The Answer Man

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Q: What is the most controversial book ever written on U.S. soil?

A: "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

Jimmy Carter's ill thought out remarks about race have once again brought a continuing problem to the forefront. President Obama answered this with reason; and he himself is a living proof that we have made great strides in this direction over the last fifty years.

A few Sundays ago Turner Classic Movies ran a late night silent movie version of Harriet Beecher Stowe's famous novel, "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Of course silent movies use sub-titles instead of dialogue. and the actors were forced to exaggerated pantomime that sometimes seems comical today. But the story itself is both poignant and dramatic.

Familiar as the story is, it gradually occurred to some of us that we had never actually read this book.

Libraries have long ago modernized their check-out systems. But still found in both old and new books is the ubiquitous library card that serves very little purpose other than a page marker. The Kennett Library's copy of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" has one of those old cards showing that from 1990 to 1992 there were twenty eight rentals of the book.

This paltry number is both significant and insignificant. Significant because the book was written so long ago, and insignificant because this book is without question the most controversial novel ever written on American soil. It energized anti-slavery forces in the North, and provoked widespread anger in the South.

It played an important role in those shells being lobbed across Charleston Harbor

against Fort Sumter, thus beginning the great Civil War.

Upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe, Abraham Lincoln allegedly said, "So this is the little old lady who started the great war."

Avid movie goers have reluctantly accepted the fact that Hollywood is indifferent to factual history. They do with it as they like, and call it "artistic interpretation ." They do the same thing with many books; and the silent movie version of "Uncle Tom's Cabin" is certainly no exception.

Stowe must have been spinning in her grave when she saw in the 1927 movie the inexorable drive of the Union Army into the deep south; and taking part in the rescue of her main characters. This is almost criminal abuse, because the book was published in 1852, eight years before the Civil War even started.

Another laughable example is when - evil incarnate - Simon Legree, is introduced into the movie as a cruel northerner who went south to start a plantation.

Harriet Beecher Stowe paid little attention to Legree's origin in the book; and reserved her wrath for both north and south, or anyone involved in perpetuating slavery. Surprisingly, her main contempt was for the planters who were kind and considerate to their slaves; saying it was their sanctioning of this "peculiar institution" that made it thrive, and allowed monsters like Simon Legree.

Hollywood vacillates on their likes and dislikes. Today's southerner might be a bigoted, pot bellied cop, chewing tobacco, and spitting out racial injustices on a daily basis. Now they like to identify certain types as "crackers," "red-necks," or "good-ole-boys."

This wasn't so in early movies when slave owners were often shown sitting on the veranda singing songs, and swapping jokes with their slaves. Or they were often depicted as swashbuckling gentlemen riding their white steeds in defense of "The Cause." The old movie, "Birth of a Nation," even cast a favorable light on the hooded heroes of the Ku Klux Klan, portraying them as defenders of the Aryan birthright.

Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote in the classical style of her times making full use of the English language. There is nothing remote about her usage of words, however, the rich dialect of the slaves - which was probably more authentic than later versions - is sometimes hard to follow.

Americans should read "Uncle Tom's Cabin," not just as a reading experience, but because it has its place in our history right along with the Gettysburg Address, or the Boston Tea Party.

Respond to this story

Posting a comment requires free registration: