A century separates the release of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) by Harriet Beecher Stowe and that of Don’t shoot the mockingbird (1960) by Harper Lee. Huge successes in their time – one being the first authentically American bestseller and the best-selling book of its time after the Bible, the other making its author the first woman to be crowned with the prestigious Pulitzer Prize of the fiction since its publication – these two novels, which have in common to deal with the condition of blacks in the United States and to be the work of two writers, have however known a mixed fortune.
If it were necessary to find an illustration of the difference of their posterity, one could invoke the film adaptations which were carried out, the Hollywood industry having always been attentive to the salient books. Two years after its release, the Harper Lee novel was brought to the screen by Robert Mulligan, starring Gregory Peck as Atticus Finch, and was awarded three Oscars and three Golden Globes.
On the other hand, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel was first the subject of many theatrical adaptations – very popular during the lifetime of the author, who did not however authorize them, and known under the generic name of Tom shows -, before being brought to the screen in 1903, and a dozen times over the next two decades, in the era of silent cinema. But no meaningful version of the book has ever been made, and when the powerful MGM (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer) planned to make a film of it in 1946, it ended up giving it up in the face of protests from the equally powerful organization of defense of civil rights that is the NAAPC (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People). Symptomatic of the racial divide in the United States, the reception of these two novels never ceases to resonate with the unresolved heartbreaks of the American ethos.
Ten years before the Civil War
In his remarkable preface to Deep river, dark river, the anthology of negro-spirituals that she established, Marguerite Yourcenar writes: “In 1852, Mrs. Beecher-Stowe’s rather mediocre novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was admirable propaganda in any case. “ Many critics have criticized the book’s sentimentality and an overly humanized description of slavery. While it does have a few flaws, such as the author’s didactic and moral intrusions into the heart of the story, or even some bondieuard sneerings, we must never lose sight of the context in which it was written, which gives it all its scope and confirms, even today, the lucidity from which it proceeds.
“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” by Harriet Becher Stowe was published in 1852. © HONORE MICHEL
Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a book that needs to be rehabilitated in more ways than one. Released ten years before the Civil War – we know the famous and arguably apocryphal statement of President Lincoln after meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1862: “It is therefore this little lady who is responsible for this great war” -, the novel is the first, in American and undoubtedly world literature, to address the issue of slavery head-on. And its author is much more than a brave lady from a good New England family, moved by the condition of blacks as patronage ladies have their poor.
The daughter of a Connecticut Calvinist pastor and preacher, Harriet Beecher Stowe was raised with her ten siblings in a deeply religious family, but rarely received a higher education. Married to a pastor, she is also the sister of the famous abolitionist Henry Ward Beecher, known for his vehement speeches against slavery, but also for his support for the Kansas abolitionists to whom he supplied Sharps rifles in fake cases of bibles.
She herself took an active part in the “Underground railway” by helping runaway slaves to reach Canada, despite the risks involved. As with many New England intellectuals, the Fugitive Slave Act, voted by Congress in 1850 and giving a real blank check to the extradition of runaway slaves who had taken refuge in the northern states, acted as a trigger.
Drawing on many contemporary accounts, the memories of a visit she made to a Kentucky plantation twenty years earlier, and her compassion, nourished by the loss of one of her children, for the families of slaves broken and separated without qualms, Harriet Beecher Stowe embarks on the writing of this novel which initially appeared serialized in the anti-slavery weekly The National Era, writing to its editor, Gamaliel Bailey: “I think the time has come for a woman or a child able to speak for freedom and humanity to speak up. “ The book earned its author threatening letters, and even the sending of the severed ear of a slave. Subsequently, writers like James Baldwin or Toni Morrison will castigate the vision “Sexually and romantically sanitized” slavery, embodied by the religiously docile figure of Tom, obscuring the richness and originality of the other characters.
A white defending a black
The tour de force, the stroke of genius of Harper Lee’s masterpiece undoubtedly lies in the virtuosity of the first-person narrative and in the very personality of Scout, a mischievous, intrepid and brawling young heroine. Only Mark Twain can compete with this way of portraying childhood and the way it looks at the adult world, which makes Don’t shoot the mockingbird one of the best Bildungsroman – or training novels – in universal literature. If it is written in 1960, at the height of the fight for civil rights – Martin Luther King will be awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1964 – and when the Supreme Court has just handed down two decisions declaring racial segregation unconstitutional in public schools, the novel is set in the 1930s, during the Great Depression, in the author’s native Alabama, at the time of the Strange Fruits sung by Billie Holiday, those blacks who were hung as entertainment during parish barbecues on Sunday.
Like Salinger or Thomas Pynchon, Harper Lee is one of those American writers, authors of a major and indispensable book, who decide to disappear from the public arena. And the impact of the announcement of the discovery and publication of a novel, a year before his death, can give an idea of the place occupied by this novel. The father figure of Atticus Finch, an unyielding model of righteousness, a widower raising Scout and his older brother Jem alone, and duty clerk to defend Tom Robinson, a black man falsely accused of raping a white woman, occupies such a special place in American popular culture that jurists publicly defended in 1992 after an article appeared in Legal Times, accusing him of being the archetype of passive racism. This does not prevent some schools and public libraries from deciding to remove the book from their shelves for often contradictory reasons.
Modern in their time
What undoubtedly disturbs in the novel of Harper Lee, it is that it shakes these two pillars of the American company which are justice and the Church, and that it is a white who defends a black. For the proponents of dogmatic racialism, this translates a form of paternalism which is only the “presentable” side of racism, a reading that is all the more reductive and biased as it disregards the sincere humanity of this character as well. complex than mysterious.
Each modern in their time, self-made writers, Harriet Beecher Stowe and Harper Lee are the authors of two universal masterpieces, which should be read with this premonitory warning from the first in mind: “If some of our civilized readers […] blame us […], may they do their best to overcome the prejudices of their century. “
This article was originally published in Lire Literary Magazine in July 2021. The complete special issue can be found on the Literary Magazine Read Shop.
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Harriet Beecher Stowe and Harper Lee, two pioneers on the condition of blacks in the United States