The greatest American novel

June 27, 2018 | By Jim Stovall | Filed in: journalism.

It’s difficult to argue with the claim that no American novel has had more psychological, social, and political impact that Uncle Tom’s Cabin. And no 19th-century American novel continues to be debated to this very day like Harriet Beecher Stowe‘s classic indictment of slavery.

David S. Reynolds certainly makes those claims and more in his Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America, a survey of the novel — how it was written and published, the impact it had, and its continuing effects.

No book in American history molded public opinion more powerfully than Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Published in 1852, it set sales records for American fiction. An international sensation, it was soon translated into many languages. The Boston preacher Theodore Parker declared that it was ‘more an event than a book, and has excited more attention than any book since the invention of printing.'” (p. xi)

Sales of the book were certainly phenomenal — 300,000 copies in its first year, a number three times that of the previous American best-sellers. The public, however, had been primed for the book because it had already appeared as a 40-part serialization in the newspaper The National Era, beginning in June 1851. Dwarfing its audience in American was the number of copies sold — more than a million — in the United Kingdon in its first year. Also in that year, it was translated into nine languages, and more translations followed in the subsequent years.

Commentators at the time recognized that its actual readership far exceeded its sales because a favorite past-time of home life was to read books aloud to friends and family (the audiobook of the 19th century).

Suffice it to say that Uncle Tom’s Cabin took over the American mind (and many minds beyond America’s shores), and the novel has held its grip on a portion of that mind ever since. Immediately after its publication, the debate about slavery — and ultimately the debate about America — was never the same.

Reynolds’ book is a fascinating look inside a fascinating and important phenomenon in the history of the nation.


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