The little woman behind a very big war

A Q&A with David S. Reynolds, the author of "Mightier than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America," about Harriet Beecher Stowe's influence on the Civil War.

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    Harriet Beecher Stowe looks stern in photos but biographer David S. Reynolds says she had a good sense of humor and once spent a delightful evening with President Lincoln, "trying not to bust out laughing the entire time."
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According to legend, President Lincoln met an author named Harriet Beecher Stowe and declared: "So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war."

It's not clear whether Lincoln ever said such a thing. Mythical or not, the words have that ring of truth like so many historical misquotes. But if the president didn't say it, he should have.

Stowe's greatest book, "Uncle Tom's Cabin," blended gripping narrative, humor and striking characters to expose the inhumanity of slavery. Many Americans would never forget the novel, which remained influential and tremendously popular for decades.

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The novel later lost its reputation as a literary masterpiece, and the title character's name became an epithet for African-Americans who cozied up to white people. History left Stowe behind too, leaving photos of a stern-looking woman who looks like the last person you'd want to sit next to at a dinner party lest she start lecturing you about a humanitarian crisis somewhere.

That image misses the real Harriet Beecher Stowe, a woman who considered slavery a moral evil but also had a sense of humor. In fact, her daughter said they spent a delightful evening with President Lincoln, trying not to bust out laughing the entire time. (It's not clear exactly what was so funny, but it probably had more to do with presidential jokes than, say, a White House whoopie cushion.)

In his new book Mightier than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America, City University of New York professor David S. Reynolds takes a look back at what's almost certainly the most influential American book in history. I asked Reynolds about Stowe's background, the impact of the novel, and the strange transformation of the meaning of Uncle Tom.

Q. What did she understand the most about slavery?

A: She understood that African Americans are human. That sounds pedestrian, but in that era, African Americans were perceived as subhuman, or different from whites. Her novel is all about how African Americans can be as loyal to their families and devoted to their homes, parents and children, and each other, as white people can. They also have the capacity to be religious, which to Harriet Beecher Stowe was very important. They weren't just beasts that could be whipped, chained, sexually exploited, and sometimes tortured. She made Americans feel the pain and agony that slaves were going through, made them feel the real humanity of black people in a way that nobody had done before.

Q: What else made her book so effective?

A: Before she wrote "Uncle Tom's Cabin," she had written for popular magazines for 15 years, so she had a good sensitivity to what the popular audience wanted. It almost became part of her unconscious mind. When she wrote the novel, she produced these scenes that rang all these popular-culture bells for the audience of that time. The book became an international sensation as well and was translated into 16 languages and sold about 310,000 copies in America and at least 1.5 million abroad.

Q: What did she miss?

A: James Baldwin didn't like the novel, along with certain other African Americans in the 20th century. We're now schooled on literary naturalism and realism, and they tend to think that her black characters are too idealized and lack a certain humanity, that they don't have enough flaws.

My answer is that, at that time, she was considered rebellious and subversive for that reason. She could imagine them as being good and pious family members. But for the 20th century, these naturalistic writers wanted a grimier picture, a more realistic portrait.

Q. What was the ultimate impact of the book?

A: It fanned out in so many ways. The immediate impact was that it helped unify anti-slavery sentiment in the North, and it fed right into the rise of Lincoln and the Republicans, which led to the Civil War. At the same time, it consolidated pro-slavery feelings in the South because they hated it. A huge defensive literature rose against it, including 30 anti-Uncle Tom novels.

Q: How did Stowe become such an intense opponent of slavery in the first place?

A: She grew up in a very religious family, and her father, Lyman Beecher, was the most celebrated preacher in New England. He directed Christianity toward social reform and taking active steps. He had 11 children, and many of them became social reformers, including several who were in the anti-slavery movement. She found slavery contradictory to the Declaration of Independence and to the Bible. She also had a puritanical side. She hated the idea of sexual exploitation of enslaved women. In particular, the Compromise of 1850, which imposed a stiff penalty on Northerners who assisted slaves, totally infuriated her. She was religious, and she went to a church in Brunswick, Maine, and had a vision. Instead of thinking of Christ on a cross, she thought about an enslaved black man being whipped to death, which became the culminating scene of her novel. She said other scenes came to her in a series of visions, and she believed that God had written "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

Q: Did she know black people?

A: When she was growing up, she knew black people mainly as servants in her family. When her mother died, she was comforted by the black servants in the family. And then when she moved to Cincinnati later on, that was right across the river from Kentucky, a slave slate. She participated in the Underground Railroad herself, and they helped one young woman to head north to freedom. She was very open with them and read most of the slave narratives of that era. She had a real Christian sympathy for African Americans.

Q: Why hasn't the novel been more respected as literature?

A: American literature departments from the 1930s through 1960s came to be dominated by the New Critics who didn't have too much interest in women writers to begin with, especially those who were sentimental and reform-minded and of progressive opinions. She was barely mentioned in serious histories of American literature. But with the rise of cultural studies, feminist criticism and race and gender studies, she's taken center stage.

Q: How did the character of Uncle Tom get mangled over time?

A: In the novel, he's in his 40s, he's muscular, he's tough, and he doesn't sell out people of his own race. He's a very strong, gentle, and compassionate man. His master considers him a rebel because he refuses to tell where runaway slave women are hiding. But over time, the stage version of the novel was much more popular, and in many of these stage versions, he became sheepish, old, and stooped. He was remodeled, and the name became the epithet we know today.

Q: Would you have liked Stowe if you'd met her?

I was raised as a Christian Scientist, and she had deep puritan roots as my family did. She had a spiritual sense, a belief in God, very firm moral fiber, and basically an optimistic outlook despite the suffering she endured. I get a sense from her letters that she was a very communicable person, outgoing and interested in other people. I would have loved to have known her.

Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.

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