For nearly 200 years the U.S. Supreme Court was made up of men. Then came Sandra Day O’Connor.
June 14 is the 200th birthday of Harriet Beecher Stowe. When President Lincoln first met the author, he reportedly said– Is this the little woman who made this great war? Nobody knows for sure. But, her novel, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” helped galvanize anti-slavery sentiment in the lead-up to the Civil War. The book’s engaging and emotional story made its antislavery message accessible to nineteenth century readers. In his new book, “Mightier Than the Sword,” author David S. Reynolds examines the life of Harriet Beecher Stowe, and he looks at how the novel changed American society and sparked social change around the world.
- David Reynolds Professor of English and American Studies at the City University of New York; author of "Mightier than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America"
Read an Excerpt
Reprinted from “Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America” by David S. Reynold. Copyright (c) 2011 by David S. Reynold. Used with permission of the publisher, W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.:
Full Text: Uncle Tom’s Cabin
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us, I'm Diane Rehm. The novel, "Uncle Tom's Cabin," brought the difficult and divisive subject of slavery into the homes of 19th century readers. The book was published in 1852 and quickly became an international bestseller. Today is the 200th birthday of the novel's author, Harriet Beecher Stowe.
MS. DIANE REHMAnd joining me to talk about her life and the lasting influence of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," David Reynolds. He's got a new book titled "Mightier than the Sword: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Battle for America." David Reynolds is a professor of English and American Studies at City University of New York Graduate Center. Do join us, 800-433-8850, send us your email to firstname.lastname@example.org, feel free to join us on Facebook or Twitter. Good morning to you, sir. It's good to see you.
MR. DAVID S. REYNOLDSGood morning, Diane. Wonderful to be here.
REHMI must say, you begin the book by talking about what happened on January 1, 1863, when Harriet Beecher Stowe became, for that moment, the most famous woman in America. How did that happen?
REYNOLDSWell, that happened in 1863, a little more than a decade after her novel, "Uncle Tom's Cabin," had appeared. It had generated such passion over slavery that, January 1, 1863, she attended a concert in Boston and suddenly the news came over the wires that the Emancipation Proclamation had been signed by Lincoln in Washington.
REYNOLDSAnd in intermission it was announced and people just spontaneously leapt up. There were three cheers for Lincoln and then Harriet Beecher Stowe was spotted in the balcony and they kept yelling, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Harriet Beecher Stowe and they just were screaming at the top of their lungs. And she was a rather shy woman and small, only five foot tall, and kind of dreamy-eyed, but tears were flowing down her cheek. She was just grinning. She was just so happy and she went to the balcony and was waving and she was, at that moment, the most famous woman in America.
REHMDid her book truly bring about the Civil War?
REYNOLDSI argue that there is good reason why Lincoln reportedly called her the little lady who made this Great War. And we read wonderful book after wonderful book on Lincoln himself, on the politicians and his team of rivals and the Civil War battles and the Civil War. All that is very, very important for people to know, but it's also important to know about how culture works.
REYNOLDSAfter all our politics for the last decade has been totally dominated by a tiny, cultural group called al-Qaida, very, very small, but it's all from culture and whatever, but that's a force for destruction. There are other examples like Martin Luther King, Rosa Parks and Gandhi that are cultural outliers that are forces for good. And Harriet Beecher Stowe was a cultural outlier whose "Uncle Tom's Cabin" changed opinion about slavery.
REYNOLDSSlavery, anti-slavery in the North was a very unpopular topic. She brought it to the hearts of millions of northerners and at the same time, she made southerners come to the defense of slavery to a degree they never had before, so she sharpened the debate. She crystallized that debate that led to the Civil War and I show in detail how that happened.
REHMWhat was her own background and why did this matter to her so much?
REYNOLDSShe had a religious background. Her father, Lyman Beecher, was the most famous clergyman in New England. She was born in Connecticut. And of his 11 children by two wives, his first wife passed, Harriet Beecher Stowe's mother passed away, but there was a total of 11 children.
