by Doctor Science
There are two American novels that have had unparalleled influence. Not "literary influence", in the sense of influencing other writers, but works that have had a real effect on how many Americans think and act, and thus on the course of society and history itself.
There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old's life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.Alas for American culture: Tolkien was British.
Despite the fact that "everybody knows" how influential UTC was, I'd never read it until last year. I happened to pick up Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Battle for America by David S. Reynolds from the New Books display at the library, read it, and got interested enough to read UTC for myself. My husband D then did, too: neither his high school in Georgia nor mine in Connecticut had required us to read it.
We were both surprised at how much better it was than we expected. OTC is often dismissed as "sentimental" ... because it would be better to write about slavery without getting feelings involved? How does that make sense? Or maybe the problem is that Stowe *tried* to get her readers all worked up about slavery, she *wanted* a big emotional response. Stowe's goal was to put her readers' faces into the human (and therefore emotional) reality of slavery, in the midst of a culture that, North and South, urged everyone to be "practical" and "rational" and to accept it as a necessary (if occasionally brutal) reality. Stowe saw cool emotional distance toward slavery as morally obscene, and it's hard to argue that she was wrong. Not to mention that Stowe's "sentimental" approach, her forthright appeal to her readers' feelings, worked. She changed people's hearts, and their minds followed.
Stowe's characters are usually called stereotypical, and that's what D and I were expecting. For instance, from various references over the years we both expected Topsy to be a carefree, silly pickaninny, a revolting caricature.
Instead, Topsy reminded both of us of stories about children from Romanian orphanages with reactive attachment disorder. Topsy is constantly lying and stealing not because it's her "nature" but because she was separated from her parents at a very young age, and has no actual experience with love or care. She jokes and does silly dances not because she's naturally carefree, but as a cover, to distract people from her thefts and to get them to underestimate her considerable native intelligence. Far from being a figure of fun, Topsy seemed to us to be a clinically accurate picture of how some children will respond to a life of terrible deprivation.
Here Topsy is represented as full of pent-up energy about to burst out. But, compared to her interlocutors, she is dressed very revealingly, appearing like a gamin. A degree of stereotypical sexual pertness results.What I notice instead is how starved she looks, how proud her buyers seem of owning someone dressed in rags.
Similarly, Uncle Tom himself is often said to be, well, an "Uncle Tom", but that's not how we read it. (Reynolds says that characterization comes from Uncle Tom in the extremely popular Tom Shows, who was much more subservient than he was in the book.) Stowe is explicit that Tom is (successfully!) modeling his behavior on that of his (and Stowe's) greatest hero, Jesus Christ. Readers such as James Baldwin have found Tom frustratingly passive and unmanly, but Stowe characterized him that way not because he's black, but because he's Christ-like, the best kind of man she knew. And she shows that Tom's imitatione Christi is difficult and sometimes painful, taking truly heroic self-discipline.
I could spend thousands of words talking about UTC, but my point for now is that, despite its faults (which are mostly on the stylistic or "literary" level), I can understand why it had such enormous influence. Stowe wrote an emotionally engaging story about the most deeply serious American topic, with many characters and storylines, and with constant references to the politics and religion in which she was embedded -- and which influences us to this day. I personally think it should be required reading in American high schools, if necessary in place of Huckleberry Finn. Finn has better sentences and is less didactic, but Twain shows a much narrower range of characters than Stowe, and he lets the river carry the story away from staring slavery in the face.
Some years ago when I worked at the libertarian Cato Institute, we used to label any new hire who had not yet read "Atlas Shrugged" a "virgin." Being conversant in Ayn Rand's classic novel about the economic carnage caused by big government run amok was practically a job requirement. If only "Atlas" were required reading for every member of Congress and political appointee in the Obama administration. I'm confident that we'd get out of the current financial mess a lot faster.Not only does Moore -- an adult with a degree in economics -- think that Rand's economic philosophy is a practical basis for policy, he thinks AS is well-written enough to be persuasive.
Now, I personally found AS nearly unreadable -- I started it years ago, and as I recall I was soon skimming and jumping around, reading bits and pieces, trying to find out why people liked it so much. I welcome anyone in comments who can explain how it works -- because it *clearly* does, for many people -- on a literary level, as a piece of fiction. Style? Plot? Characterization? Or is it best thought of as a piece of science fiction in which the salient literary quality is world-building?
You've probably noticed that these two Truly Influential American Novels have something in common: both were written by women. I'm not sure that's significant: most novels are written by women, so it may just be statistics at work. But given how heavily the American literary canon tilts toward male writers, I'm inclined to think that maybe it does mean something.
If there's a quality that UTC and AS have in common, it's that they are emotional, even passionate. Stowe and Rand feel strongly, and they want their readers to feel strongly, too.
As Jonathan Swift said, It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into. What Stowe and Rand prove, I think, is that if you change or activate people's *feelings*, reason will follow. Emotion has much more weight or inertia in the human mind than mere logic does -- and if you find the lever to move it, you can, in fact, change the world.