A book group that I am in, the Dead Theologians Society, has just begun reading Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. I think this has always been a controversial book. In its own day, it galvanized opinion around the abolition of and defense of slavery. Later, it was debated on its literary merits (and perhaps still is). More recently, there has been a discussion of its racist stereotypes, even while being a key anti-slavery work. I am not qualified to opine on any of these matters and so I will leave them to others.
What intrigued me in this week’s reading was a statement by Stowe in her Preface to the work:
“The object of these sketches is to awaken sympathy and feeling for the African race, as they exist among us; to show their wrongs and sorrows, under a system so necessarily cruel and unjust as to defeat and do away the good effects of all that can be attempted for them, by their best friends, under it.”
If awakening “sympathy and feeling” was her object, Stowe wildly succeeded. In the first year of publication (1851), the book sold over 300,000 copies in the U.S. and over one million in Great Britain. It was the best selling novel of the nineteenth century, and second only to the Bible in overall sales. It is legend, not fact that when Lincoln met Stowe in 1862 he said of her, “So this is the little lady who started this great war.” Slave-holders in the South roundly criticized the book, even while it helped fuel the growing abolitionist sentiment in the North. Part of the impact of the book was the exposure of the systemic evil of slavery enshrined in law, that permitted cruel slave owners to do their worst and diminished even those kindly disposed.
The question I am curious about is whether literature, and particularly the novel form, could still have such impact? Or has visual media (or something else) displaced the written form? I’d love to hear from others on this, particularly on the visual media question, because I would confess I am pretty ignorant of what is happening in that world. I really am a book guy. I am aware that there is both a genre of apocalyptic writing (much of it popular among young adults) and series like Game of Thrones that explore dystopian worlds. What I am curious about is how this translates into discourse about our own society.
It strikes me that there are certainly contemporary published works that have led to significant public conversations. On the question of race, I think of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow, and Ta-Nehisi Coates Between the World and Me as well as his other books and Atlantic articles. Both have evoked significant national conversations (and controversy) around race, incarceration, and other issues. But are there works of fiction that have provoked similar, and widespread conversation?
Someone in our group noted that sales of George Orwell’s 1984 have spiked after weekend controversies over “alternative facts”. The Associated Press reports that Signet Classics has ordered an additional 75,000 copy press run of the book, which portrays a totalitarian society controlled by “newspeak.” What is intriguing to me is that this is not a current work creating a conversation, but an older work, in which people are recognizing resonances with our current situation.
It strikes me that part of the challenge is the divide between popular fiction and serious literature. To this day, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is criticized in part because it is a popular work. In addition to the invidious stereotypes, others criticize its sentimentality at points. But readers loved it. I wonder if there is a bar against exploration of serious issues in popular literature, one that Stowe transcended?
Finally, while I don’t think you can blame the Civil War on Stowe’s book, it is striking that it contributed to inflamed feeling all around, and to a breakdown of political discourse leading to southern states withdrawing from the Union and the outbreak of hostilities. One wonders what the consequences of a book like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or a popular video equivalent, would be given the fragile state of our public and political discourse?
I don’t know the answers to any of these questions. I sense we are in a time of great ferment. Can fiction, as well as other forms of writing “awaken sympathy and feeling?” And to what ends. What are your thoughts?