REYNOLDSMost of them became social reformers because they were dedicated to apply their special brand of Christianity to change the world for the better. And a lot of them became social reformers. Henry Ward Beecher became the most popular minister of the 19th century and was in anti-slavery reform. Her half-sister, Isabella Beecher Hooker, worked for women's rights. And Catherine Beecher, her sister, was an education reformer, an incredible family and she herself went on to become by far the most famous person in the family as a result of "Uncle Tom's Cabin."
REHMBut you say as a child, she was kind of dreamy and starry-eyed?
REYNOLDSKind of abstracted, she was contemplative and thoughtful and even on the one time that she went and observed slavery first-hand, she only did that once when she crossed over from Ohio where she was then living to a plantation. A friend recalls her simply looking at all the scenes around her. She was astounded by the scenes of slavery and a lot of these scenes went into her novel.
REYNOLDSBut even as a child, she was this way and yet her father was convinced that she was a genius just from the way she talked, the way she wrote. She rummaged through the barrels of old sermons and she dug for entertaining books like the "Arabian Nights" and "Don Quixote" and Byron and these things, so she was captivated by reading. And it's a good lesson, actually, for young people even today, reading and feeding one's mind is so important...
REYNOLDS...and can stimulate one.
REHMNow, what did she write? What had she written prior to "Uncle Tom's Cabin?"
REYNOLDSWell, I'm really the first author to show how "Uncle Tom's Cabin--" now, she thought that God had written "Uncle Tom's Cabin," she was so religious, and thought that it came to her in a series of visions, but what actually happened is that she had been a popular writer before for magazines. And she had written temperance stories against drinking. She had written stories about angels and seeing heaven.
REYNOLDSShe had written biblical stories and also anti-slavery stories. And she was very aware of sensational adventures, fiction and all these different streams that she had plunged into before "Uncle Tom's Cabin," came together under one literary roof in this novel, this multi-faceted and wonderful novel called "Uncle Tom's Cabin."
REHMAnd, you know, I had no idea that it became such an international bestseller.
REYNOLDSYes, it was just amazing. Well, it far outsold any American book. In 1820, the Scottish author, Sydney Smith, had sniffed, who in the four corners of the globe reads an American book? But you know what? This book just took over the globe when it was published in 1852, nine years before the Civil War. It was translated immediately into almost 16 languages. Now, that number has reached almost 80 and it was very popular in London, in England, in the British Isles, all through Europe.
REYNOLDSIn Russia, it went through 57 editions between 1855, before that it was banned, it was considered such an agitated, subversive novel, but in-between 1855 and 1920, it was the first American novel published in China and in Chinese. It just went everywhere.
REHMDavid Reynolds, his new book is titled "Mightier than the Sword: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Battle for America." David Reynolds is a professor of English and American Studies at City University of New York Graduate Center. Do join us, 800-433-8850, send us your email to email@example.com. Her mother died quite young from tuberculosis?
REYNOLDSYes. Her mother, Roxanna, was a gentle, yet very principled woman and she didn't carp at her children, but somehow, she had this noble influence on her children and she remained almost a saint in that Beecher family in everybody's mind, even the young Harriet who was around three when her mother died, kind of remembered her image at least because her image was kept alive so much by the family and exercised a really powerful influence. And it also made her value the whole idea of family and home and how important that is.
REYNOLDSAnd in "Uncle Tom's Cabin," what she does is that she creates a lot of enslaved women who are mothers and she treats them compassionately and she says, hey, they also feel about their children and babies the way that others do.
REHMAnd, in fact, Harriet Beecher Stowe lost her own child...
REHM...which is why she could be so empathetic?
REYNOLDSYes. When her beloved son, Charlie, died in 1849 of cholera during the epidemic in Cincinnati, she said, I felt what enslaved black women must feel when their babies are torn away from them and sold away from them and taken away or the mothers are raped by their masters. She just felt an incredible sense of loss there and that sense of loss does come into "Uncle Tom's Cabin" at several points where children are threatened to be taken away from their mothers. It provides a lot of the energy of the plot.
