Mightier than the Sword: and the Battle for America
David S. Reynolds
W. W. Norton & Company, 2012
368 pp., 24.95
Harold K. Bush, Jr.
Mightier Than the Sword
Back in my graduate school days, hardly any critic of American literature was more influential than David Reynolds, and his magnum opus Beneath the American Renaissance (1988) became one of those touchstone texts that helped a lot of us imagine a way forward into our own scholarly pursuits. In that thick volume, Reynolds illustrated an almost exhaustive and at times uncanny ability to see hidden within the key literary texts of the 1840s and '50s the remnants, or "symptoms," of popular and social phenomena of the period. All these authors, he argued, "breathed the same air," tinged ponderously by a "subversive" mass culture; and as such, that air manifested in their literary creations—despite what those old-fashioned New Critics had previously told us. The conflicts, values, beliefs, and ephemera of popular culture (historical and legendary whale attacks, the soft porn and grisly crime reports of the penny papers, the loquacious new stylizing of contemporary preachers and reformers)—all this found its way into the masterpieces of the American Renaissance. Reynolds illustrated his theory and methods even more profoundly in his magisterial Walt Whitman's America (1995).
It's interesting to go back to Beneath the American Renaissance and discover how little Reynolds has to say there about Uncle Tom's Cabin and Harriet Beecher Stowe. In an encyclopedic tome approaching 700 pages, only a couple of paragraphs are devoted to Uncle Tom's Cabin. But if he largely ignored Stowe's masterpiece back in the late 1980s, Reynolds convincingly argues in Mightier Than the Sword that Uncle Tom's Cabin should be considered the most important and influential novel ever written by an American. It's quite a change—and given the sheer heft of the evidence (Reynolds has always been good at laying it on pretty thick), it's hard to disagree with him.
Why such a dramatic turnaround on this particular novel? Part of it has to do with the fact that since those early days of the so-called "New Americanists" movement of the 1980s, there has been a massive sea change of opinion, not only about Stowe's achievement but also more generally about the "popular" and "sentimental" modes that were common in the antebellum period. Deeply informed by a variety of earlier and contemporary theorists (Derrida, Foucault, Adorno and the Frankfurt School of cultural studies, Geertzian "thick description," and Fredric Jameson's famous call to "Always historicize!"), the movement enjoyed a lengthy heyday, radically altering the way an entire generation of scholars conceived of literary criticism. The key critics included not only kingpins like Sacvan Bercovitch and Donald Pease but also influential feminist critics like Ann Douglas and her nemesis Jane Tompkins, whose book Sensational Designs attacked Douglas' disdain for sentiment and then set the bar for the promotion of Uncle Tom's Cabin as one of the great fictions of American history.
All heady stuff for a first-year grad student like me. I was among that cohort who were most persuaded by these New Americanist-types, and like a prospector for gold (or fool's gold), I've been excavating values and beliefs from literary texts ever since. For such excavations, I know of no American novel as productive as Uncle Tom's Cabin, which remains in my view the mother lode of American rhetoric and belief of the 19th century. In Mightier Than the Sword: "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and the Battle for America, Reynolds does an excellent job of providing good introductory materials about Stowe's works, along with a lot of less well known information for scholars in the field. This is preeminently a trade book, and as such is well written and accessible while still being useful for researchers. It tells a great story and provides much interesting detail, and I would highly recommend it for history buffs as well as literature students of all ages.
For those with an interest in religion, Reynolds begins his story with a lengthy account of how Uncle Tom's Cabin depicts the turmoil and rapid changes in Christian belief during those hectic days leading up to the Civil War. This chapter, which he calls "The Gospel according to Stowe," is extremely informative and covers much ground as it depicts the author as engaging in some of the crucial religious debates of her time. Among these were controversies regarding the rise of a feminist Christian ideology and a deepening interest in alternative spiritualities, including African American, spiritualist, Roman Catholic, and what we might call today charismatic or Pentecostal manifestations. As such, Stowe is seen here as a kind of spiritual pioneer, one who at times was almost obsessed with the "cloud of witnesses" of the dearly departed. I think this depiction rings true in a fruitful manner, one that goes against the grain of the standard account of Stowe as a stodgy, conservative, old-school believer. Here she is seen as edgy, experimental, and even at times a bit nutty. At the very least, she was one wishing to go forward into new and exciting spiritual frontiers. As such, she is more like Emerson than Charles Finney (although admittedly, there's a little of both of these men in her, along with spiritualist and holiness leanings). I'm glad Reynolds starts with this material, since the religious implications of Stowe's novel are typically the ones most underrated and overlooked.
