MIGHTIER THAN THE SWORD: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and
the Battle for America
By David S. Reynolds Norton. 351 pp. $27.95
In this extended essay in cultural criticism, David S. Reynolds points out that Harriet Beecher Stowe shared a habit with Nathaniel Hawthorne, Herman Melville and Walt Whitman: incorporating popular culture into the creative process. But whereas the three male writers ended up producing complex and symbol-laden works (Melville drew on his familiarity with — and authorship of — travel narratives to write his masterpiece, “Moby-Dick”), “Stowe, in contrast, channeled [popular images] into a realistic human narrative with a crystal-clear social point: slavery was evil, and so were the economic and political institutions that supported it.”
It wasn’t long, though, before “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” begat more pop culture. A card game was manufactured with images from the novel on the cards; there were also special dice and jigsaw puzzles, snuffboxes and Staffordshire crockery, depicting characters or scenes from the novel.
After the war, the novel’s immense popularity in the North still galled Southerners. Among them was Joel Chandler Harris, author of the Uncle Remus stories, who argued that “all the worthy and beautiful characters in her book — Uncle Tom, Little Eva, and the beloved Master — are the product of the system . . . the book is all the time condemning.”“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” lived on not just as a novel but was transformed into plays, which were considered so subversive that in 1906 Kentucky passed a law banning their performance.