REHMThe sentence that she -- you write she told novelist George Elliot, quote, "The longer I live, the deeper and sadder becomes my sense of the hopeless, essential, unutterable sorrowfulness of living this present life taken by itself."
REYNOLDSTaken by itself. She was a very religious person. The book sitting on top of the bestseller list right now is a three-year-old's account called "Heaven is for Real." Even today, people are interested in heaven, in the afterlife and there's a lot of reference to that in "Uncle Tom's Cabin," but she said, without some kind of faith in that, she underwent so much tragedy. She not only lost Charlie, she lost, you know, a son, Henry, who drowned in the Connecticut River by an accident. She lost her son, Fred, who disappeared and anyway, so much tragedy, but also so much success.
REHMAnd if you just joined us, David Reynolds is with me, he is professor of English and American Studies at City University of New York Graduate Center. He's the author of a book, "Mightier Than The Sword: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Battle for America," in which he talks a great deal about Harriet Beecher Stowe and how she came to write a book that many have said was one of the catalysts for the Civil War. Tell us the story of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," David.
REYNOLDSThere are two basic plots in "Uncle Tom's Cabin." One is the northern plot and the other is the southern plot. They both begin in Kentucky on a plantation and one couple -- several slaves are being threatened of being sold into the deep south and to avoid this, one couple, George and Eliza Harris, flee to Ohio, Eliza Harris going across the breaking ice to Ohio where they are helped on the underground railroad to go north to Canada and to freedom, along with their young son, Harry.
REYNOLDSAnd then that's the northern -- it's a plot of adventure and of liberation and of freedom. The other plot is about Uncle Tom, who is married. He has three young children and he is about to be sold and he is sold And he is taken south -- he first has a good slave master, but then ultimately ends up in the hands of the cruel, horrible, Simon Legree...
REYNOLDS...who whips him -- who has him whipped to death and he -- so Uncle Tom, really being -- Uncle Tom becomes a martyr in the story and it's a true tragedy. And along the way, he does meet and befriend a young girl. She's a member of a slave owning family, but she herself is dying of tuberculosis. Her name is Little Eva and a very close bond of friendship and mutual respect develop between Little Eva and Uncle Tom, but both of them die.
REHMHere is a posting on Facebook from Lauren who says, "What fascinated me about this novel is that most of Uncle Tom's owners were kind to him. It wasn't until the end of the novel with Simon Legree that she shows the terrible physical abuse suffered by so many slaves. By doing this, she thoroughly demonstrated the personhood of Uncle Tom, and how no matter how kind an owner was to his slave, to treat anyone less than a person is wrong. Not only is it degrading to the person owned, but also destructive to the soul of the slave owner."
REYNOLDSYeah, that's a great comment. Harriet Beecher Stowe bent over backwards to show that southerners are not bad people. They're like northerners, they're just human beings. But it's the institution, the horrible institution of slavery that forced some of them into acts that resulted in injustice. Mr. Shelby at the beginning doesn't want to sell Uncle Tom, but he's financially pinched. He has to.
REYNOLDSHe hates selling Uncle Tom, he's close to Uncle Tom. And then Augustine St. Clare, who buys Uncle Tom later, he wants to set Uncle Tom free, but he dies before he's able to do so and so Uncle Tom ends up with the horrible Simon Legree. So no, it's not that southerners are all bad people, it's the institution of slavery and the human toll of that that Harriet Beecher Stowe is taking about.
REHMAnd how do you think she managed so well to get inside the heads, the hearts of these slaves?
REYNOLDSWell, when her mother died, she knew Africa-Americans mainly as servants in their family, but there were a couple of African-American servants that really protected her and embraced her at that time. And then later, when she lived in Ohio, she knew a lot of African-Americans, some of them coming over from slavery and escaping to the north and she read so many narratives, autobiographies of enslaved blacks.
REYNOLDSJosiah Henson, Lewis Clark and -- I go through a lot of them that showed the pain, the sorrow, the suffering that these people were suffering and she was so compassionate and so sensitive to this suffering.
REHMWhere did the character of Uncle Tom himself come from?
