Tuesday, June 14, 2011

The woman who started the Civil War

How I wish this professor had taught me the novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin. I read it as an undergraduate in the 1980s (okay, I've never been anything other than an undergraduate). So I was a little dumb and out of it, but full of self-confidence and strident opinions. I thought Uncle Tom's Cabin was a waste of time. Ha.

Then about 15 years ago a friend from Norway, when she came over she said her life goals were to read Uncle Tom's Cabin and Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee. I'd read both and frankly found the former sentimental and out-dated and the latter way to depressing. Again I was a little dumb and out of it. I ask myself will I ever be anything other than this--always I seem to "get" things way after the fact.

Anyway, I asked her why. And she said this: she started the Civil War. I revised my previous observations and since then Harriet Beecher Stowe has become one of my literary heroes.

The woman who started the Civil War

The woman who started the Civil War
Harriet Beecher Stowe

When Harriet Beecher Stowe published "Uncle Tom's Cabin" in 1852, the American slave trade was a thriving institution. The courts condoned it and, as Southerners were quick to claim, so did the Constitution and the Bible. Twelve American presidents had been slave owners, and the abolitionist movement was fragmented and marginal.
But Stowe, a seminal figure in American liberalism, had a knack for making radical concepts palatable to the general public, and her novel became one of the first genuine pop culture phenomena in American history. Within 10 years of its publication, the United States devolved into civil war. And as historian David S. Reynolds argues in "Mightier Than the Sword," a new book that explores Stowe's life and the global impact of her work, it was "Uncle Tom's Cabin" that catalyzed  the conflict.
We spoke with Reynolds recently and discussed the enduring significance of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," modern criticism of its use of racial stereotypes, and Stowe's own place in history.
Why was "Uncle Tom's Cabin" so popular?
I'm fascinated by the impact it had. It far outsold any previous American novels, and it was an international sensation. And it was dealing with a very unpopular theme, which was anti-slavery ... [Abolitionist] William Lloyd Garrison was once dragged through the streets of Boston by an angry mob -- this was a very unpopular movement. People wanted to let slavery alone.
But what Harriet Beecher Stowe did was bring [abolitionism] together [with] all these different strands of popular culture -- from religious and temperance writings, to women's writing and domestic literature, to adventure fiction and sensational fiction. She'd never written a novel [before], she'd only written short stories for magazines. But she brought all these elements together and did it in such a passionate, human way.
She said that God wrote the book. She felt that it came through her in a series of visions; she was a very religious person. I think it's just a very moving book, even to this day. Actually, when I taught it -- I don't usually cry over books myself, but when I taught it last fall, I realized just how much sincere personal anguish over slavery went into it, and it actually made me cry.

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