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Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Battle for America [Hardcover]

David Reynolds

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Book Description

27 May 2011
David S. Reynolds presents a fascinating look at the cultural roots, political impact and enduring legacy of Harriet Beecher Stowe's revolutionary bestseller at the time of the two hundredth anniversary of Stowe's birth. Reynolds reveals the book's impact, not only on the abolitionist movement and the American Civil War but also on worldwide events, including the end of serfdom in Russia, up to its influence in the twentieth century. He explores how both Stowe's background in a famously intellectual family of preachers and her religious visions were fundamental to the novel. And he demonstrates why the book was beloved by millions while fuelling conflicts over the meaning of America. Although vilified over the years as often as praised, Uncle Tom's Cabin has remained a cultural landmark, proliferating in the form of plays, songs, films and merchandise-a legacy that has both fed and contested American racial stereotypes.

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Deeply researched and compulsively readable Both the definitive account of the strange but true career of Uncle Tom s Cabin and a sweeping two-hundred year history of race in America. --Debby Applegate, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning The Most Famous Man in America: The Biography of Henry Ward Beecher"

About the Author

David S. Reynolds is a Distinguished Professor of English and American Studies at the City University of New York.

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Front Cover | Copyright | Table of Contents | Excerpt | Index
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Amazon.com: 4.5 out of 5 stars  14 reviews
27 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Rewriting Racial Narratives from the Civil War & a Great Choice for Book Groups 6 July 2011
By David Crumm - Published on Amazon.com
I am not alone in praising Mightier than the Sword: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Battle for America, by American Studies scholar David Reynolds. The New York Times published an extended review about the book's significance--and particularly underscored the fresh challenges of returning this best-selling melodrama with all its problematic content to American classrooms. Reappraising Harriet Beecher Stowe's accomplishment makes for quite an educational challenge.

Nevertheless, as the Times pointed out: "If ever there was a publishing event to prove the principle that timing is everything, Uncle Tom's Cabin was it. On both sides of the sectional divide the timber was dry--and Stowe struck the igniting spark. In the North, Frederick Douglass rejoiced that she had `baptized with holy fire myriads who before cared nothing for the bleeding slave.'"

That's why I'm giving American Studies scholar David S. Reynolds' new book 5 stars. This is more than an individual book of history. It's part of the dramatic rewriting of what Americans thought we knew about the Civil War era and its long legacy. There are countless examples involving all aspects of that turbulent era--but, simply within the realm of racial politics, a great deal is changing in our assumptions about the Civil War's legacy. One example is the work of historian David Blight in a book like Race and Reunion: The Civil War in American Memory, where he completely overturns our previous nostalgic memories of Memorial Day. A second example, further along in that legacy, is Daniel L. Buttry's new book Blessed Are The Peacemakers, which includes a series of fresh profiles of Freedom Riders that helps to rewrite our assumptions about their origins and training as nonviolent activists in the South. This vital area of American history and culture is starting to look quite different in today's college classrooms.

In his new book, Reynolds invites readers to turn their assumptions on end about Uncle Tom's Cabin and Stowe's influence on our history. I've been a journalist covering issues of culture and diversity for more than 30 years--but as a Baby Boomer who majored in literature and writing in the early 1970s, no professor even suggested we should read Uncle Tom's Cabin. Now, we recognize that this best-selling 19th-century melodrama ranks with Dickens and even surpasses Dickens' ability to spark real change in the world.

