Mightier Than the Sword, by David S. Reynolds

Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin stands alongside Benjamin Frank­lin's Autobiography, Thomas Paine's Common Sense and Frederick Douglass's Narrative as an Ameri­can classic. Any liberally educated person needs to know something about Eliza, Uncle Tom, Eva and the notorious Simon Legree. Stowe's novel filled the American imagination with the cruelty and injustice of slavery, and it may even have motivated some northerners to take up arms. Upon meeting Stowe for the first time in 1862, Abraham Lincoln allegedly greeted the most famous woman in America by asking, "Is this the little woman who made this great war?" With the 150th anniversary of the Civil War upon us, now would be a good time to dust off your paperback copy of the novel and either read it again or lend it to someone who has yet to enjoy it.

If you have read Uncle Tom's Cabin, then you should also read David Reynolds's Mightier Than the Sword. A professor of English and American studies at the City University of New York Graduate Center and the author of books on John Brown, Walt Whitman and America in the Age of Jackson, Reynolds has established himself as one of the great chroniclers of 19th-century American culture. His book is best described as a biography of Stowe's famous novel. Those who have not read Uncle Tom's Cabin will find Reynolds's book informative and interesting, but those who have spent some time with Stowe's masterpiece will find his interpretation of the novel and its place in American culture to be an intellectual feast.

Reynolds situates Stowe and Uncle Tom's Cabin in the evangelical culture of the early 19th-century United States. Stowe was raised in the most prominent religious family in the country. Her father, Lyman Beecher, was a nationally known Congregational minister and social reformer. Her brother Henry Ward Beecher followed in his father's footsteps and became, to use the title of Debby Applegate's wonderful biography, the most famous man in America. Her sister Catharine became an educator and advocate for women's rights. Although the Beecher family's theological roots were deeply embedded in 17th-century New England Puritanism, Lyman's children rejected their childhood Calvinism. Stowe's brand of evangelicalism was more hopeful than harsh, more democratic than  hierarchical and more egalitarian than authoritative. She was a follower of revivalist Charles Finney, embraced the Wesleyan doctrine of perfectionism and even claimed that she was inspired to write Uncle Tom's Cabin by a vision from God. In the same way that the male members of her family used the pulpit to promote a brand of evangelicalism steeped in social reform, Stowe used her pen.