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Why Tolstoy, Lenin, Van Gogh, and America Were Hit by It

benfey_1-102711.jpg
Granger Collection
Poster for an American stage production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1881

1.

Harriet Beecher Stowe visited the White House during the late fall of 1862, ten years after the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life among the Lowly. Easily the most popular American novel of the nineteenth century, the book encouraged abolitionists both in the United States and abroad. “It is no longer permissible to those who can read,” wrote George Sand, “not to have read it.” Stowe had come to Washington that wartime winter to visit her son Fred, a lieutenant in the Union Army stationed near the capital. She may also have intended, as it was later claimed, to lobby the President to sign the Emancipation Proclamation. After the two celebrated figures were introduced, Lincoln, with a twinkle in his eye, is said to have exclaimed, “Is this the little woman who made the great war?” It is charming to imagine the tall and ungainly President bending down to address Stowe, who was barely five feet tall, and acknowledging her leadership in the war effort.

The story of Lincoln’s famous greeting has attached itself, barnacle-like, to the novel as both endorsement and triumphant sequel. It has proved as resilient as the most memorable scenes of the novel itself: the escaped slave Eliza Harris leaping across the partially frozen Ohio River in her desperate bid for freedom; her husband, George, confronting his pursuers over a rocky pass; the Christ-like Uncle Tom submitting to his owner Simon Legree’s lethal whip rather than revealing the whereabouts of other fugitive slaves; and of course the demise of the angelic Little Eva, doling out locks of blond hair on her deathbed as reminders of a better land up above.

Lincoln’s remark was first mentioned in 1896, the year of Stowe’s death at age eighty-five, by her friend and biographer Annie Fields in an article in the Atlantic Monthly. One of Stowe’s sons, Charles Edward Stowe, who had unaccountably left the remark out of the first two editions of his own biography of his mother, despite his claim to have attended the White House reception, improved the wording in the version he published in 1911: “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!”1 Stowe’s subsequent biographers have freely embroidered the story for a hundred years, until it has become among the most familiar of all American literary anecdotes.

Does it really matter that Lincoln almost certainly never said any such thing? It takes only a moment’s thought to realize that the embattled President, even in jest, would have been highly unlikely to ascribe the cause of the Civil War to any Northerner. He always insisted, to the point of obsession, that the rebellious South started the war. As he stated in the Second Inaugural, “Both parties deprecated war; but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive; and the other would accept war rather than let it perish. And the war came.”

We are now in the midst of two commemorations: the 150th anniversary of the outbreak of the Civil War and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s 200th birthday. David S. Reynolds, a professor at the City University of New York best known for his books on the relation between nineteenth-century American writers, such as Hawthorne and Whitman, and the popular culture on which they drew, has seized these two occasions to take a fresh look at the impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the course of American history.

Despite his claim that “this crucial topic has never been discussed in detail,” Reynolds is not the first literary historian to speculate on how the novel might have influenced public opinion and contributed to the buildup to the war. Thomas Gossett’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture (1985), an informative survey from which Reynolds borrows freely, brought a skeptical attitude to the matter, noting that Lincoln probably never read Stowe’s novel, the “political effect” of which, Gossett concluded, was “negligible.” Cindy Weinstein in The Cambridge Companion to Harriet Beecher Stowe (2004) cautiously observed, “To what extent Stowe’s own words of ministration and protest catapulted the nation toward Civil War is an unanswerable question.”2

Reynolds is part of a generation of scholars, sometimes called the New Historicists, who seek to register the effects of public discourse, including literature, on social and political history. He has persuaded himself that Stowe’s novel, in demonstrable ways, really did “ignite” the war, and that Lincoln’s remark, however apocryphal, was nonetheless historically accurate. “Whether he actually said it is moot,” Reynolds maintains, since “in his era, many claimed that Stowe had brought on the Civil War.” Reynolds believes that he has marshaled sufficient evidence to prove it.

2.

Passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, which mandated the return of escaped slaves anywhere in the United States to their owners, was greeted with widespread revulsion in the North. Among the most articulate protests was Uncle Tom’s Cabin, first published in weekly newspaper installments beginning in 1851 and as a two-volume book the following year. The daughter and sister of prominent Congregationalist ministers, Stowe was familiar with all the moral arguments against slavery, but she was convinced that a more visceral appeal to emotions and empathy was necessary to shift public opinion decisively in both the North and the South.

Where earlier critics of Uncle Tom’s Cabin have derided Stowe for stooping to propaganda, Reynolds praises her for the clarity of her political message and the emotional power of her narrative. If the immediate cause of the Civil War was the election of Lincoln, Reynolds believes that Uncle Tom’s Cabin, along with the plays and other cultural spinoffs it inspired, “directly paved the way for the public’s openness to an antislavery candidate like Lincoln.” At the same time, the popularity of the novel “stiffened the South’s resolve to defend slavery and demonize the North.”

