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.