The heart of the book covers the debates over race, slavery, and the extent to which Uncle Tom's Cabin—or any novel, for that matter—can be said to "change" history. Reynolds argues vehemently in favor of fiction's ability to do so, and he makes a very good case for it. In fact, Reynolds takes the argument for the powerful impact of Uncle Tom's Cabin to greater lengths than any previous critic. If at times he might be said to exaggerate, I think his basic point is accurate: yes, the novel has probably had a more profound effect, and has spurred more reaction, both positive and negative, than any other book in American history. Reynolds has always been one to go to painstaking lengths in supporting such assertions. His analysis of the deeply racist underpinnings of the culture, extending on into the early and middle parts of the 20th century, and his coverage of the abolitionist debates, while not surprising for experts in the field, are nonetheless excellent.
The volume ends with a lengthy discussion of the reception history of Uncle Tom's Cabin. This brilliant account continues to show the impact of Stowe's characters and plot, even when those characters are taken wildly out of context (as in the plethora of "Tom shows," or in Shirley Temple movies, Bugs Bunny cartoons, The King and I, and the mega-hit mini-series Roots in the 1970s, not to mention such recent depictions of "Tom-like" African American sidekicks in The Green Mile, Driving Miss Daisy, and The Shawshank Redemption). Reynolds' discussion of the infamous Tom shows is one of the highlights of the book, since for many years these melodramatic renderings have been primarily understood as little more than horrendous stereotyping. Reynolds claims otherwise, arguing that they inspired a new kind of sympathy for black Americans after the Civil War. For Reynolds, the Tom shows presented heroic and admirable black characters to largely multicultural popular audiences, and in so doing probably achieved the largest popular audience for positive African American characters of any medium for many decades. Further, it is not commonly realized that the Tom shows highlighted the spirituals and slave songs, filled with the deep yearning and hope that so inspired such progressive leaders as Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Mark Twain, and W. E. B. Du Bois. In most cases, Reynolds claims, rather provocatively against the critical current, these stage plays established the dignity and humane aspects of black characters, and the laudable nature of their authentic Christian faith, just like the original Tom, when rightly understood.
Obviously, there is much room for debate on these issues—and classroom experience tells me that the racial depictions are always a primary concern for students reading the novel for the first time. But Reynolds brings to bear the sheer authority of one of our senior critics, and we need to listen carefully to what he's saying. His analysis is particularly moving, for example, in his discussion of black actors in the 1930s, including Hattie McDaniel of Gone with the Wind fame and Bill "Bojangles" Robinson. These actors were pioneers, says Reynolds, and it's high time we recognized their contributions to American cultural history. When McDaniel won the Oscar for playing a slave "mammie" in Gone with the Wind (granted, a film dripping with southern sympathies and obvious, offensive racial connotations), she stated, "I consider this recognition a step further for the race, rather than personal progress." Hattie desired to be understood as a race woman, even as she portrayed the subservient house slave.
In the context of their courage, Reynolds urges us to recognize the achievements of such pioneers rather than figuring them as "despicable sell-outs" to the white master, and thus associated with the epithet "Uncle Tom" made famous by James Baldwin. Reynolds catalogues the long list of African Americans who have been called "Uncle Toms" over the years, and perhaps surprisingly it includes just about every black leader: not just those actors mentioned above, but groundbreaking athletes like Jackie Robinson, Willie Mays, and Hank Aaron, and even radicals like Du Bois, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Barack Obama have all, at one time or another, been labeled with the epithet. Reynolds is correct to call our attention to the irony of this bad habit: no matter what a black man or woman does, it's never quite radical enough for some observers.
Was Uncle Tom's Cabin the towering achievement of American fiction, the most influential book ever penned by an American, as Reynolds claims? Did this single novel by the "little lady" truly spark the Civil War, and help to put an end to slavery? One is more a literary question, the other more historical; and definitive answers can be hard to come by. Reynolds asks us to consider the evidence, and vote. I've long been sympathetic to his views, and his splendid account here, which is the crowning fruit of a lifetime of outstanding scholarship, only adds to my enthusiasm for Harriet Beecher Stowe.
Harold K. Bush, Jr., is professor of English at Saint Louis University.
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