How did 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' shape America?

'Uncle Tom's Cabin' by Harriet Beecher Stowe
Book cover

Abraham Lincoln allegedly called Harriet Beecher Stowe "the little lady who started the big war" after she wrote 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' in 1852. The book was included on The Library of Congress' list of books that shaped America and has been called the most influential novel ever written by an American. On The Daily Circuit Wednesday we look at the important role her novel played in antebellum politics, social thought and the making of America.

Mark Dimunation, chief of the Rare Book and Special Collections Division at the Library of Congress, will join The Daily Circuit.

"It changed the way that Americans talked about race, both at the time of the Civil War and after," he said on Talk of the Nation. "It also spawned an industry that Harriet Beecher Stowe would have been quite unhappy with, with the Tom plays and the sort of avenue toward racist depiction."

David Reynolds, distinguished professor of English at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York and author of "Mightier Than the Sword: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Battle for America," will also join the discussion.

He wrote about the book in The New York Times:

Uncle Tom, meanwhile, was often presented as a stooped, obedient old fool, the model image of a submissive black man preferred by post-Reconstruction, pre-civil rights America. It was this Uncle Tom, weakened both physically and spiritually, who became a synonym for a racial sellout by the mid-20th century. Black musicians, sports figures, even establishment civil rights leaders were all tarred with the "Uncle Tom" label, often by younger, more radical activists, as a way of demeaning them in the eyes of the African-American community. But it doesn't have to be that way; Uncle Tom should once again be a positive symbol for African-American progress.

This is the first of four shows where we take an in-depth look at one of the books that defined America.

What classic should we read next? Comment on the blog.

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