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MIGHTIER THAN THE SWORD

UNCLE TOM'S CABIN AND THE BATTLE FOR AMERICA

A provocative overview of the life and afterlife of one of American literature’s most important texts.

Published in 1852, Uncle Tom’s Cabin has a battered reputation, not least in the way the term “Uncle Tom” has become an epithet for somebody who sells out his own race. But Reynolds (English and American Studies/City Univ. of New York; Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson, 2008, etc.) successfully repositions the novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811–1896) as a major political work, crucial not just to the abolitionist movement, but as kindling for the Civil War and an important inspiration to cultural discussions of race relations through most of the 20th century. In the early chapters, Reynolds examines aspects of Stowe’s character that inspired the book: a brand of Christianity that made her sympathetic to abolitionism, an intuitive understanding of adventure stories that captured the public imagination and a sentimental style that prompted readers to rethink their prejudices without feeling provoked. That last element earned Stowe a reputation as a soft antislavery agitator, but there’s no question Uncle Tom’s Cabin struck a chord. It sold so well, in fact, that it inspired a whole shelf of anti-Stowe novels; among the most prominent was Thomas Dixon Jr.’s novel The Clansman, which in turn inspired D.W. Griffith’s “adeptly made yet thematically abhorrent film The Birth of a Nation.” But Uncle Tom’s Cabin influenced the civil-rights movement as well. In the decades after the Civil War, there were few communities that hadn’t seen a “Tom play,” a stage version of the novel. Reynolds somewhat soft-pedals how these plays perpetuated racist stereotypes, but it’s clear that Uncle Tom himself largely retained his status as a symbol of nonviolent resistance, not self-denying passivity. To that end, Stowe’s vision endured, as seen in the acts of Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr. and other activists for racial equality. In showing how that sentiment played out not just in the novel and plays but in Shirley Temple films, Mickey Mouse cartoons, magazines ads, Roots and more, Reynolds defends Stowe’s influence, even if that influence was frustratingly slow. A sharp work of cross-disciplinary criticism that gives new power to a diminished novel.

 

Pub Date: June 14, 2011

ISBN: 978-0-393-08132-9

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Norton

Review Posted Online: April 5, 2011

Kirkus Reviews Issue: March 15, 2011

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KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON

THE OSAGE MURDERS AND THE BIRTH OF THE FBI

Dogged original research and superb narrative skills come together in this gripping account of pitiless evil.

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Greed, depravity, and serial murder in 1920s Oklahoma.

During that time, enrolled members of the Osage Indian nation were among the wealthiest people per capita in the world. The rich oil fields beneath their reservation brought millions of dollars into the tribe annually, distributed to tribal members holding "headrights" that could not be bought or sold but only inherited. This vast wealth attracted the attention of unscrupulous whites who found ways to divert it to themselves by marrying Osage women or by having Osage declared legally incompetent so the whites could fleece them through the administration of their estates. For some, however, these deceptive tactics were not enough, and a plague of violent death—by shooting, poison, orchestrated automobile accident, and bombing—began to decimate the Osage in what they came to call the "Reign of Terror." Corrupt and incompetent law enforcement and judicial systems ensured that the perpetrators were never found or punished until the young J. Edgar Hoover saw cracking these cases as a means of burnishing the reputation of the newly professionalized FBI. Bestselling New Yorker staff writer Grann (The Devil and Sherlock Holmes: Tales of Murder, Madness, and Obsession, 2010, etc.) follows Special Agent Tom White and his assistants as they track the killers of one extended Osage family through a closed local culture of greed, bigotry, and lies in pursuit of protection for the survivors and justice for the dead. But he doesn't stop there; relying almost entirely on primary and unpublished sources, the author goes on to expose a web of conspiracy and corruption that extended far wider than even the FBI ever suspected. This page-turner surges forward with the pacing of a true-crime thriller, elevated by Grann's crisp and evocative prose and enhanced by dozens of period photographs.

Dogged original research and superb narrative skills come together in this gripping account of pitiless evil.

Pub Date: April 18, 2017

ISBN: 978-0-385-53424-6

Page Count: 352

Publisher: Doubleday

Review Posted Online: Feb. 1, 2017

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15, 2017

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A PEOPLE'S HISTORY OF THE UNITED STATES

For Howard Zinn, long-time civil rights and anti-war activist, history and ideology have a lot in common. Since he thinks that everything is in someone's interest, the historian—Zinn posits—has to figure out whose interests he or she is defining/defending/reconstructing (hence one of his previous books, The Politics of History). Zinn has no doubts about where he stands in this "people's history": "it is a history disrespectful of governments and respectful of people's movements of resistance." So what we get here, instead of the usual survey of wars, presidents, and institutions, is a survey of the usual rebellions, strikes, and protest movements. Zinn starts out by depicting the arrival of Columbus in North America from the standpoint of the Indians (which amounts to their standpoint as constructed from the observations of the Europeans); and, after easily establishing the cultural disharmony that ensued, he goes on to the importation of slaves into the colonies. Add the laborers and indentured servants that followed, plus women and later immigrants, and you have Zinn's amorphous constituency. To hear Zinn tell it, all anyone did in America at any time was to oppress or be oppressed; and so he obscures as much as his hated mainstream historical foes do—only in Zinn's case there is that absurd presumption that virtually everything that came to pass was the work of ruling-class planning: this amounts to one great indictment for conspiracy. Despite surface similarities, this is not a social history, since we get no sense of the fabric of life. Instead of negating the one-sided histories he detests, Zinn has merely reversed the image; the distortion remains.

Pub Date: Jan. 1, 1979

ISBN: 0061965588

Page Count: 772

Publisher: Harper & Row

Review Posted Online: May 26, 2012

Kirkus Reviews Issue: Jan. 1, 1979

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