You'll enjoy this book, including its sprinkling of illustrations. It's great for group discussion, and at only 273 pages in the main text, you'll find that even the slower readers in your group will finish this book quickly. They'll come to your discussion circle with lots to talk about!
26 of 29 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars The Impact Of A Great American Novel 25 Jun 2011
By C. Hutton - Published on Amazon.com
Mr. Reynolds had researched and written a readable account of the impact that "Uncle Tom's Cabin" (1852) had upon American history and society. Arguably, no other novel had such influence upon America as this anti-slavery tale of the South. The author is not claiming that it is the best-written novel of that century (readers can argue that "Moby Dick" or "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn" or other books merit that claim), merely that its depiction of slavery as a moral evil created a commercial and cultural phenomenon that continues to this day. Image, if you will, that "Silent Spring" had the PR and financial success of the music album "Thriller" or the movie Titanic", and then the reader will have a concept of "Uncle's Tom Cabin." This book framed the popular debate that led to the Civil War. "Mightier Than The Sword" has over 250+ pages of narrative and can be read easily in two evenings.
15 of 18 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars glass half full 18 July 2011
By Jane F. Gerhard - Published on Amazon.com
Reynold's first four chapters on Uncle Tom's Cabin's creation in the hot house of American popular culture is fabulous. He situates Stowe in a fascinating web of narratives and genres. I found his argument that the novel helped change public opinion about the inhumanity of slavery and specifically the Fugitive Slave Act to be very convincing. I found, however, that Reynold's analysis of the cultural work done by UTC after the civil war was less so. The second life of Stowe's masterwork on stage and in novels in the 1860s, 70s, and 80ss is well documented but its hard to hold to the author's conviction that UTC is still doing good work as the country slips into Jim Crow and the reinstitutionalization of white power. The connection between UTC, Birth of a Nation, and Gone with the Wind has been theorized more eloquently by LInda Williams in Playing the Race Card. What Reynold's does do well in the final two chapters is give us lots of historical detail about how UTC was expanded and contracted by popular tastes. the very agent of its initial rise to importance. I'd have liked to hear the author address how it is that UTC rose the wave of popular culture before the war and helped change hearts and minds ("mightier than the sword") but when the tides turned and racism was on the move, its portraits of African American humanity could not change public opinion. Having Eva and Tom float to heaven together did not do much cultural work in 1890, from where I sit, interesting staging noted.

The writing is engaging and clear; there is alot of material for students looking for good research avenues as well as general readers looking for a detailed portrait of American popular culture in the 19th century. Stowe's UTC is unique in American letters and Reynold's to his credit, never lets that out of his sight.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom's Cabin 24 Nov 2012
By Kim Burdick - Published on Amazon.com
This is an impressive study of the role "Uncle Tom's Cabin" played, and continues to play, in American literature and race relations.

"Mightier Than the Sword" starts quietly with a look at how Harriet Beecher Stowe accumulated the material for this novel, speculation on whom the characters were based upon, and a heavy dose of the standard commentary about Stowe's impact on the abolition movement and the American Civil War.

The second part of the book rises to a crescendo, examining the almost accidental marketing of the book through multiple pirated reprintings, theatre productions, movie productions, and an astounding seventy-seven years of world-wide popularity.

We learn that highly-educated 19th century Blacks like W.E.B. duBois, Frederick Douglas and James Weldon Johnson, praised Harriet Beecher-Stowe's efforts at consciousness-raising.

The denouement looks at the backlash of the 1960's, when patience with Victorian story telling was very limited. Uncle Tom's gentle strength was no longer in fashion and his name became used as an epithet.

Reynolds winds up his study by noting that 21st century opinion is moving towards an appreciation of the contributions of talented Americans once labeled "Uncle Toms," including Booker T. Washington, Louis Armstrong, Jackie Robinson and Willie Mays.

"Mightier Than The Sword" is carefully researched and well-thought-out. The book provides superb reading and discussion material for book clubs, church groups, college-level Sociology, Pop-Culture, and History students.

The moral of this tale is that the cultural and social norms of each generation of readers influences that generation's perceptions of "Uncle Tom's Cabin." One hundred and sixty years after it was first published, it remains an important American milestone. No matter how much praise or how much scorn is heaped upon the book, "Uncle Tom's Cabin" is still read and still taken seriously.


Kim Burdick
Stanton, Delaware
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Great Overview of "Uncle Tom's" Impact and Legacy 2 Jan 2013
By Jamakaya - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I thought "Mightier Than the Sword" was an excellent overview of the impact and legacy of "Uncle Tom's Cabin." It offers interesting biographical background about Harriet Beecher Stowe and her motivations for writing the novel. It sets "Uncle Tom's Cabin" in the context of other anti-slavery literature and describes the immediate impact it had on the escalating debate over slavery. It shows what an incredible publishing phenomenon it was and how it became universally familiar to all Americans through hundreds of stage and music hall productions and, later, films. I found most interesting the author's discussion of how the story became trivialized and caricatured over the decades, including how the essentially noble Uncle Tom has morphed into a symbol of weakness and accommodation. There is a lot of interesting information about Stowe, her book, racial attitudes, the entertainment industry and much more in this book, all presented in a clear, well-organized way. It's a thoughtful read, packed with information. It's also inspired me to reread "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and to reassess it in the light of what I've learned from this study.
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