By Fergus Bordewich. Originally published in The Wall Street Journal, June 2011.
IN APRIL 1857, Samuel Green, a free black farmer and preacher living on Maryland's Eastern Shore, was taken from his home and sentenced to ten years in prison for the felony of possessing a banned book that was, the law asserted, "calculated to create discontent among the colored population of this state": Uncle Tom's Cabin: Or, Life Among the Lowly. The prosecution of Green was of course a travesty. But Maryland and the rest of the slave-holding South had reason to be scared.
Uncle Tom's Cabin was abolitionist propaganda. But it was also a brilliant novel. In the intertwined stories of the saintly Uncle Tom, the sadistic overseer Simon Legree, the defiant fugitive George Harris and his family, and a teeming cast of abolitionists, slave owners and enslaved African-Americans, the novel's author, Harriet Beecher Stowe, for the first time in American literature depicted slaves as complex, heroic, and emotionally nuanced individuals. The novel shocked Americans North and South not just with its heart rending portrayal of slavery's cruelty, but by its attention to such subversive themes as interracial sex, cross-racial friendship, and black rage. "Wherever it goes, prejudice is disarmed, opposition is removed, and the hearts of all are touched with a new and strange feeling, to which they before were strangers," declared an unnamed editorialist in Washington's National Era.
In the first year after its release in 1852, Uncle Tom's Cabin sold 310,000 copies in the United States, triple the number of its nearest rivals, 1 million copies in Britain, and a similar number elsewhere in the world. Writes David S. Reynolds, in this splendid and subtle history of its impact on American culture, the novel "opened the way for a widespread acceptance in the North of antislavery arguments that had long been ignored or dismissed." It would also directly pave the way for the public's openness to Abraham Lincoln, and convert countless previous apathetic Yankees into men willing to fight and die for emancipation of slaves.
Uncle Tom's Cabin became a phenomenon like nothing Americans had seen before. The very term "Great American Novel" was coined, in 1868, by The Nation, specifically to describe it. Literary luminaries such as Mark Twain, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, and Henry James showered it with praise. Inspired by it, the radical Russian writer Nikolai Chernyshevsky penned works that directly influenced many of his country's revolutionaries. (Uncle Tom's Cabin, notes Reynolds, was Lenin's favorite childhood book.) Less significantly, the novel spawned a dizzying explosion of "Tomitudes", or spin-offs, including card and dice games, cheap engravings, jigsaw puzzles, wall hangings, snuffboxes, fountain pens, root beer, and eponymous products such as "Uncle Tom's Shrinkable Woolen Stockings."
Stowe's creation probably had its most lasting impact as a stage play, which was almost always performed by white actors in blackface. By 1912, it was estimated that Americans had seen at least 250,000 performance of Uncle Tom by hundreds, if not thousands, of specialized theater companies. It would remain on American stages into the 1950s. With its elevating Christian message of martyrdom and redemption, Uncle Tom's Cabin made theaters—previously the haunt of roughs, sports, and prostitutes—so respectable, Mr. Reynolds says, that managers invented the afternoon matinee to cope with popular demand. Touring companies were so ubiquitous that in 1881 a Detroit newspaper complained of being "tortured with an invasion of Uncle Toms!!!" So competitive was the "Tomming" business that companies added song-and-dance interludes and boxing matches - "Uncle Tom" would sometimes step out of the play to go a few rounds in costume. Like the novel, the play was translated into scores of languages, including Yiddish, where it was accompanied by "Hebrew melodies" and readings from the Talmud instead of the Bible. Bizarrely, some shows actually doubled and even tripled the actors on stage playing the lead roles. It's difficult to imagine how this worked, but Mr. Reynolds provides plenty of evidence that such shows were very popular. "For playgoers of the era, the more Tom characters, the better," he writes. Film stars who began their careers in "Tom" shows included Mary Pickford, and Spencer Tracy, among others.
By the mid-20th century, so thoroughly had popular notions about Uncle Tom become disconnected from what Stowe actually wrote that almost everyone was easily able to recognize the comic allusions to it in mash-ups and satires performed by the likes of Abbott and Costello and the Little Rascals. When the 1956 film The King and I, set in Siam and starring Yul Brynner, incorporated the charmingly hilarious rendering of a ballet titled Small House of Uncle Thomas, it was a fittingly incoherent finale to the strange odyssey of the book that William Dean Howells once declared had "move[d] the whole world more than any other." Paradoxically, "Uncle Tom" is remembered today mostly as an epithet for spineless collaboration with white oppression, the very antithesis of the morally heroic character for whom Stowe named her novel. Not only conservatives such as Booker T. Washington, but even leaders as bold as W.E.B. DuBois, Martin Luther King, and even Malcom X, at one time or another were accused of being "Uncle Toms" by their enemies. In this book, Mr. Reynolds has set out to rediscover the many and often contradictory meanings of one the nation's most important, most misunderstood, and most provocative works of literature. He has admirably succeeded.