Friday, August 05, 2011

New and Noteworthy----Was The Fugitive Slave Law Repealed By Uncle Tom's Cabin?

Mightier Than The Sword: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Battle For America, David S. Reynolds, Norton Publishing, 351 pp., 43 b/w illustrations, notes, bibliography, index, 2011, $27.95.

Before the Civil War Uncle Tom's Cabin: Life Among The Lowly was banned in the slave holding states and readers were jailed if found with a copy. In December 1862, Lincoln greeted the author "Is this the little woman who made this great war?" This remark may be a false memory written down three decades later by the author's relative but it reveals that maybe Uncle Tom's Cabin is better remembered as a provoking piece of literature than it is for plot and characters. Is the novel's reputation more important than its contents? Other novels, such as Jack Kerouac's One The Road [1957] and poems such as Allen Ginsburg's Howl[ 1955] have had similar fate. People know enough about them to get the Jeopardy question right, but haven't read them.

Starting with the June 5, 1851 issue, Uncle Tom's Cabin appeared as a weekly serial in theNational Era, an abolitionist newspaper. The serialized story, like Charles Dicken's serialized works, began to change hearts and minds from 'I don't care' to 'Maybe slave holding is wrong.' The book was published in 1852. It is estimated that each copy of Uncle Tom's Cabin before the Civil War had ten readers or listeners. At a time when reading aloud to the household was typical, each copy served an audience that discussed it immediately afterward.

In this modern era it is difficult to read Uncle Tom's Cabin; CWL started it twice. The dialects were too thick to read either silently or aloud. The problem was solved by securing an audio book read by an professional reader. It worked not only for CWL but also for his children, who on more than one occasion refused to leave the car until a chapter was concluded.

Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Battle for America, is a biography of the life of a book in the context of 150 years of American literary, social, political, and entertainment history. David S. Reynolds knows this history well; his biographies of Walt Whitman and the notorious John Brown are fine examples that teach their readers as much about American culture as they do Whitman and Brown. Reynolds shows that Uncle Tom's Cabinwas central not only to the antebellum era but also from the Reconstruction era through today. The themes of fairness, family, and the empowerment of marginalized minorities are constant themes in American life and groups. The novel speaks to African-Americans, women, social and political protest movements that struggle within the confines of the American democratic republic.

Reynolds offers interpretations of religion, reform, literature [both literary and pulp fiction] and theater. He examines two plot lines from the novel. The Northern one involves the escape of a slave family from Kentucky to Canada and the Southern one traces the painful separation of Tom, a slave, from his family when he is sold from Kentucky to Mississippi. For Reynolds, Stowe realistic human narrative had "a crystal clear social point: slavery was evil, and so were the political and economic institutions that supported it." [xii]. What made slavery wrong? For Stowe, the central issue was that slavery destroyed families.

Uncle Tom's Cabin was immediately translated into European and other languages, including Russian and Chinese. Vladimir Lenin named it as his favorite book and cited it as an impetus for his revolutionary life. Mightier Than the Sword relates the path of the novel from the pen of Stowe, an emotionally and economically depressed mother living in Cincinnati, Ohio, through the modern Civil Rights Movement that denigrated Uncle Tom as a black, servile, master-pleasing character. Both Martin Luther King and Malcolm X were labeled Uncle Toms by African American radicals who pursued violent confrontations. Uncle Tom's Cabin provoked Southerners to offer counter-fictions, the most successful of which came 40 years after the Civil War. Thomas Dixon was so enraged by a theatrical performance of Uncle Tom's Cabin that he wrote three novels.

These novels were used as source documents for D.W. Griffith's film The Birth of A Nation. Reynolds merges this racist film with the Dunning school of thought regarding Reconstruction. The Dunning school believed that Reconstruction was the Dark Age of the South, one in which corrupt Carpetbaggers and Scalawags advanced illiterate, uncouth, lust-filled blacks into political power. The school understood the violent response of the Ku Klux Klan as noble and necessary.

Was the Fugitive Slave Law repealed by Uncle Tom's Cabin? Reynolds leave little doubt that the novel did indeed convert many Northerners who didn't worry about slavery to a position in which worry and then resistance was an acceptable response to the extension of slavery in the western territories. During the Victorian era, the idea of 'family' was foundational to society. Uncle Tom's Cabin showed that slavery was an assault on the ideal of family.

It is not necessary to have read Uncle Tom's Cabin before reading Mightier Than The Sword. Reading or listening to Uncle Tom's Cabin after reading Mightier Than The Sword would be true to the goal of a liberal arts education. Living history presenters would be well served by addressing Mightier Than The Sword. Quite likely the historical person whom the presenter is portraying read Uncle Tom's Cabin and, whether a Northerner or Southerner, it challenged them.

Bottom Image Source
: Classic Comics Illustrated
Caption: Simon Legree on the cover of the comic book adaptation of Uncle Tom's Cabin (Classic Comics #15, November 1943 issue).

No comments: