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Book Review: Mightier Than The Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America by David S. Reynolds

African American

Book Review: Mightier Than The Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America by David S. Reynolds

The escalating one-upmanship led to some truly bizarre innovations, such as casting famous boxers in the lead roles. Reynolds described how Peter Jackson, a famous black boxer, figured into the entertainments: “Uncle Tom, between acts or just before dying, would momentarily trade his slave costume for boxing trunks and spar for three rounds with another actor before resuming his tragic role.”

Mightier Than The Sword by David S. Reynolds
Mightier Than The Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America
David S. Reynolds
W. W. Norton & Company, 351 pp.
CLR [rating:4]

A Work of Towering Cultural and Historic Impact

Literary scholar Harold Bloom has published extensively on what he calls The Western Canon – Don Quixote, Hamlet, Great Expectations and the like – works that exerted powerful cultural influences. Other authors have followed with their own choices for canonization, with titles like 1001 Books to Read Before You Die and The Well Educated Mind: A Guide to the Classical Education You Never Had. I have not surveyed all such titles, but after reading David S. Reynolds’s Mightier Than The Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin And The Battle for America, it seems clear that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 1852 anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, should be on each and every list of this kind. Along with the Bible, it just might be one of the most influential stories ever created.

Did you know that the first theatrical usage of Edison’s light bulbs was in a New York City theater for a play based on Stowe’s novel? Or that Vladimir Lenin and Leo Tolstoy both admired Uncle Tom’s Cabin in their Russian language editions of it. Or that Mary Pickford’s stage debut occurred in an Uncle Tom’s Cabin play as Little Eva? Such items are valuable takeaways, but Mightier Than The Sword contains more than trivia to dazzle at dinner parties. It is an account of the creation and reception of Stowe’s little story and how it influenced history, not just in precipitating the American Civil War, but as a global force for progressivism. As Reynolds states, “it summoned readers into the consciousness of human beings involved in slavery, especially enslaved blacks themselves.” Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s humanistic message reached far beyond the page in ways Stowe could never have imagined or, in some cases, sanctioned.

Originally published as a serial in The National Era during the second half of 1851, Harriett Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin attracted a devoted following and demand warranted its release as a two-volume novel in March 1852. Domestic copies sold like wildfire and word, not to mention unlicensed versions in other languages, spread in Europe and beyond. Within a year of it’s publication, 310,000 copies of the book had been sold in the United States and over a million in England. Mrs. Stowe became a very wealthy woman and a celebrity. Before the end of the decade, her book’s anti-slavery message steered and shaped the political debate over slavery, galvanizing both sides, as the country marched irrevocably into civil war. Abroad, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was received as a revolutionary text. Disenfranchised groups around the globe mobilized for better lives after learning about the arbitrary, unjust, and unchristian nature of institutionalized oppression via Stowe’s story of Uncle Tom, Little Eva, Topsy, and Simon Legree.

While the author ably describes the influences and experiences that inspired Stowe to write the book, the story of its reception and impact is where Reynolds’s work really astounds. American life after 1852, as Reynolds shows, takes place atop a cultural foundation laid by Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Apart from the commercial product tie-ins decorating homes across the country, the characters and events in the story were popularly known in all circles, due to the novel’s success and a proliferation of plays inspired by it. Theatrical adaptations by George Aiken and H.J. Conway were especially successful and spawned their own legion of imitators. According to Reynolds, Tom plays attracted, “working-class types who, in many cases, had never even heard of Stowe’s novel.” This demographic — illiterate or barely literate, non-readers — attended the plays in droves, helping get the story firmly into the nation’s cultural bloodstream. Interestingly, Stowe never earned a penny from the abundant stage versions of her story; Uncle Tom’s Cabin took on a life of its own and would exert a powerful influence in the American entertainment industry long into the era of cinema.

With a taste for the outlandish, Reynolds recounts the startling evolution of the Tom plays over the decades. The sensational aspects of the original story – Eliza fleeing across the ice, the mountain pass shoot out, the whipping of Tom by Legree – became essential episodes in the plays and favorite characters like Tom, Eva, and Topsy were considered star turns and drew top talent. The rest of the story proved remarkably fluid and dynamic, changing to suit tastes and attract new audiences. Ironically, Marks, the gruff slave-hunter, morphed over the years into a comic relief character, bringing silliness to the story’s serious episodes. Not content with the sight-gags of Marks bumbling around the stage, some producers changed his occupation and made him a lawyer.