REYNOLDSWell, Josiah Henson, who was a southern slave and he had been converted to Christianity, he had also been beaten under -- he wasn't killed, but he was crippled for life, so he was a very important character. Then there are several other...
REYNOLDSThomas Magruder, who was known as -- he was someone who lived in Indianapolis and Harriet Beecher Stowe interviewed him and he had a family situation very similar to Uncle Tom. And his home in Indianapolis was known as Uncle Tom's Cabin even before the novel was published and I'm the first one to really uncover that in my book. And I uncover several other roots for the Uncle Tom character.
REHMShe eventually apparently told Brooklyn magazine, none of the characters in "Uncle Tom's Cabin" are portraits. I knew of several colored men who showed the piety and honesty of Uncle Tom, but none of them had the history like that I have created for him.
REYNOLDSYeah, basically, as I show in "Mightier Than The Sword," there's no single character with a single source. Many different character streams run into every character in that novel and her point about Uncle Tom is that he can be just as religious. He's even educable. It was actually illegal for blacks to learn to read in much of the south, 'cause reading leads to power and to freedom even today.
REYNOLDSBut back then in particular, but he -- he learns to read. He's pious, he's religious, he's devoted to this family and that's the main point she wanted to make and all these other characters kind of flowed into him.
REHMTell us about her meeting with President Abraham Lincoln in 1862.
REYNOLDSYeah, she went down there in November 1862 with a couple of her children. She went to the White House and she met President Lincoln. They had a wonderful -- he kind of -- in spite of the situation, it was during the Civil War, she went down there to try to persuade him to please, please sign the Emancipation Proclamation, please, I beg of you.
REYNOLDSAnd apparently, we don't know the details in the meeting, we know it was very, very cordial. He used a lot of his Kentucky humor and everything like that, but she came out glowing from that and -- but she was only glowing, not from meeting the President, she didn't care about that. She only cared about him signing the Emancipation Proclamation.
REHMAnd how long afterwards did he...
REYNOLDSWell, it was literally about five weeks later.
REHMFive weeks later.
REYNOLDSYeah, so I like to think that maybe she was among the influences. I -- I think he was gonna sign it anyway, but I think -- I think she got assurance from him and she gave him that extra added push toward it that -- that might have helped.
REHMBut surely there must have been other books that depicted slavery, perhaps not quite so passionately.
REYNOLDSRight. There were slave narratives, some of which like Frederick Douglas' were so powerful and so incredibly wonderfully written, but, for example, Douglas' book only sold 15,000 copies or something like that. The slave narratives were generally kind of controversial because they were seen as being distorted. She rang so many popular culture bells in her novel, that -- she rang so many bells that it just rang so loudly in the minds of those 19th century readers and it just brought slavery alive in a brand-new way.
REHMI'm just shocked that it was translated into Chinese.
REYNOLDSYes, I know. And that came a little later on, but -- a little in the 19th century, but it was translated into Chinese, obviously into Russian and into so many different languages, Armenian, on and on because -- and in Italy, there was even, ironically, a pro-Catholic version about the immaculate conception and so forth where they changed it a little bit. It's really a Protestant novel, but, you know, it became adapted in several countries.
REHMThen there's the question about Uncle Tom and how this term becomes twisted.
REYNOLDSYeah, what happened is that popular plays based on the novel disseminated throughout America and throughout the world. This began the very year of the publication 1982 and then actually multiplied, so that by the end of the 19th century, long after the Civil War, there were literally hundreds of Uncle Tom troupes, acting troupes, going all across the country through Canada, every Hamlet, every village, every city and as far away as Australia and Siam and China and Russia.
REYNOLDSAnd in some -- in many of these play representations, Uncle Tom was refashioned to suit certain eras, like the Jim Crow era that arose later and he became a feeble, stooped, submissive person, which he's not at all in the novel. He's compassionate in the novel and he's gentle, but he's also very firm. And slaves who were interviewed -- ex-slaves who were interviewed after the war said, oh, no one would ever be so bold as to object against what their master told them to do as Uncle Tom did, so they found him much too rebellious. But in these plays, he became obsequious and passive.
