Long Island Books: That Was No Uncle Tom

By J. Kirkpatrick Flack
David S. Reynolds -“Mightier Than the Sword”
David S. Reynolds City University of New York

    David S. Reynolds’s latest contribution to our understanding of American cultural history is particularly appropriate as we enter this first year of the Civil War Sesquicentennial. “Mightier Than the Sword” explains why President Abraham Lincoln may have rhetorically asked Harriet Beecher Stowe if she was “the little woman who made this great war?”

“Mightier Than the Sword”
David S. Reynolds
W.W. Norton, $27.95

    Her best-selling “Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly” was a powerful indictment of slavery. Based on the higher law of moral conscience, its profound impact resulted from realistic imagery, credible characters, and plot situations that touched the sensibilities of masses of Northerners. It was as though a huge popular audience had been awaiting an antislavery message more compelling than anything previously brought forth. In 1852 Stowe provided it. Now Mr. Reynolds has given us a most impressive explication of its enduring importance across the sweep of multiple contexts.
    Stowe’s classic tale resolved her own quandary concerning what to do about this odious form of oppression. “ ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ presented a new way of dealing with slavery,” argues Mr. Reynolds, “it summoned readers into the consciousness of human beings involved in slavery, especially enslaved blacks themselves.” She accomplished this by recognizing and using key influences permeating antebellum society (benevolent Protestantism, assumed inherent inequalities embedded in gender and race, the cult of domesticity, myriad reform movements, and more); assimilating folkways; absorbing slave narratives; simulating speech patterns, and exemplifying popular culture forms to which readers who viewed their country as a republic of virtue reacted favorably.
    It first appeared as weekly installments in The National Era, edited by Gamaliel Bailey. Mr. Reynolds devotes a couple of sentences to these serial publications. But the Bailey-Stowe connection — rich with implications suggesting positions she occupied on the antislavery spectrum — could have been more fully explored.
    Bailey, having worked with James G. Birney at a moderate Cincinnati abolitionist newspaper while Stowe resided there, founded the Washington, D.C., National Era in 1847 to advocate abolishing the slave trade in the District of Columbia. Bailey was not an “ultra,” using temperate language and taking a measured approach to the issue; slavery was patently wrong, he felt, though constitutionally legal. Nevertheless, the next year when an unsuccessful mass escape of slaves down the Potomac River on the schooner Pearl occurred, a brick-throwing mob stormed his office and demanded that he leave the city. (Mobbing of this sort destroyed Birney’s press in 1836 and forced him to flee Cincinnati.) Between 1848 and 1852 two captives from the ill-fated Pearl, Mary and Emily Edmonson, became intimately involved with Henry Ward Beecher (who raised money for their freedom) and his sister Harriet (who helped pay for their education).
    Mr. Reynolds notes this, but stops short of considering possible links to The National Era. Given his interest in following “the many tributary streams” that fed into Stowe’s abolitionism and sympathy for blacks, her association with Bailey might have been navigated to advantage.
    Stowe (1811-1896) lived in tumultuous times. Nineteenth-century America accentuated unrelenting and ever-accelerating change, whereas she was dreamy and visionary by nature. Given prevailing assumptions about innately ordained human differences and separate spheres, this contrast amounted to a male-female dichotomy.
    Thus Stowe wrote as a woman. “Many of the conversations in ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ are dominated by women, most of whom express views that challenge corrupt male-dominated institutions, especially slavery.” Mr. Reynolds points out that the heroines to whom she gave voice were multidimensional and thereby inoffensive to mainstream readers. “Eliza Harris became the century’s best-known feminist because of her brave flight across the icy Ohio; but she is also a devoted wife, mother and Christian.”
    Religion, like womanhood, constituted a major aspect of Stowe’s rapidly expanding, aggressive, market-driven world. Again, personal experience enabled her to engage society through literature.
    She grew up in a minister’s household — Lyman Beecher served an East Hampton congregation from 1800 until 1810, when he was called to Litchfield, Conn., where Harriet was born and began writing while a student at the Female Academy — then after the Beecher family moved to Cincinnati and she married the Lane Theological Seminarian Calvin Stowe, self-examinations of her soul were constant. These gave rise to spiritual conversions, in 1825 and 1843, and a belief in what Mr. Reynolds terms “relational religion . . . an instinct to preach on paper which would inspire her to write religious fiction.” No wonder the final phrase in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” reads: “the wrath of Almighty God!”
    These concluding words were God’s, as related by Stowe. She visualized divine purpose and phrased it in ways comprehensible to ordinary readers and listeners, creating connective spiritual feelings and emotional bonds among her huge audience. (Mr. Reynolds makes the valuable observation that countless antebellum Americans received Stowe’s message by having it read to them.) As Mr. Reynolds recounts her telling a friend, the success of the novel was because “God wrote ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin.’ ”