Live animals and elaborate stage effects became selling points for competing productions. After adding real bloodhounds had become passé, producers landed on the novel idea of inserting doubles of characters: why see an old Tom play with a single Topsy, when you can see another version across town with two Topsys dancing as mirror images? The idea was commercial gold and doubling became a widespread convention throughout the country. The escalating one-upmanship led to some truly bizarre innovations, such as casting famous boxers in the lead roles. Reynolds described how Peter Jackson, a famous black boxer, figured into the entertainments: “Uncle Tom, between acts or just before dying, would momentarily trade his slave costume for boxing trunks and spar for three rounds with another actor before resuming his tragic role.”

The widespread popularity and omnipresence of these plays dominated showbiz throughout the country for decades and audiences returned time and again. With a Rocky Horror Picture Show-type familiarity, audiences at Tom plays were often active participants in the shows, hissing when Legree made his entrance or interacting with Marks to distract him from following the fleeing slaves. In our distracted times, it’s amazing to think of such enduring appeal of a single story. Along with opera, minstrel shows, and vaudeville, Tom plays became their own immensely successful genre of American entertainment. Among mainstream trends that seemed to capture the mass public’s attention in later times — Twilight, Shrek, The Da Vinci Code, Friends, or The Jane Fonda Workout — none could ever boast of approaching the sustained impact of Stowe’s story. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a cultural force from 1852 until at least the 1970s.

The “Battle for America” of the subtitle, is the conflict between the progressive, anti-slavery message of Stowe’s novel and the reactionary, conservative elements who resisted the abolition of slavery. While the Civil War was the most bloody and costly front in that battle, Reynolds demonstrates how the ideological debate raged on long after the war ended, with Uncle Tom’s Cabin never far from the socio-cultural intersection of values. Just as it inspired sympathetic books in the same vein, it also precipitated a flood of pro-slavery novels that romanticized the Old South. The reactionary anti-Tom books, as Reynolds states, might have ended up in the dustbin of history had it not been for Thomas Dixon’s venomous works catching the fancy of filmmaker D.W. Griffith. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), a blockbuster of the new medium of cinema, reignited the battle. Uncle Tom’s Cabin had its share of film versions – nine silent versions between 1903 and 1927 — but the old warhorse could not compete with Griffith’s controversial masterpiece, nor the paranoia it inflamed in whites about black male sexuality.

Reynolds often argues on behalf of Stowe’s novel beyond its likely reach, as if the book were a silver bullet to the werewolf of racism. While Stowe’s Uncle Tom is anything but spineless or accommodating, a caricature of him, popularized by the plays, portrayed him as a harmless, old slave who repeatedly acquiesces with “yes massa.” This caricature became the basis of the racial insult many associate with the name “Uncle Tom.” While this epithet may not be employed with the regularity or pack the same punch as during the Civil Rights era, it is unclear whether this is due to greater awareness of Stowe’s novel or because the story and characters no longer resonate. According to Reynolds, “The derogatory Uncle Tom epithet survives but now rings hollow, because Stowe’s actual, original Uncle Tom is being understood.”

To fully engage Reynold’s text, it is helpful to have read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but ours may be the most Tom-ignorant generation since the book’s release over 150 years ago. While the author claims a remarkable upsurge of interest for Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the present era, he offers little evidence to support that assertion. His analysis of films using Stowe’s characters jumps from the Shirley Temple vehicles of the 1930s to the televised mini-series of Alex Haley’s Roots in 1977, failing to convince us that Americans of the twenty-first century still know and are moved by Stowe’s original characters. Surveys of college reading lists or book clubs, if available, might have helped. Contrary to Reynolds’s assertion, it seems that Uncle Tom’s Cabin has entered a period of neglect and, compared with its decades of cultural dominance, obscurity. Its religiosity and sentimentality have not resonated with modern readers as they had once stirred earlier generations. Of the literature dealing with slavery in American Society, Frederick Douglas’s narrative, Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and Toni Morrison’s Beloved, I suspect, are much more widely read these days. Huckleberry Finn, in fact, still manages to periodically arouse controversy as when an edition purged of the N-word was published in early 2011 to the relief of some squeamish teachers and the outrage of most everybody else. Clearly this troublesome period in our nation’s history exudes as much power and relevance as ever and Stowe’s voice deserves a to be heard in most discussions about it. Though Uncle Tom’s Cabin may not have attracted many new readers in the last 30 years, Mightier than the Sword, a compelling and authoritative book-about-the-book, just might change that.

Jeffery S. McMillan is an author and researcher who worked for ten years as an archivist at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City. He currently lives in the Bay Area. He has written for periodicals, academic journals, and the "New Grove Dictionary of American Music." His book, "Delightfulee: The Life and Music of Lee Morgan" (University of Michigan Press, 2008) was the winner of the Jazz Times readers poll, "Best in the Industry: Books."

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