REHMObsequious and passive and then people began using the term, even during the Civil Rights Movement as a negative.
REYNOLDSYes. As a negative, absolutely, but when you look at really the one that was called Uncle Tom the most, Martin Luther King, in a way, he was more like the real -- he didn't mind the label because he was more like the real Uncle Tom of the novel, who was firm-principled. Yes, he's very -- he was non-violent, he was religious and all of that, but there was a firmness about him, too.
REYNOLDSSo he -- he was not, even though people branded him at the time, I'm talking about King, nonetheless, he's the one who helped really bring about social change, as did another so-called Uncle Tom person, Rosa Parks. A very gentle woman, a quiet woman and yet in her own way, very, very, very strong. And so in a way, Uncle Tom, as I say in my book, "Mightier than the Sword," in a sense, his spirit won the day.
REHMHis spirit won the day, but even today, that notion of Uncle Tom as somehow a traitor...
REHM...to the African-American cause exists.
REYNOLDSExactly. Well, that's one reason why I wrote my op-ed in today's New York Times, to show that that's a false image that did arise in a lot of these plays and in popular culture over time. And militant African-Americans, during the racial contention of the '60s, often used that phrase -- they misused the phrase Uncle Tom to tar other people as being sellouts to whites and it became actually a more feared term at that time than the so-called n-word at that time because it was misused so rampantly. And it still exists, unfortunately, in our culture to mean someone who is a spineless sellout.
REHMDavid Reynolds, his new book is titled, "Mightier than the Sword: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Battle for America," and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We have lots of callers. We'll go the phones now, 800-433-8850. First to a caller here in Washington, D.C. Collin, you're on the air.
COLLINYes. Thank you, Diane. You're sounding great today, by the way.
COLLINI'm really excited about your guest. My question is, I worked to work Dr. Dorothy Height for six years here in Washington and she was fond of a story that she would tell about one of the prime motivations for the book by Harriet Beecher Stowe. And that being the story of two runaway slave girls, young girls, that were going to be sold at the slave market at the corner of Pennsylvania Avenue and Seventh Avenue Northwest.
COLLINAnd they escaped -- they escaped all the way to the Potomac, got on a schooner, there was no wind that day, so the schooner didn't go very far. They were recaptured, taken back to the market and then ensued a huge riot, the largest riot -- slave riot in D.C. history, I'm told. And a relative of Stowe was present for that, wrote a letter to her describing it and those details ended up being one of the prime motivations for her book. I don't know what details exactly and I'm not sure how exactly it translated into text, but I wanted to know if there was truth to that or did you find out about that your research?
REYNOLDSYeah, I think you're talking about the Edmonton sisters, who in the late 1840s, you know, were recaptured and everything. And what happened eventually is that Henry Ward Beecher, the brother of Harriet Beecher Stowe, got -- managed to get their freedom eventually and they actually moved in with Harriet Beecher Stowe and were very, very close to her.
REYNOLDSNow, as Diane said, however, even the fugitive slaves in the novel, they're all a composite -- certainly the Edmonton sisters are there, but all the characters are really composite figures, so they were very, very important. I wouldn't point, though, to any one single source.
REHMMm-hmm. Talk about her marriage.
REYNOLDSYes. Well, she was married to Calvin Stowe, who was a professor at a theological seminary in Ohio.
REHMHe didn't make very much money.
REYNOLDSNo. His salary, as a matter of fact, kept going down and down, unfortunately, which is one reason why she started writing, just to make a little $40 here and a $40 there for a little magazine article. Even from "Uncle Tom's Cabin," because they were so poor, they couldn't negotiate a wonderful contract or anything like that, so they did get 10 percent of earnings and $30,000, which was a lot of money in that time.
REYNOLDSBut she made not a penny from the plays, for example. They made enough money to eventually buy a nice house and so forth, but a lot of the money that was donated to her, she then disseminated to anti-slavery causes. She was really sincerely dedicated to it and there are a lot of celebrations going on at her home in Hartford, the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, and this week and also this year and the Stowe Society in Brunswick, Maine is giving a conference at the end month for the 200th anniversary.
