May 06, 2008


Harriet Beecher Stowe, courtesy of wikipedia.

"I wrote what I did because as a woman, as a mother I was oppressed and brokenhearted, with the sorrows and injustice I saw, because as a Christian I felt the dishonor to Christianity, because as a lover of my country I trembled at the coming day of wrath." So spoke Harriet Beecher Stowe about the writing of Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852).

If you have any doubts that writing can make a difference, check out the impact of that book in the mid 1800s.

Today it is not regarded as great literature, with some justification, but she wasn't going for art for art's sake. Stowe was an abolitionist who saw slavery up close when she lived in Ohio, just across the river from the slave state of Kentucky. She drew heavily on slave narratives in composing the work, particularly that of the Rev. Josiah Henson.

Uncle Tom's Cabin, first published in serial form in 1851, had a huge impact on national as well as international opinion about slavery. It was even widely read, though widely hated, in the American south, where it clearly hit a nerve. There's even a story that when Abraham Lincoln met with her, he said "So you are the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war!"

That's a bit of Lincolnian hyperbole--and it took more than a book to end the institution of chattel slavery in this country--but if he really said that (which I don't doubt), he had a point.

One reason why the book had such a huge impact goes to the heart of a special kind of writing: narrative or story. The power of story is of a different order than that of essay. Story works at an emotional level, in which a person can vicariously experience--to a small degree anyway--things that happen to other and different people. Story can lead by way of empathy to morality.

This era was a time of sentimentality in tastes and manners among those who could afford to be aware of such things. UTC wasn't the only book that played on the heart's sympathy strings--the French author Victor Hugo's Les Miserables came out at about the same time.

This was also a time when many middle class Americans came to revere and idealize the home and family as a haven in a heartless world. Stowe's novel played on that expertly, driving home to readers the fact that slaves had families too. And, sadly, part of its success may have come because white readers were more willing to absorb the message from a white writer than directly from the narratives of former slaves.

In the 20th century, the term "Uncle Tom" became a pejorative term for African Americans who were subservient to whites, although when I read the book it seemed pretty clear to me that the character Uncle Tom was no "Uncle Tom." At the end of the book, he encourages other slaves to run away and is beaten to death for refusing to divulge details of their escape.

Whatever literary and other shortcomings the book may have from the perspective of 150+ years later, in terms of sheer impact on public opinion it would be hard to think of very many others that even came close.

Can writing do it all? Probably not. Can writing make a difference? Hell yes.

SIGN OF THE TIMES. After a decade of decline, welfare rolls are beginning to climb again, as USA Today reports.

LET THEM EAT ETHANOL. Here's a good background piece on the global food crisis from the Washington Post.

TRAVEL MUG OR TREES. According to this item from Alternet, North American goes through 50 million trees a year for paper cups.

THAT'S THE TICKET. Here's an interesting item on the science of lying and exaggeration. I read it this morning. After I did 50 million pushups.

MOST ANIMALS CAN LEARN, but it doesn't always do them much good.


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