Thursday, January 9, 2014

Creative Resistance 101: Uncle Tom's Cabin

Lake Michigan: imitating the Ohio River crossed by the
escaping Eliza? (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)
I've been locked in Chicago's polar freeze for several days now.  But that's fine with me.  I've got Uncle Tom's Cabin.

Or, to be more precise, I've got a book about Uncle Tom's Cabin that is un-put-downable I think is a must-read for anyone involved in the peace and justice movement.

Mightier than the Sword: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Battle for America, by David S. Reynolds, details what may be the greatest example of creative resistance in history.  And it's so relevant today: hey, we all know that stuff's messed up . . . the eternal problem is now to get the general public motivated to act!

Imagine the moment when Harriet Beecher Stowe's sister-in-law said, ""...if I could use a pen as you can, Hatty, I would write something that would make this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is."  (Have you encouraged an artist or writer today? :-)

Eliza Crossing the River
Image taken from the title page of  
Pictures and Stories from Uncle Tom's Cabin
(Boston: John P. Jewett and Co., 1853).
Courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.
(More at Curious and Curiouser: Uncle Tom’s Cabin,
Anna Leonowens, and The King and I by Marcus Wood)
Eventually, in large part due to Stowe's novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, the United States was converted from a country in which a small number of people thought slavery needed to be ended into a country determined to act to end slavery. This literary work took the movement wide, and it took it deep.

Why is a novel an important tool for creative resistance?

Well, for one thing, the novel is inherently inclusive. All movements thrive on the involvement of large numbers of people who are all encouraged to bring their special insights and contributions to the overall effort. As Reynolds explains, Harriet Beecher Stowe gathered an immense volume of material into a whole which then could be disseminated to achieve "distributive power," i.e. the "capacity for generating varied responses in different contexts." (p. 88)

The grudging compliment from a Southern paper summed up why this approach had power: "Thousands will peruse an interesting story, and thus gradually imbibe the author's views, that would not read ten lines of a mere argumentative volume on the same theme." (p. 152) (How many times have we complained that we make flyers, but not one reads them?)

In addition, Reynolds describes how the format of the novel -- the weaving of detail after detail into a whole -- supported a systematic critique of slavery, rather than just being an attack on certain "bad people."

Of course, Uncle Tom's Cabin wasn't just a novel.  In fact, before it was anything else, it was a magazine series, written in installments. As such, it was part of a social phenomenon: "reading the weekly installments aloud became a family affair." (p. 126) And reading aloud, in general, was such an important habit in families and groups that it is estimated that actual "readership" was 10 times the number of books actually sold. (Approximate first year sales: US, 300,000 copies; UK, 1 million; rest of world, 1 million.)  (Hmmm . . . what family entertainment rituals are we taking advantage of?)

A film version of a theatrical adaptation of a derivative work
containing a localization: Performance of Uncle Tom's Cabin
in the 1956 film version of Rodgers and Hammerstein's
The King and I [based on Margaret Landon's 1944 novel,
Anna and the King of Siam]. (From Wood: "Click on the
image to view an excerpt from the film on the Uncle Tom's
Cabin and American Culture Web site
. Scroll down to the
bottom of the linked page to see the film.")
But the special genius of Mightier than the Sword, in my opinion, is making it clear that it was other derivative works -- especially plays -- that made the messages of Uncle Tom's Cabin really pervasive.  That's right -- in the 1850s they were all about merchandise tie-ins, adaptations, and sequels! (Think what it would mean if we really took to heart what this might mean for our peace and justice movements today . . . . )

The theater was key. According to Reynolds, "many more people saw plays based on Uncle Tom's Cabin than read the novel." (p. 136)  It's not insignificant that the producers of the Uncle Tom's Cabin adaptations revolutionized theater in America: "introduced single-feature entertainment" (p. 137) . . . "longest-running play in American history" (p. 137) . . . "made theater, once reviled, a holier place than the church in America" (p.145) . . . "By 1853, six versions were appearing on the London boards and four in Paris" (p. 145).

Well, I could go on and on -- just the treatment of religion and the role of "people of faith" in the movement to end slavery would require a blog post all its own -- but I should probably leave some of the book for you to discover for yourself.  So I'll just offer one last quote.  Reynolds points out that an important part of the power of Uncle Tom's Cabin was that the depth of the novel form enabled Stowe to tackle multiple arguments -- before her ideological opponents had a chance to weigh in. In fact, he says,

"she preempted them on virtually every point" (p. 156)   

I think this is especially important for those of us who want a forum in which to present ideas in a way that goes beyond the sound bite.

(All page references are to the 2012 Norton paperback edition of Mightier than the Sword: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Battle for America, by David S. Reynolds)

Want to learn about creative resistance in the movement against drones? See the Creative Resistance section in the Organizer Manual on the NSDSW wiki!

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