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.
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.
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.”
Reynolds’s primary interest is in the impact of Stowe’s novel in the United States. He mentions in passing its international reach, noting that Heinrich Heine was so moved by its message that he converted to Christianity on his deathbed. The book had a considerable vogue in Russia and was the favorite childhood book of both Tolstoy and Lenin. Reynolds suggests that the progressive political ideas in Uncle Tom’s Cabin may have contributed to the October Revolution of 1917. Lenin may also have borrowed more literally from the book’s narrative. In their flight from tsarist authorities in 1907, Lenin and his wife “escaped from the Finnish mainland by making their way across the breaking ice of the moderately frozen Örfjärden Sound,” thus preserving their lives “by imitating Stowe’s famous fugitive Eliza Harris.”
If Reynolds does justice to the robust afterlife of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in literature, theater, and film, he has comparatively little to say about the visual arts. He has fun with the fashion for card games and other “Tom-related images”:
Images from Stowe’s novel appeared on candlesticks, snuffboxes, spoons, earthenware plates, biscuit tins, mantelpiece screens, handkerchiefs, German needlework wall hangings, Limoges spill vases, and Staffordshire items that included mugs, pitchers, jars, and figurine sets.
It should be said, however, that the Wedgwood firm, with its “Staffordshire items,” long preceded Stowe in advocating abolition. Josiah Wedgwood issued a jasperware medallion in 1787 portraying a kneeling slave in chains, with the motto “Am I not a man and a brother?” Wedgwood sent many of these medallions to his friend Benjamin Franklin in Pennsylvania. It seems possible that images like this were on Stowe’s mind as she sat on the pew in Brunswick and had her vision of a slave being whipped.
American painters such as Eastman Johnson and Winslow Homer quarried the novel for tableaux of black life in the South. Van Gogh reverently read Stowe’s “astonishingly beautiful book” throughout his life and placed a copy in the foreground of his affecting portrait of Madame Ginoux in Arles. In our own time, the prominent African-American artist Kara Walker, in her revival of the art of silhouette, has made an extraordinary series of images based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Walker’s work combines a celebration of the sheer imaginative profusion of Stowe’s characters—as varied as in Gogol, Edmund Wilson found—with an ironic edge regarding the stereotypical representation of her plantation “types.”3
Reynolds examines Uncle Tom’s Cabin in order to take “the full measure of the novel’s rich cultural background and its enormous impact,” but he has surprisingly little to say about the merits of the novel itself. In his book Beneath the American Renaissance (1988), he determined that Uncle Tom’s Cabin “lacked literariness,” and that it “misses literary status because its warring elements do not fuse to create metaphysical ambiguity or multilayered symbols, as they do in the major literature of the period.” Has he changed his mind since? Apparently not, except to notice that recent readers,
tapping interdisciplinary approaches that have burgeoned over the past several decades, have shown that the novel is uniquely rich in its treatment of socially charged themes like gender, sex, race, religion, and ethics.
One might have hoped for a more robust defense of the novel than this.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin has often been derided for its sentimental set pieces, most notoriously the death of Little Eva, whose father, the weak-willed and atheistic Southern slaveholder Augustine St. Clare, adopts abolitionist views in sympathy with the devout Eva’s love for Uncle Tom. I have read the scene of Eva’s death many times, and I have not found it to be the ridiculous tearjerker of legend. Stowe is always sophisticated in her depiction of family relations, in this case the self-pitying narcissism of Eva’s mother, who exploits her daughter’s suffering to bring attention to her own emotional needs. “I feel it my duty to be particularly careful of myself, now,” she says, “feeble as I am, and with the whole care and nursing of that dear child upon me.”
Growing up in an era of popular entertainments such as panoramas and daguerreotypes, Stowe knew that to capture and hold the attention of readers she needed to give them a visual and emotional jolt. The famous scene in which the escaped slave Eliza Harris leaps with her young boy across the partially frozen Ohio River is rendered memorable by carefully selected literary devices. When two slaves, Sam and Andy, manage to alert her that the slave trader Haley is about to capture her, she makes her desperate decision:
A thousand lives seemed to be concentrated in that one moment to Eliza. Her room opened by a side door to the river. She caught her child, and sprang down the steps towards it. The trader caught a full glimpse of her, just as she was disappearing down the bank; and throwing himself from his horse, and calling loudly on Sam and Andy, he was after her like a hound after a deer. In that dizzy moment her feet to her scarce seemed to touch the ground, and a moment brought her to the water’s edge. Right on behind they came; and, nerved with strength such as God gives only to the desperate, with one wild cry and flying leap, she vaulted sheer over the turbid current by the shore, on to the raft of ice and beyond. It was a desperate leap—impossible to anything but madness and despair; and Haley, Sam, and Andy, instinctively cried out, and lifted up their hands, as she did it.
Three times, Stowe stresses that she is recording “moments” here, freeze frames in a rapidly unfolding spectacle that is witnessed by three aghast participants.
She tells us repeatedly that Eliza is “desperate”; in the paragraph immediately following she shows us Eliza’s most desperate moment:
The huge green fragment of ice on which she alighted pitched and creaked as her weight came on it, but she staid there not a moment. With wild cries and desperate energy she leaped to another and still another cake;—stumbling—leaping—slipping—springing upwards again! Her shoes are gone—her stockings cut from her feet—while blood marked every step; but she saw nothing, felt nothing, till dimly, as in a dream, she saw the Ohio side, and a man helping her up the bank.
The dashes linking the participles (“stumbling—leaping—slipping—springing”) are themselves like Eliza’s leaps across the cakes of ice. The sudden shift to present tense (“Her shoes are gone—her stockings cut from her feet”) gives immediacy to the scene, as though it is being viewed or experienced rather than merely narrated. The evocation of inner states—dizziness and dream, a literal leap that is also a leap of faith—encourages the reader to internalize the scene, both visually and emotionally.
One may feel that the literary strategies are loud and obvious here and that Stowe will go to any lengths to engage her reader, and to some extent this is true. But a reader as sophisticated as Henry James spoke for many when, in his autobiography, he observed that Stowe’s novel was “for an immense number of people, much less a book than a state of vision, of feeling and of consciousness in which they didn’t sit and read and appraise and pass the time, but walked and talked and laughed and cried.”
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. ↩
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.” ↩
Among the most arresting visual responses to Stowe’s novel were the 117 illustrations that Hammatt Billings provided for a luxury edition published for the Christmas season in 1852. This Splendid Edition, as it was known, has been reprinted for the first time by Oxford University Press with a helpful introduction by David Reynolds. According to Reynolds, Billings “graphically reinforced” Stowe’s narrative by steering clear of “racist caricature” in, for example, his “sympathetic rendering of slave mothers.” Stowe herself was an amateur painter and once told her publisher that “there is no arguing with pictures.” ↩