Sunday, June 26, 2011

David S. Reynolds

David S. Reynolds, a Distinguished Professor at the CUNY Graduate Center, is the author of Mightier than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America. His other books include Walt Whitman’s America, John Brown, Abolitionist, Beneath the American Renaissance, Faith in Fiction, and Waking Giant: America in the Age of Jackson. He is the winner of the Bancroft Prize, the Christian Gauss Award, the Ambassador Book Award, and finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Prize.

Recently I asked him what he was reading. His reply:
Having spent the last few years writing Mightier than the Sword, my book on the background and impact of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s antislavery best-seller Uncle Tom’s Cabin, I recently reread Hawthorne’s classic House of the Seven Gables, which was published in 1851, when Stowe was writing the first installments of her novel for a Washington newspaper. I read Hawthorne’s novel partly to prepare for a course I’m teaching next fall and partly to remind myself of what Hawthorne, one of America’s canonized male writers, was up to when Stowe was publishing her landmark novel.

What I found is that Hawthorne and Stowe drew on similar cultural materials but used them for very different ends. Each novel has a virtuous, angelic heroine (Eva in Uncle Tom, Phoebe Pyncheon in Seven Gables), a crabby old maid (Ophelia in Tom, Hepzibah in Gables), oppressed poor figures (Stowe’s Uncle Tom and other slaves, Hawthorne’s Maule family) opposed by corrupt, upper-crust ones (Stowe’s slaveholders, Hawthorne’s wealthy Jaffrey Pyncheon), and radical social reformers (the antislavery Northerners in Stowe, Holgrave in Hawthorne). Despite these similar ingredients, Stowe and Hawthorne produced novels that were light-years apart thematically. All the characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin dramatize a crystal-clear point: slavery and the institutions that support it are evil. Hawthorne’s characters, in contrast, reflect the brooding sense of evil, passed down from Puritanism, that afflicts the Pyncheon family and that illustrates Hawthorne’s ability, in Melville’s words, to say “No! in thunder” to the optimism of mainstream culture. Although Hawthorne’s novel is more nuanced and complex than Stowe’s, I couldn’t help being aggravated by Hawthorne’s indifference to slavery, which Stowe bravely challenged in her novel. Nor could I help thinking about that fact that in 1852, the year after House of the Seven Gables appeared, Hawthorne wrote a laudatory campaign biography of Democratic presidential candidate Franklin Pierce, a noted waffler on slavery. Small wonder that Stowe grew exasperated with Hawthorne, whose support of Pierce continued into the Civil War. Stowe blasted him for remaining faithful to “that arch traitor Pierce.”

Harriet Beecher Stowe merits praise and respect for directing all the materials of popular culture—the same materials that make up House of the Seven Gables—toward an all-out assault on slavery. By bringing attention to the horrors of slavery with unmatched power, she fueled the passions that led to the Civil War. As for House of the Seven Gables, I admire it as a literary work, but I regret it’s detachment from the most egregious injustice in American history.
Learn more about Mightier than the Sword at the publisher's website.

Read Reynolds's New York Times op-ed, "Rescuing the Real Uncle Tom."

The Page 99 Test: Mightier Than the Sword.

--Marshal Zeringue