REHMDavid Reynolds, the book is titled, "Mightier than the Sword: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Battle for America."
REHMDavid Reynolds is with me, he's professor of American history at City University of New York Graduate Center. He's the author of "Mightier than the Sword: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Battle for America." We do have the first chapter of his book at our website and we do also plan to put up the first chapter of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" for your reading pleasure.
REHMHere is a question, what about the banning of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" in the South and the rebuttal the proslavery novels by Southern authors?
REYNOLDSWell, officially, "Uncle Tom's Cabin" was banned from sale through much of the South. One, a black man, a free black man, who was found with the novel was sent to jail for 10 years, just for having the novel in his possession. And it seems so threatening to the South, "Uncle Tom's Cabin," even though it enjoyed a kind of sub-Rosa popularity 'cause it was such a good read and so people were sometimes found with a novel, but officially, in many states, it was banned.
REYNOLDSIt also generated some 30 anti-Uncle Tom novels. None of them measured up to the popularity. Taken together, though, it -- these novels represented a rather large body of proslavery literature and this is part of the point in "Mightier than the Sword," where previously, slavery was just considered part of the American system, 12 American presidents had owned slaves and Supreme Court, so you really didn't have to defend it. But after "Uncle Tom's Cabin," you had this upsurge of proslavery literature that rose up in defense of slavery and therefore set up that tremendous sparring over slavery.
REHMLet's go to Dover, Ky. Good morning, Nancy.
NANCYGood morning. I think you sort of answered my question about why African-Americans are, I find, in classes where the novel is discussed that they very much don't like the novel. But I wondered if, I happen to think the novel is great as a novel. It was sort of dismissed in the '50s as a sentimental novel, but I think it's just a fine novel on its own and she was one of our great American novelists.
NANCYI think the Feminist Movement sort of brought it back, but I wondered if you addressed it's sort of -- it's not back totally, you know, as a great American novel, but I think it should be. Is it read more now than (unintelligible)...
REYNOLDSIn 1868, John W. DeForest christened it as the great American novel, greater than Hawthorne, greater -- and Leo Tolstoy said it was second only to the Bible as a great book. But in the 20th century, conservative critics came along, who were southern agrarians, and they set a new canon of complex writers like Hawthorne and Melville, and Harriet Beecher Stowe got kicked out, so to speak, and dismissed.
REYNOLDSAnd nowadays, feminist critics and women critics, but also a lot of other normal readers are coming back to the novel and saying, hey, this is an interesting and multi-layered novel. A lot is going on here. It's a wonderful read and a very, very powerful novel. And I think if you read the novel along with my illumination of it in "Mightier than the Sword," I really didn't cry over the novel until I was actually writing my book 'cause I saw how much went into it and what importance it had. And to me, I see "Mightier than the Sword" as really a companion volume to the novel.
REHMAll right. To Laurel, Md. Toliba (sp?), you're on the air.
TOLIBAGood afternoon, Diane. And I would like to very much thank this writer for having brought this subject and kept this subject alive. Today, it seems to be the elephant in the room, nobody wants to talk about it, but Harriet Beecher Stowe did a wonderful thing by recording this as an issue. W.E. Dubois and Martin Luther King all said that the issue of the color lines would be our issue in this century. And so I commend you both for having, in a little way, continued this discussion that we, of course, all have to face sooner or later.
REYNOLDSWell, thank you very much.
REHMI appreciate your call, Toliba. Thank you. And to Denise in, let's see, Tampa, Fla. Good morning to you.
DENISEYes, good morning. My name is Denise. I'd like to comment. Firstly, I'd like to ask Mr. Reynolds, I believe the lady did spend time in Florida, perhaps by the St. John River, but also, the great name as a abolitionist is William Wilberforce, who is from Hull in the northeast of England. I think 2007 was 200 years of his anniversary.
DENISEBut before he became involved, in the city of Belfast in the north of Ireland, the city merchants and city fathers passed a resolution, we will never profit from the slave trade. No slave ship will ever enter the port through Belfast dock, which is where Titanic, of course, was launched years later. Now, I heard that even quoted by David Trimble, who was the head of the government in northern Ireland a few years ago, and he said he was very proud and so am I.
