Meet Uncle Tom

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Slate features a very interesting story I heard on a radio talk show, (possibly on NPR) while driving some time ago, but had forgotten about. David S. Reynolds has written a book, Mightier than the Sword, that Adam Goodheart aptly calls a "biography of the novel itself."

Reynolds takes a look at the popular novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, which at once gave a great boost to the abolition movement, and yet also was so widely adapted that many aspects of the novel became distorted in the popular imagination, even to the point that they would no longer resemble what Harriet Beecher Stowe had written. Most notably, the character, Uncle Tom, is "remembered" almost completely inaccurately:

The strangest twist in Uncle Tom's whole strange career may have come when his name became a synonym not for defiance of racism but for meek submission to it. The earliest known example of this usage, Reynolds writes, dates from 1865, when Frederick Douglass wrote that until the enlistment of colored regiments in the Civil War, most whites thought that the typical black man was "a perfect 'Uncle Tom,' disposed to take off his coat whenever required, fold his hands, and be whipped by anyone who wanted to whip him."

Yet the hero of Stowe's novel, Reynolds notes, stood not for submissiveness but for nonviolent resistance of the kind later exemplified by Martin Luther King Jr. (also derided in his day as an Uncle Tom). Even [Frederick] Douglass himself, whose passion for political agitation never waned, had complicated, if not contradictory, feelings. Late in life, at the Chicago World's Fair of 1893, he offered to pose onstage as Uncle Tom during a ceremony honoring Stowe.
One thing that comes up at a couple of points is the interaction between the movement for racial equality and the fledgling Communist movement: The article notes that Stowe may have read some of the early works of Karl Marx, and that Lenin regarded the book as a childhood favorite. Given the close (and unfortunate) alliance between the civil rights movement and the left, this makes sense, although I think many readers will misinterpret its significance in one of two ways: (1) Most commonly, Marx will wrongly get credit for helping to inspire the abolitionists (and, later, the civil rights movement); and (2) Marx will get more than his share of the blame for the corruption of the latter movement.

Reynolds notes, however, that, Stowe brought "together all of these [cultural] strands, [and] directed the whole range of America's favorite pop-culture images toward an assault on slavery." Among these strands was also the "mawkish religiosity" of the time. This being the case, it would seem that the cause of equality for all men, a truly selfish concern, was infected with the altruistic ethos of Christianity (which was secularized by modern philosophers, and fueled the rise of Communism) from the start.

-- CAV

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