Reading at the Crossroads

Reading at the Crossroads is an archive for columns and letters which appeared in the Terre Haute Tribune Star. I also blog here when my patience is exhausted by what I feel is irritating, irrational and/or ironic in life. --gary daily

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Location: Terre Haute, Indiana, United States

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Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Cussed and Discussed

[gary daily col. 28 August 4, 2002]

"When I re-read 'Uncle Tom's Cabin,' I was 45 and I thought I would have to hold my nose to get through it. But by chapter two, I was gawking, it was so interesting and terrific. By the end I was in awe.” -Jane Smiley

Do books change lives?

There’s no doubt they do when we speak of individual lives. Today I read a short account of a University of Virginia philosophy professor testifying to this Paul on the road to Damascus phenomena. The story of his adolescent years left me with the impression that he was doomed to a life of living off inflated memories of his high school football exploits and the proceeds from stolen hubcaps. Then he’s turned around. He reads Ken Kesey’s anti-authoritarian novel, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. It’s goodbye bars and cars and hello Plato and Vico.

Why do I so often find myself involuntarily thinking “yadda, yadda, yadda” when I hear these accounts? I am pleased but never surprised by “reading saved my life” stories. I know full well there’s always some one individual flapping about in the flock of humanity who will go to his grave certain that reading Jonathan Livingston Seagull gave wing to his previously earthbound heart and spirit. I would never take serious aim at gulls wanting to be eagles.

That a book can change a person’s life is a profound reality; it is also a truism. But I suggest taking a different tack in regard to the power of the printed word between covers. Try this question: What book has had the power to grab an entire nation by the collective scruff of its neck and move a whole people to a different place in their minds and their actions?

In answering, please disqualify those sacred texts which abound in the world. Also exclude sacred secular works, including the dearly departed Sears and Roebuck Catalog and any and all biographies of NFL quarterbacks, Brittany Spears, or honest CEOs. The demonstrated power of these volumes places them beyond discussion.

Limiting yourself to American works, you might come up with titles such as Rachel Carson’s environmental classic, The Silent Spring; the book that sparked a war on poverty, Michael Harrington’s The Other America; Betty Friedan’s signal at the start of the second wave of feminism in American history, The Feminine Mystique; or Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed, that safety beacon in the dark corporate night of negligence. These are all worthy and important works. But if your grasp of history allows, the one book that would appear on almost every list would be a 19th century novel--Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

This book was published 150 years ago, in 1852. (Strictly speaking, it was first serialized in an antislavery newspaper in 1851.) It’s my guess that it would be impossible to find a history book surveying this nation’s history that does not mention Stowe and Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a contributing factor in the coming of the Civil War. Lincoln and Civil War buffs cannot pick up a study of the man and the war without coming across the story of the very tall Mr. Lincoln meeting the very short Mrs. Stowe with these very much unverified words of greeting, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war.”

Uncle Tom’s Cabin sold over 300,000 copies in the United States in its first year of publication. This would would work out to roughly 3 million copies today. It was translated into many languages and had a huge following in Europe. Lord Palmerston, who would later become the Prime Minister of England, read it “for the statesmanship of it”-- three times. It found avid readers south of the Mason and Dixon line, where attempts to ban the book failed. When Stowe met Lincoln in 1863, sales in the United States had reached 2 million. It is the all time best-selling book in proportion to population.

Important books can also be recognized by the rejoinders and enemies they foster. Fifteen novels were written by pro-slavery and southern apologists in response to Stowe’s work. An editor of the “Southern Literary Messenger” instructed a book reviewer to “have the review as hot as hell fire, blasting and searing the reputation of the vile wretch in petticoats. . . .” When Langston Hughes wrote the introduction to a 1952 centennial reissue of Uncle Tom’s Cabin he called it “the most cussed and discussed book of its time.”

It is fair to say that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel had done its work. Before Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published the crime of slavery was a concern only to those dismissed as zealots and troublemakers. After her book exploded on the scene, masses of people found themselves sympathizing with, or enlisting for duty, in antislavery and abolitionist causes.

Stowe’s classic is not much read today. This is too bad. In recent times critics such as the brilliant novelist and essayist, James Baldwin, have asked new and probing questions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In Baldwin’s reading, the book is “a catalogue of violence . . .leav[ing] unanswered and unnoticed the only important question: what it was, after all, that moved her [Stowe’s] people to such deeds.” Stowe’s novel, sentimental and distant as it may seem to our ear today, can still speak to the country about slavery’s ugly offspring, racism. It is fitting that this book remains alive and vital, continues to be “cussed and discussed.”

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