DENISEI was born in Belfast and my mother used to talk about the book. She obviously was fascinated by it when it was read to her as a child. Now, Frederick Douglas also went to Belfast and he wrote back letters after he escaped from Chesapeake Bay, he was a slave who were out caulking ships, he was mister old slave and he wrote, here I can walk wherever I like, I can cross the door for church. No one curls the lip or calls me the n-word.
DENISEAnd I would just like to let it be known that Belfast in the north of Ireland had a lot of freedoms there and a very liberal attitude of Christianity and I'd like to know about Harriet Beecher Stowe's friends in Florida. Thank you very much.
REYNOLDSOkay. Well, the British Isles in general, and Belfast, were very, very receptive to Harriet Beecher Stowe. She went through -- went on a triumphant tour of the British Isles and she was invited there and she was just cheered everywhere. She didn't speak, she allowed her husband to do the speaking, 'cause back then, in general, women were not supposed to speak in public, but she sat there and she waved. She was so beloved throughout all the British Isles and in Ireland as well, as well as on the continent, you know, and it's just incredible.
REYNOLDSThe response in Europe to her was just amazing. In Florida, she came after the Civil War, largely to help African-American education and she did. She set up a school where both whites and blacks could study and the school was eventually burned down, it broke her heart, but she moved there, you know, partly because she saw a lot of African-Americans that had been slaves before were going down in that area and she wanted to help them out.
REHMAlso, we have a question from Richard in Cleveland, Ohio. Good morning, you're on the air.
RICHARDYes, good morning. Of course, the way I first discovered Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel when I was very young was through the musical, "The King and I," in which the novel is represented very artfully...
RICHARD...in the ballet sequence and I was wondering if there is, you know, outside of the book "Anna and the King," if there is any historical record of it having been actually performed for the King of Siam.
REYNOLDSI can almost guarantee -- I haven't found a -- I mean, "Anna and the King" is the main source of that, which is the source of "The King and I," but I can sort of say yes because literally, that play was put on in so many different versions in China, in Australia. I've verified China and Australia and India and I'm sure Siam, so I can say yes to that.
REHMHere's an e-mail saying, "Please comment on the plantation literature created in the south against 'Uncle Tom's Cabin,' particularly one children's book, 'Little Eva.' Also, please mention the Mighty Mouse and Warner Brothers cartoons created in the '40s, like 'Uncle Tom's Cabana' by Tex Avery, that fed the stereotype of African-Americans."
REYNOLDSYeah, well, a whole body of lost cause old South pro-plantation literature, the "Uncle Remus" stories and so many -- and eventually, "Gone With the Wind," arose and a lot of this was really specifically aimed as an answer to "Uncle Tom's Cabin." It was looking back from the late 19th and early 20th century and glorifying the old South and slavery wasn't all that bad and all of that.
REYNOLDSSo there's great romanticizing of the old South that arises there and then what happens also is that it gets picked up by Walt Disney, Tex Avery and all the cartoons and what's interesting, though, if you really watch those cartoons, some of them are available on YouTube, you see that, for example, in that Tex Avery cartoon, at first we have the kind of stereotypical vision of Uncle Tom, but then Uncle Tom turns into, by the end of that cartoon, Super Tom and he defeats -- he easily defeats Simon Legree, who ends up in the Empire State Building and Super Tom picks up the Empire State Building and throws it in the ocean.
REYNOLDSSo a lot of these things are coded messages of rebellion.
REYNOLDSThey begin as stereotypical, but you will see, if you watch the end of these cartoons, a lot of times, Simon LeGree is defeated, so.
REHMTo Fort Myers, Fla. Good morning, Dane.
DANEHello. Prof. Reynolds, I have a question about the structure of your new book. Now, I've read your fantastic and just exhaustively researched biography on Walt Whitman and I was wondering if this new book is a cultural biography in that vein, meaning that you discuss the social currents as much or more than you do the author.
