Thursday, June 23, 2011

David S. Reynolds's "Mightier than the Sword"

David S. Reynolds, a Distinguished Professor at the CUNY Graduate Center, is the author of Walt Whitman’s America, John Brown, Abolitionist, Beneath the American Renaissance, Faith in Fiction, and Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson. He is the winner of the Bancroft Prize, the Christian Gauss Award, the Ambassador Book Award, and finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Prize.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Mightier than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America, and reported the following:
Yes, my book Mightier than the Sword passes the Page 99 test. On this page, I examine the historical roots of Eliza Harris, one of the main characters of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s landmark antislavery best-seller Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), which, as I show in Mightier than the Sword, helped fuel the Civil War by exposing slavery’s horrors with unprecedented power. The real-life Eliza Harris was an enslaved Kentucky woman who, upon hearing that her master planned to sell either her or her two-year-old son, made a daring escape. She carried her child across the heaving ice floes of the Ohio River to the free state of Ohio, where she was assisted by kindly abolitionists who sent her north on the Underground Railroad to Canada and freedom. Harriet Beecher Stowe had heard this story first-hand from one of Eliza’s antislavery saviors, the Ohio abolitionist Rev. John Rankin. However, Stowe made no mention of Rankin or others in The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, her factual volume on the sources of her novel, for fear of revealing Eliza’s abettors, who could have been imprisoned under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 had their identity come to light.

Eliza Harris’s story--factual yet hidden by Stowe—is typical of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which was based on real-life horrors that Stowe often felt compelled to conceal because of the volatility of the slavery issue at that time. Also, as I note on page 99, “Like other characters in the novel, Eliza Harris cannot be pinned to a single source.” The unmatched social and political influence of Uncle Tom’s Cabin resulted from Stowe’s success in weaving together aspects of various slave biographies in each character and in using images from all realms of popular culture—religion, temperance reform, sentimental fiction, minstrel shows, and adventure fiction, among others—in such a way that the novel broke sales record for American fiction.

Harriet Beecher Stowe became, as Lincoln reportedly said, “the little lady who made this big war,” precisely because she realistically and passionately portrayed slavery by drawing from real life while ringing so many pop-culture bells that Uncle Tom’s Cabin proved irresistible to millions of readers worldwide.
Learn more about Mightier than the Sword at the publisher's website.

--Marshal Zeringue