Mightier than the Sword: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Battle for America

David S. Reynolds. Norton, $27.95 (352p) ISBN 978-0-393-08132-9
In 1868, a writer in the Nation coined the phrase "the great American novel" to describe Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1851 Uncle Tom's Cabin. Distinguished historian Reynolds (Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson) does his best to support this debatable epithet, quoting endless contemporaries who asserted that Stowe's novel ignited the Civil War and emancipated the slaves, its impact extending well into the 20th century. Reynolds's most fascinating research illuminates Stowe's skillful use of popular culture—from Stephen Foster's songs to the cult of domesticity—and her Christian faith (exemplified by Tom and little Eva St. Clare) to make her radical antislavery stance palatable to Northerners indifferent to the brutality of slavery and the humanity of the black slaves. As Reynolds shows, Uncle Tom's Cabin itself became a cultural phenomenon, with commercial tie-ins (called Tomitudes), Southern ripostes, and myriad Uncle Tom plays and movies. He discusses these in more detail than any but cultural historians will need, digressing into Gone with the Wind and the depiction of blacks in early movies. Reynolds's narrow focus on Stowe and her novel also leads him to skim important events leading to the war, and relegate giants like Frederick Douglass to supporting roles. But Reynolds's discussion of the novel's mid-20th-century ill repute and the "Uncle Tom" slur comes full circle with the novel's recent literary resurrection, to which he contributes with his exacting research. By highlighting the book's immense impact and literary value, and by showing Tom as not subservient but a strong, dignified man who sacrificed his life in defying his cruel master, Simon Legree, Reynolds shows Stowe's novel to be a passionate, powerful, acid-etched critique of slavery that remains an American classic. 15 illus. (June)
Reviewed on: 04/25/2011
Release date: 06/01/2011
Genre: Nonfiction
Paperback - 351 pages - 978-0-393-34235-2
Open Ebook - 368 pages - 978-0-393-08234-0
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