Anti-Fiction

Adam Goodheart‘s review in Slate of David S. ReynoldsMightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America gets at what’s so appealing about the book: Reynolds shows not just how influential Uncle Tom’s Cabin was in American life (though whether it actually sparked the Civil War is debatable), it explores how culturally omnivorous Harriet Beecher Stowe was while writing the book. “Appearing at the moment of America’s—indeed, the world’s—first great flowering of mass popular culture, Uncle Tom’s Cabin drew on minstrel shows, pulp fiction, abolitionist broadsides, temperance propaganda, and evangelical tracts,” Goodheart writes.

For me, the most fascinating part of Reynolds’ book was the discussion of the “anti-Tom” novels that sprang up in response to Stowe—defenses of slavery written by people indignant at the book’s message, and the traction it was getting. According to Reynolds, 29 such novels were published before the Civil War, and the University of Virginia’s comprehensive Uncle Tom’s Cabin website includes selections from most of them. The creepiest, easily, is Little Eva, Flower of the South, an 1853 children’s book in which the title character is saved from drowning by Sam, a slave. Its last sentence: “Eva’s parents were so pleased with Sam for saving Eva, that they gave him his freedom; but he never left them, he loved them all too well.”

I don’t know of a novel that’s inspired so many retorts in novel form. (Is there a shelf of anti-Grapes of Wrath and anti-Jungle fiction somewhere?) Part of the reason for that may simply be that there’s little chance a single book of fiction could now move the culture politically the way Uncle Tom’s Cabin did—“faction” has a way of preaching to the converted, and nobody would want to read a novel about, say, the debt ceiling. (The jobless recovery novel is there for the reading, though, if you want it.) But Reynolds points to something that distinguished Stowe’s novels from other political fiction: An acknowledgment of the other side’s beliefs, which blunted any critique of the novel. Reynolds writes:

[N]one of the anti-Tom novels came close to selling as well as Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The main reason was that Stowe had preempted them on virtually every point. Racism in the North? She had memorably captured that in her ironic portrait of Ophelia. The miseries of white workers, often as great as those of enslaved blacks? She expressed this proto-Marxist idea compellingly through St. Clare, who spoke of a forthcoming working-class revolution. The kindness of many Southern slaveowners? She granted that…. Stowe was thus a frustrating writer for proslavery novelists to rebut, since she agreed with them on many points—except the central moral issue of slavery.

2 responses to “Anti-Fiction

  1. My wife (who’s much better read than I am) read Uncle Tom’s Cabin a while back and wasn’t enamored with it, deciding it was more of a polemic than a novel. Though her assessment makes me very wary of reading the book (I greatly respect her tastes), I would be much more interested in reading Reynolds’ study, which sounds fascinating.

    • Mark Athitakis

      Definitely a polemic—I read it in college, and though my memory of the details have faded, I don’t recall being especially enchanted with it as fiction. (Though I had a very good professor teaching the book.) I was toying with noting how so many of the anti-Tom books end on a very strident note, invoking God and rightness in a very exclamatory way. But so does “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”—as Reynolds points out, many of the anti-Tom books map the plot turns and rhetoric very closely. In any event, I couldn’t recommend Reynolds’ book more highly.

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