Where do we draw the line between literature and history?
When does literature transcend its written form and become a catalyst for something much bigger than the author and reader?
How does “popular” literature from the past influence pop culture today?
Well, when Abby Goode posed these questions that she’s been pondering and relayed to me that Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin is considered to be the spark that ignited the Civil War, I realized that’s a pretty good reason for choosing it as a life-changing book!
Abby read Uncle Tom’s Cabin the summer before she took AP US History in high school and then again in college for a class entitled “Gender and Feeling In Pop Culture”. At first, she wondered why her high school teacher was making her read the book in the first place. But as the pages started turning at an ever faster rate, Abby just couldn’t put it down. It’s safe to say that Uncle Tom’s Cabin is what got Abby interested in 19th century literature and looking at literature through a historical lens.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin was like the Twilight or 50 Shades of the 19th century, clearly not in content or merit, but in the way that readers voraciously consumed the novel. With its dramatic plot, sentimental techniques (like direct attention to the reader), and appeal to empathy, Uncle Tom’s Cabin brought the intrigue and controversy of slavery to the masses.
When Abby read the novel for her “Gender and Feeling in Pop Culture” class in college, she also read James Baldwin’s critique which focuses on what he believed to be the cause of the buzz surrounding Uncle Tom’s Cabin: sadism. In other words, the masses viewed the story as a way to experience slavery without having to be faced with the atrocities of slavery in a personal way.
Stowe’s novel not only allowed the privileged to immerse themselves in the “lowly” lives of slaves, it also played an immense part in supporting the abolitionist cause. On the surface, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a book that contains fictitious trials and tribulations. However, the book turned into a crucial tool for bringing the trials and tribulations of slavery to and end in real life.
When a novel can not only change your own life, but the lives of so many people as well…that’s when you know it is truly remarkable.