and Stowe has an undeniable gift for creating memorable characters and vignettes: Simon Legree, Topsy, Little Eva, and the titular cabin itself. Yet much of Uncle Tom's Cabin reads like C-grade Charles Dickens, like the more preachy and sentimental stretches of The Old Curiosity Shop and Little Dorrit.

The novel's most famous scene—Eliza's escape with her baby over the ice floes of the Ohio River—fills less than two short paragraphs. Dickens (whom Stowe deplored for his frequent allusions to "spirituous drink of all sorts") would have prolonged the terror, would have made us feel the frozen blocks teetering beneath our feet, see the bloodhounds snapping at our heels, and hear the bullets whistling past our ears. Stowe sends Eliza hopscotching vaguely across to land with a thud on the farther shore, three sentences later.

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