- Mightier than the Sword: “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and the Battle for America
No doubt, most Civil War buffs are familiar with the oft-told anecdote concerning Harriet Beecher Stowe’s encounter with Abraham Lincoln in December 1862. Meeting in the White House in the wake of the bloodbath at Antietam, and within weeks of what would be the Union’s defeat at Fredericksburg, the lanky president is supposed to have said to the diminutive authoress, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war.” In Mightier than the Sword: “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and the Battle for America, David S. Reynolds makes no effort to either verify or dispute this tale. “Whether [Lincoln] actually said it is moot,” he argues. What matters, according to Reynolds, is that in Lincoln’s era “many claimed that Stowe had brought on the Civil War” (x).
Yet to read Uncle Tom’s Cabin simply as the work that ignited the great war, Reynolds contends, is to fail to fully credit the “most influential book ever written by an American” (xiv). Stowe’s work—serialized in the National Era from the summer of 1850 to the spring of 1851 and first published in book form in 1852—was astoundingly powerful in its own day. Northerners, formerly hostile to the cause of abolitionism, were won over by the novel’s antislavery message. Southerners, finding themselves suddenly on the defensive, penned angry anti-Stowe poems and proslavery [End Page 600] novels. But the impact of the novel endured long after the end of slavery. Uncle Tom’s Cabin can be credited, Reynolds claims, with everything from prompting the virulently racist and reactionary film The Birth of a Nation (1915), to fueling the “proletarian spirit behind the Russian Revolution” (174). (The novel, originally considered too incendiary in a land that depended on the labor of 22 million serfs, was banned in Russia until 1857; after the ban was lifted, sixty-seven separate editions were published before the czar abdicated his throne in 1917.)
Reynolds is interested in Stowe’s novel both as a text and as a cultural force, and his thoroughly researched exploration of all matters related to Uncle Tom’s Cabin is impressive. He traces the novel’s long publication history both in America and abroad. He examines the mid-nineteenth-century material culture spin-offs (puzzles, chinaware, handkerchiefs, and numerous other “Tomitudes”). He illuminates the complex sequence of the novel’s many adaptations for stage and screen. Many of the details Reynolds uncovers are fascinating: Frederick Douglass requested to pose as Uncle Tom for a ceremony at the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. A Yiddish version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin staged in 1900 at a Jewish theater in Chicago had Uncle Tom reading from the Talmud. Judy Garland appeared in blackface as Topsy in Everybody Sing (1938), a year before The Wizard of Oz. To ponder these three facts alone is to begin to realize the far-ranging reach of the novel.
Reynolds also explores the cultural, religious, and political influences that inform Stowe’s novel. The cultural phenomena, for example, include “visionary fiction, biblical narratives, pro- and anti-Catholicism, gender issues, temperance, moral reform, [and] minstrelsy” (87–88). Reynolds examines each of these and contends that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was so well received because Stowe expertly weaves together these many popular cultural threads.
Reynolds is an unapologetic fan of Stowe’s book. He defends it retroactively against New Critics (many early practitioners, he points out, were misogynist southerners), first-wave feminists (“The novel isn’t nearly as conservative as Ann Douglas suggests in [her 1977 book] The Feminization of American Culture”), and all other detractors (45). In 1949 the African American novelist James Baldwin labeled Uncle Tom’s Cabin “a very bad book.” Not surprisingly, Reynolds rejects Baldwin’s “blinkered critique.” He counters that Stowe “invested blacks with beauty and power to a degree that no other pre...