True Songs of Freedom: Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Russian Culture and Society by John McKay (review)
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True Songs of Freedom: Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Russian Culture and Society. By John McKay. (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2013. Pp. 157. $24.95 paper)

The shared history of the United States and Russia in the modern period provides countless opportunities for historians to compare and contrast. Significantly, rural forced labor, and the ideologies that supported and opposed it, flourished in both nations up to the 1860s. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s incendiary Uncle Tom’s Cabin, first published in 1852, found an eager audience among the educated elite of Russia. John McKay’s True Songs of Freedom considers in detail the history of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Russia, through dozens of editions, across more than 150 years. In his study of the “enabling conditions” that shaped Russian reception of the novel (p. 110, n18), McKay argues that reading culture in Russia “has always been complexly configured, with multiple imperatives—commercial, artistic, educational, ideological, geopolitical, self-representational,” and that “Stowe’s novel has a distinctive, perhaps unique power to draw those imperatives to the surface” (p. 96). The imperatives were, of course, constantly contested, and they changed over time. McKay studies the reception of the novel primarily through the written responses of the educated elite, from its first appearance in 1857–58 to the post-Soviet period.

Stowe’s novel seemed especially important to the Russian intelligentsia in light of the “Peasant Question” of the 1860s. Elite readers disagreed on whether its “analytical force,” its “sentimental power,” or some combination of the two could serve as the best weapon against Russian social inequities (p. 10). Nor could readers agree on the applicability of the novel to Russian conditions and characters, an argument that fed the quest for national identity by the Russian elite. In the postemancipation period, the prospect of a newly free and literate mass readership revitalized interest in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The novelist Leo Tolstoy saw the novel as an example of “elevated moral sentiment,” and Uncle Tom himself as an ethical model for “simple” people and children (pp. 43–44). The novel also fed elite [End Page 516] representations of the peasantry, “attitudes of both sentimental admiration and patronizing paternalism” (p. 55), as McKay shows in fascinating period illustrations.

In the early Soviet period, the novel’s editors made use of judicious cuts and character reworkings to excise the religious theme of the work and transform it into a work of secular morality. In various editions, Tom became the exemplar of Soviet self-sacrifice and firmness of conviction, even an anti-fascist hero. The role of the Soviet Union as the champion of people oppressed by world capitalism, particularly in the racist and corrupt United States, became the dominant theme by the beginning of the Cold War. “Again,” notes McKay, “an attempt is made to retain the moral-emotional power of Stowe’s tale, while harnessing and contextualizing it in new, un-Stowe-like ways” (p. 87). McKay concludes his study by describing the post-Soviet popularity of another Old South novel, Gone with the Wind. The novel’s materialistic and pragmatic heroine offers a way forward in a time of “both civilizational crisis and the emergence of a new set of material [capitalist] relations out of crisis” (p. 95).

True Songs of Freedom is fascinating in its details and important in its conclusions. For, although it may come as no surprise that Russian educated elites of any era could be contentious and heavy-handed in their dedication to (or against) social progress, the range of opinions about and applications of a single novel expose the multiple, changing ways that educated Russia defined itself, nationally and internationally. Perhaps the response of the “ordinary” reader to Uncle Tom’s Cabin could be explored further, however tentatively. As the recent historiography on readers and readership in Russia has shown, the reading public often had its own agendas that could be difficult for educated elites to reach, let alone control, particularly as literature became commercialized. Nevertheless, McKay’s book is a most welcome addition to broader literary and cultural histories of Russia and the United States, as well as their shared history...