REYNOLDSYes. This book began when a publisher said, would you like to write a biography of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," and I said, wow. That really, really -- I love the idea of that. And I only write cultural biography 'cause I think that culture is -- the culture we live in is so important to what goes on inside of us...
REYNOLDS...and -- I this is very much a cultural biography of Harriet Beecher Stowe and of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," so absolutely, yeah.
REHMYou had also written a previous biography of John Brown.
REYNOLDSYes, a cultural biography. And the two kind of dovetail because Harriet Beecher Stowe, even though she created the gentle and compassionate and firm principled Uncle Tom, ended up idolizing John Brown, who used violence, 'cause by the late 1850s, she realized that John Brown was right, sadly enough, only violence was going to get rid of slavery, it was so deeply entrenched. Which is why she came to deify John Brown, as did many ex-pacifists, such as Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson.
REHMDavid Reynolds, he's distinguished professor of English and American Studies at City University of New York Graduate Center and you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." To, let's see, Chris in Cleveland, Ohio. Good morning to you.
REHMHi, go right ahead.
CHRIS...and Prof. Reynolds, my great, great-grandfather was Gamaliel Bailey. Does that name ring a bell with you, Prof. Reynolds?
REYNOLDSYeah, he was the editor of The National Era, the newspaper in which the monthly installments of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" appeared before it actually appeared as a novel, you know.
CHRISCorrect, yes. I was to understand he had commissioned her to write something for the newspaper and she eventually sent a manuscript that kinda blew him away and it was a little bit too big and so he began running chapters in serial form over many months and that was the first publishing of "Uncle Tom's Cabin."
CHRISI recall reading that Dr. Bailey had read the first two chapters, never went back to read any more of it, but, oh, it's a good book, it's a good story and ended up catching so much attention that she ended up with a publisher. What more might you know about him, Prof. Reynolds?
REYNOLDSHe was an -- a very brave anti-slavery editor, had been for a while. She knew him and she thought she was just going to publish a few little installments and suddenly, this kept growing and growing and growing and it just blossomed and mushroomed and it was published between June, 1851 and March, 1852 and then came out as a novel.
REHMAnd finally to Ray, who's in Fort Washington, Md. Hi, there.
RAYHi, there. Oh, I bought an annotated version of the hardcopy and read it and I'm 50 some years old and I think this book needs to be back in schools (laugh) it should be there for the high school students, because it's a period piece that I see, 'cause I got the (word?) of reading the book at this age that Harriet Beecher Stowe was a sympathetic, but still superior to the people who she felt sympathy for, but it was written in the mid-1800s, so that -- I guess that would be expected. I mean, blacks aren't equal to whites, but they shouldn't be treated as badly.
REYNOLDSYes, she, like Jefferson, like Lincoln, like Walt Whitman, like virtually every other anti – both pro-slavery and she shared some of the racial attitudes of her day, but the most important thing is that she recognized that African-Americans are human beings. They're not animals to be bought and sold and whipped and chained and traded, they're human beings. And this is what she brought home to millions in a way that no other figure of her day did.
REHMAre you expecting that "Uncle Tom's Cabin" is going to go back on a bestseller list, along with your own book?
REYNOLDSI certainly would like that. I -- and I certainly would love people to enjoy my splendid edition of "Uncle Tom's Cabin," which is just coming out, because it's such a wonderful recovery without any of the stereotypes and everything. But yeah, I mean, all Americans should read "Uncle Tom's Cabin," and know about its history.
REHMHere's a final email from Robert, who says, "Here is my favorite line from 'Uncle Tom's Cabin.' 'We don't own your laws, we don't own your country, we stand here as free, under God's sky, as you are and by the great God that made us, we'll fight for our liberty 'til we die.'"
REYNOLDSYeah, that's -- yeah, as I show, this is about the higher law and is the law of justice, the law of morality.
REHMDavid Reynolds, his new book is titled "Mightier than the Sword: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Battle for America." Thank you so much.
REYNOLDSThank you, Diane.
REHMAnd thanks for listening, I'm Diane Rehm.
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