For Stowe herself, the writing of the book had seemed more a matter of emotional and physical possession than of calculated artistry. “I did not write that book,” she told a friend. “I only put down what I saw…. It all came before me in visions, one after another, and I put them down in words.” Reynolds argues that Stowe’s “visions” were indebted to many sources other than her own inspiration. She was born in 1811 in Litchfield, Connecticut, where her father promoted social reforms such as temperance while relishing the poetry of Byron and the novels of Walter Scott. In 1832, he moved the family to Cincinnati, on the western frontier, where he served as president of the Lane Theological Seminary. Harriet first encountered slavery when she met runaways in Cincinnati and visited slaveholding families across the Ohio River in Kentucky.

As a child, Harriet, according to Reynolds, already “displayed the dreamy, abstracted air she had throughout her life.” Against Calvinism’s “grim view of God,” with its stern tenets of infant damnation and predestination, the Beechers, especially Harriet and her younger brother Henry Ward Beecher, advanced a gentler “Gospel of Love” in harmony with nature and human emotion. She fell in love with Calvin Stowe, the professor of biblical literature at Lane, whom she married in 1836. Calvin turned out to have a particularly lush inner life. In an autobiographical essay written two years before his marriage, he reported, writes Reynolds,

visions he had had since early childhood of aerial forms that passed through walls and floated in the air around him. They appeared at nearly all times, especially when he was alone and in the dark. He recalled that when he was three, a tiny Indian man and a large Indian woman came nightly to his bedroom and quarreled over a bass violin, which they took turns playing. The Indians were followed over the succeeding months and years by other spirit visitors: a beautiful lady, a mulatto man, merry groups of six-inch-tall fairies, and, terrifyingly, a crowd of devils who hurled a dissipated man into the abyss of hell.

While attending church in Brunswick, Maine, in February 1851, when Calvin was teaching at Bowdoin, Harriet reported that a vision was “blown into her mind as by the rushing of a mighty wind.” What she saw was an old slave being whipped to death by two other slaves, under orders of a white man who looked on. From this imaginative seed came the two great diverging plotlines of Uncle Tom’s Cabin: the heroic flight of the Harris family to the North and freedom; and Tom’s Dantean descent into the increasingly infernal regions of Southern slavery, culminating in his martyrdom at the hands of Simon Legree.

3.

The visionary skill in which Stowe truly excelled was, in Reynolds’s view, that of adapting controversial or disreputable materials from the popular press for her own more benign uses. Stowe

filtered the most subversive, sensational, or raucous cultural energies of the time through the cult of domesticity, which put the home and family at the center of life.

Where earlier critics have winced at the racist way in which Stowe portrays the slaves Sam and Andy, whose antics delay the slave trader Haley in his pursuit of Eliza, Reynolds finds a creative adaptation of minstrelsy in the service of an abolitionist message. “Sam and Andy seem like laughable minstrel ‘darkeys,’” Reynolds notes, but “in collaborating to help Eliza violate the Fugitive Slave Law, these conventional-appearing characters undermine the authority of the white males…who are trying to enforce the law.”

Reynolds gives a great deal of attention to the theatrical adaptations of the novel, noting that such innovations as the matinee performance owe their existence to the popularity of these “Tom plays.” Earlier critics, including Edmund Wilson, believed that the plays, with their caricatures of the main characters and their reliance on a few melodramatic incidents, distorted the novel and contributed to its eclipse among sophisticated readers. Reynolds argues, instead, that the key message of the novel, namely the dignity and shared humanity of the slaves, was preserved in the plays.

Reynolds thinks that these adaptions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which dominated the American theater during the nineteenth century, helped persuade working-class audiences that African-Americans were human beings and that blacks and whites could love one another. He claims that “many workers who had exulted in the recapture of fugitive slaves in the early 1850s did an about-face by the middle of the decade,” and that this conversion can be directly attributed to “the popularity of Uncle Tom plays.” This seismic shift in public opinion changed, in turn, the political dynamics of the country. The novel, Reynolds concludes, “demonstrably had a key role in the political reshuffling that lay behind the rise of the antislavery Republican Party.”

These are enormous claims, hypotheses really, and historians will have to test them against more criteria, both sociological and political, than Reynolds has to offer. But no one has given such sustained attention to the Tom plays and their potential effect on public opinion in the North. Roughly a third of Mightier Than the Sword is accorded to the Tom plays and to the films, such as Birth of a Nation and Gone with the Wind, that Reynolds believes were inspired “largely in reply to” Stowe’s assault on the South, links in what he calls “the chain reaction caused by Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the twentieth century.”

  1. 1

    See Daniel R. Vollaro’s excellent demolition of the encounter: “Lincoln, Stowe, and the ‘Little Woman/Great War’ Story: The Making, and Breaking, of a Great American Anecdote,” Journal of the Abraham Lincoln Association, Winter 2009. The article is available online, at www.historycooper ative.org/journals/jala/30.1/vollaro .html, though it should be noted that roughly two thirds of the sixty-odd footnotes are misnumbered. 

  2. 2

    Quoted in Vollaro, who ascribes all such attempts to a “desire among many contemporary intellectuals to make literature a lever of social or political change.” 

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