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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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.
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Randy Dotinga is a Monitor contributor.