Shameless appeals to emotion. Portrayals of sensationalist violence paired with tear-jerking sentimentality. Publicity through promotional products like card games, puzzles and chinaware. Publicity is integral in the popularization of many modern franchises. Products like this are also what led, in part, to the abolition of slavery.
Oct. 20 in Washington Hall, David Reynolds delivered a speech about Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Reynolds wrote about the impact of the Civil War era novel in his new book, “Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America.”
The author discussed how deeply “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” permeated public opinion as well as the many contributing factors that caused the book’s influence to become so widespread, right down to the Uncle Tom chinaware.
Reynolds explained that because of Stowe’s strong religious beliefs, she was critical of sensational literature even though she was also fascinated by it. As a result, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” became the first American novel to combine sensational literature with sentimental literature, influencing the American public almost exclusively through emotion and sentimentality.
“The novel changed many people’s votes by melting their hearts,” Reynolds said.
Stage renditions and promotional items called “Tomitudes” that displayed positive images of African Americans further promoted the novel. Many read the novel aloud to friends and family, as was customary at the time.
“It is estimated that 10 people heard the novel … read for every purchaser,” Reynolds said. “Most southern states banned the sale of the novel and some criminalized it. Almost 30 pro-slavery novels were written as a direct response to ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin.’”
One rumor holds that, when President Abraham Lincoln met Stowe, he said, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war.”
Two hundred years later, the controversy over Stowe’s book continues. One audience member commented on how the book was still banned when she was growing up in Virginia.
Reynolds believes that the novel has a place in the education system.
“It is a novel that can appeal to people of different ages,” he said. “In education circles and university circles, ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ and Harriet Beecher Stowe are widely respected.”
If this is the case, some believe that the novel’s significance is not emphasized enough today.
“I am amazed that I got through college without being exposed … amazed that it was not required reading,” audience member Debbie Coleman said. “I had no idea how much it influenced American history.”