Tag Archives: Harriet Beecher Stowe

The greatest American novel

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.

 

Thomas Dixon: a writer on the wrong side of history

Sometimes a successful writer, both in his life and in his writing, gets it all wrong. Such was the case with Thomas Dixon.

Dixon was born in 1864 in North Carolina and grew up during the Reconstruction era as an unreconstructed Southerner. He attended Wake Forest and later Johns Hopkins, where he befriended a young Woodrow Wilson. He got into politics, practiced law, and eventually became a Baptist minister. He accepted an offer from a larger church in Boston where his fame and popularity grew. He moved from there to New York in 1889, and by 1895 he had given up the pastorate to be fulltime on the lecture circuit. He was thought to be the most popular lecturer in the nation at the time.

In 1901, while on a lecture tour, Dixon attended a theatrical version of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. He cried at the performance, not out of sympathy for the characters in the play but out of anger for what he thought was Stowe’s misrepresentation of the South. He vowed then and there — 50 years after Uncle Tom’s Cabin was first published — to get even and to set the record straight.

Dixon decided that he would write a sequel to Uncle Tom’s Cabin but would do so from the South’s point of view.

Dixon’s novel, The Leopard’s Spots, was published in 1902, and his fame — in addition to the tenor of the times — made it a best-seller. Dixon followed that success with another novel, The Clansman, in 1903 and still another in 1909, The Traitor. All were virulently racist books that played on the fear white people had of blacks and the supposed evils of miscegenation. All were highly popular with the reading public.

They were so popular that movie director D.W. Griffith used them to make his early epic, The Birth of a Nation. The film reflected the racist views of Dixon’s novels.

One of the people who shared these views was Woodrow Wilson, Dixon’s old friend from Johns Hopkins. The two had stayed in touch over the years. When The Birth of a Nation was released in 1915, Wilson sponsored a private showing in the White House and is reported to have said the file was “like writing history with lightning. And my only regret is that it is all so true.”

Dixon’s writing undoubtedly had an impact, confirming the stereotypes and prejudices of many of his readers. But his work never came close to undoing the mighty fortress of accuracy, logic, and emotion that Harriet Beecher Stowe built.

Dixon inadvertently paid tribute to Stowe in the Leopard’s Spots when he wrote:

A little Yankee woman wrote a book. The single act of that woman’s will caused the war, killed a million men, desolated and ruined the South, and changed the history of the world.

And it drove Dixon to spend much of his life and intellect trying, unsuccessfully, to counter all that.