Writing a novel that changes the world: the vision(s) thing

What does it take to persuade–to move people from one position to another, or to get them to care about an issue that has never stirred their interest? How do you get a critical mass of people to believe that a dispute affects their visions of themselves as individuals and the world in which they live?”

These are questions historian and law professor Annette Gordon-Reed poses in the New Yorker (June 13, 2011). She is referring to UNCLE TOM’S CABIN, a novel that did indeed persuade, move readers and change the course of historical events. Gordon-Reed goes on to say that for all the talk about divided government in 2011, 150 years ago, in 1861, “politics truly failed and the American government splintered” as the Civil War began. Harriet Beecher Stowe had published her seminal novel eleven years earlier.

(Gordon-Reed was reviewing David S. Reynolds’ new book, MIGHTIER THAN THE SWORD: ‘UNCLE TOM’S CABIN’ AND THE BATTLE FOR AMERICA. Reynolds makes the case that Stowe was indeed “the little woman who made this great war,” as Abraham Lincoln is reputed to have said. Hype surrounding his book has brought Stowe back into the limelight.)

So what does it take to write a work of fiction that moves a critical mass of people enough to alter the world in which they live? We recently read UNCLE TOM’S CABIN in part to find out. As it turned out we were charmed by the book, despite its depiction of both black and white characters in ways that make them hard for modern sensibilities to swallow. We simply accepted that Stowe is a Victorian novelist and moved on. But not so other readers. Writing in the New York Times, Director of American Studies at Columbia Andrew Delbanco says Stowe bent over backwards to counter the prevailing view that black people were inferior beings and in so doing elevated the black character to a state of impossible virtuousness. “In my experience, students can be embarrassed by it,” he says, adding that it is hard to make a case for UTC “as a literary work of depth and nuance.”

We wonder if UTC would be considered a better novel per se if the sticky subject of race were removed from it. Readers might be more willing to forgive Stowe her characterizations just as they do Dickens to some extent. Yet the book is one of the great, enduring, works of American literature because of its subject matter. Stowe paints a remarkable and truly comprehensive picture of the institution of slavery in all its many facets. Reading the book, we kept wondering where she got the nerve. Gordon-Reed says Uncle Tom came to Stowe in a vision; the author and her husband often had visions. And Stowe – from a family of preachers and social reformers – said she had a “vocation to preach on paper.”

Unquestionably, she had impeccable timing. The country was ready for Uncle Tom and little Eva. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if some fictional characters came along to solve the current political impasse? If one of you guys has written that novel, now it is the time to get it into circulation.