    God definitely was antislavery and resolutely against the 1850 fugitive slave law designed to shut down the Underground Railroad by requiring that slaves who escaped to free states be returned to their owners. Yet Stowe did not denounce Southerners. Rather, those caught up in slaveholding, slave trading, and slave catching were victims of an evil system. Her commitment to common humaneness and hopes for Christian redemption resulted in her receiving a slice of a slave’s ear in the mail, and a review in The Southern Literary Messenger called her a “foul-mouthed hag.” The more accurate take-away was that “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” showed “There’s a way to escape this evil: by feeling right as human beings. . . .” “As such, it molded public opinion . . . with a vigor unmatched by any other American novel.”
    Mr. Reynolds’s argument about the novel’s consciousness-raising power stems from his keen analysis of sources, varied types of evidence that intensify the effect of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” For example, newspaper reports of the Stowes’ 1853 trip to England and Europe — which, of course, helped publicize the book. There were also plugs through tie-ins, “Uncle Tomitudes” pictures on playing cards, handkerchiefs, jigsaw puzzles, snuffboxes, wall hangings, tableware, and even a dice game. Dramatizations proved doubly important (though the Beechers disapproved of theater): “Many more people saw plays based on ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ than read the novel,” and audiences included laborers who got the “Life Among the Lowly” part of the subtitle. Bowery Boys tended to empathize, a Yiddish play was performed in Chicago, and translations appeared worldwide.
    Tom indeed seemed to be everywhere by the end of the Civil War period. But had ubiquitous popularity come at the expense of deepening crude stereotypes? Not according to Mr. Reynolds’s nuanced consideration of Stowe-inspired entertainment. Tom shows, for instance, depicted black buffoons, but the same bills might feature the Fisk Jubilee Singers. Blackfaced minstrels could act simple while performing clever satire. And Barnum & Bailey’s two Topsys, six bloodhounds, and two Simon Legrees whipping two Uncle Toms confirmed that “for playgoers of the era, the more Tom characters, the better.” From circuses to cakewalks, excess and exaggeration often masked hints of blacks gaining empowerment.
    This trajectory was altered in the early 20th century by a competing popular culture that romanticized the Old South, dismissed the Civil War as needless, abhorred Reconstruction, and emoted outrage over Stowe. Its leading proponents were Thomas Dixon Jr., whose 1902 novel, “The Leopard’s Spots,” was heralded as the “Uncle Tom’s Cabin of the South,” and the legendary filmmaker D.W. Griffith, who adapted Dixon’s “The Clansman” (1903) for “The Birth of a Nation” in 1915. Griffith countered Stowe with cinematic brilliance, the silent movie’s bigotry notwithstanding.
    Reactionary views benefited from scholarly legitimacy provided by Professor William A. Dunning, his book “Reconstruction” (1907), and fellow Southern historians. “ ‘The Birth of a Nation’ was now squared off against ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ in a titanic struggle over versions of the American past . . . the mammoth contest over versions of American history.”
    Mr. Reynolds guides us through this encounter, from Ku Klux Klan hatred to President Barack Obama’s hope for a society “beyond race.” He deftly traces veins of popular culture to emphasize Stowe’s continuing influence, thereby revising conventional interpretations. “Gone With the Wind” portrayed blacks as subservient, yet it galvanized black organizations into calling for collective pride and self-respect. Despite the resurgence of racism, nine Uncle Tom films were screened between 1903 and 1927 that  reaffirmed the justice of emancipation and the positive attributes of ex-slaves; 1914 witnessed the first African-American leading man cast as Uncle Tom.
    Uncle Tom’s image was caricatured and exploited in Hollywood cartoons, popular songs, vaudeville routines, and commercial advertising — drastic departures from Stowe’s narrative that Mr. Reynolds calls the “post-Tom mode.” Still, the dialogue about race continued, cultural mixing increased, and some stereotypes had reversed connotations. In short, “With its fun and frolic, the post-Tom mode was thematically rich.”
    The most flagrant deviation — bordering on perversion — was using Tom as a negative symbol. Ironically, the earliest context of this was in 1865, when Frederick Douglass praised colored troops for being brave, not sheepish like Uncle Tom. Later African-American leaders echoed this (Ralph Bunche said in 1954 that the worst impediment to the civil rights movement was “Uncle Toms, who prefer segregation over integration”); moderates from A. Philip Randolph to Roy Wilkins were branded with the epithet. Ultimately, however, the true Tom not only survived but prevailed.
    Television played a big role in his recovery, thanks to the 1976-1977 miniseries “Roots: The Saga of an American Family.” Alex Haley, its creator, in effect brought Stowe to the small screen. Empathic renderings of the experience of slavery from the slaves’ perspective were riveting and convincing. Stowe’s orientation to home and domesticity were unmistakable. The main character, Kunta Kinte, evoked the Tom of strength and dignity. Above all, in the words of one reviewer, William Greider, “Roots” marked “a stunning passage in the mass culture of America. . . . It trampled the old mythology into the dust, relentlessly tore it up.”
    The battle has been won, based on  the abundant evidence and demonstrative interpretations of “Mightier Than the Sword.” But, as the 150th commemoration of our Civil War should remind us, the struggle to realize Harriet Beecher Stowe’s most glorious visions goes on.

    David S. Reynolds’s previous books include “John Brown, Abolitionist” and “Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson.” A professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York, he has a house in Sagaponack. He will be at Authors Night at the East Hampton Library on Saturday.
    J. Kirkpatrick Flack is retired from the University of Maryland, where he taught American history. He lives part time in Bridgehampton.

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