Could you imagine a novel starting a war? It’s an impossibility today. Books aren’t taken that seriously, and some might say they’re no longer written that seriously, either. However, it happened. The novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin awakened many to the “agonies of the life of the slaves.” As described in an article on Harriet Beecher Stowe, “Harriet’s carefully chosen words had not alienated readers but instead moved and inspired Americans to address the issue of slavery.”

For reasons we’ll discuss below, it’s the rare media outlet today that covers this famous novel. The Christian Science Monitor writes that Uncle Tom’s Cabin “blended gripping narrative, humor and striking characters to expose the inhumanity of slavery. Many Americans would never forget the novel, which remained influential and tremendously popular for decades.”

Uncle Tom’s Cabin appeared in book form in 1852. So influential was Harriet Beecher Stowe’s polemic for the abolitionist movement, it is said Abraham Lincoln greeted her in 1862 with these words: “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war!” The Civil War had been underway for a year. The moral authority for a conflict that would see 700,000 Americans die, and four million slaves freed, was aided by a novel.

It was a bestseller. By 1860, Uncle Tom’s Cabin had sold over 2 million copies. Reportedly, world writers such as Leo Tolstoy and Victor Hugo admired it. Stowe’s novel had a wide readership from Dostoevsky to Vladimir Lenin.

Harriet Beecher Stowe didn’t write Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a fluke. By nine years old, she showed impressive writing ability. Led by her father, a minister and abolitionist, Harriet Beecher grew up in a home where religion and social causes were seriously pursued. Harriet’s father “encouraged his children to question everything and often led his family in debating issues of the day.”

Uncle Tom’s Cabin has since been vilified by the modern academy. As The Christian Science Monitor remarks, “The novel later lost its reputation as a literary masterpiece, and the title character’s name became an epithet for African-Americans who cozied up to white people.” To non-political readers, the novel’s text doesn’t bear obvious criticism, and author Jane Smiley ranks Uncle Tom’s Cabin above Mark Twain’s celebrated Huckleberry Finn.

Stowe wrote her novel when the goal of eradicating slavery was paramount. No one could predict the social mores of race relations even twenty years after the Civil War, let alone 150 years. Racial sensitivies have seemingly never been higher than in the twenty-first century. Now, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is held up as an example of bias and racism, as a victim of its own success. For critics, the novel has become a malicious symbol. It attacks slavery using racial stereotypes. It was written by a white woman, disqualifying the novel for modern praise, serving as an example of the white savior complex.

Then, there’s the Christian angle. Harriet Beecher Stowe viewed slavery in moral terms more than political or revolutionary terms as is common today. Uncle Tom was a Christian. He bared his circumstances for no other reason than God’s plan of salvation. A culture hostile to Christianity would mischaracterize this view as weak when, in practice, it’s anything but.

Gary Younge, a black writer and sociology professor, bravely asserts a defense of the Uncle Tom character. He observes, “For when Tom is apparently at his most supine he is, nonetheless, motivated by a desire to remain true to his Christian faith rather than to ingratiate himself with his master.”

Mr. Younge also reminds us that Tom did not want to be a slave:

‘Tom, you couldn’t possibly have earned, by your work, such clothes and such living as I have given you,” says St Clare.

“Know’s all that Mas’r,” says Tom. “But I’d rather have poor clothes, poor house, poor everything and have ’em mine, than have the best, and have ’em any man else’s.”‘

Later, Tom refuses to snitch on two fellow slaves who had fled. In return, he receives a severe beating and dies. In any heroic story, dying with your convictions intact is the pinnacle. Moveigoers cry when Bruce Willis stays behind on the asteroid. Uncle Tom’s character is not afforded this reverence.

As Mr. Younge explains, he is ready take offense at Uncle Tom as a sellout, but is left like Pilate, finding no fault in a man so accused. He deliniates between Uncle Tom, the Christian character, and Uncle Tom, the political consruct. Today’s Uncle Tom is a useful political tool disconnected from art.

Is there anything to say to detractors inventing their own meaning? Mr. Younge offers only this. “[D]on’t blame Uncle Tom. He has suffered enough.”

Modernist criticism of Uncle Tom’s Cabin only demonstrates the power of litertature. Over 170 years later, Stowe’s novel is a focal point of a time in American history. Uncle Tom’s Cabin unifed the nation against a horrific injustice. It’s possible to overlook the way it galvanized support for a bloody conflict that would impact nearly every one of its American readers.

The impactful artistic novel has many labels. It’s been called serious fiction, fine literature. In the 1980s, publishers used literary fiction to differentiate an artistic novel from a commercial one. Literary fiction is grounded in realism. It’s centered around a gripping emotional crisis. For being plausible and relatable to readers, the literary novel is oddly intriguing. In stark contrast, commercial fiction sets out to entertain with adventurous plots. Commercial fiction is a respite from reality. If literary fiction is an emotion simulator the reader navigates, commercial fiction is a puzzle the reader enjoys solving.

In the old days, novels were simply fiction. A reader knew to expect a gripping detective case from Arthur Conan Doyle or Agatha Christie, and high adventure from Edgar Rice Burrows. The name Charles Dickens would promise touching, vulnerable stories of family and social justice. Novels could be entertainments. They could also be serious statements on issues in society.

It was the serious novel that helped to define a culture. Commercial fiction is limited in providing greater societal context. As brilliant as Sherlock Holmes and Hercule Poirot are in solving cases, they have a schedule to keep. A commercial novel follows a strict plot based on the novel’s genre. It can’t deviate too far from this formula or a reader feels bored and shortchanged.

A literary novel doesn’t follow a formula. It contain elements of romance, mystery, war, and adventure, but a literary novel emulates the rhythms of life. Plot points are subtle, even hidden from the reader. As events unfold, the novel’s characters navigate their world. Until the story is finished, a reader doesn’t know what it all means. With its slower pace, a literary novel holds deeper artistic material. It lets you live with the characters when they think, not only when they act. Our views on life are often formed during periods of downtime. The constant action of a commercial novel hinders introspection.

A great literary novel informs a society of what’s at stake. Les Miserables questioned how an honest man could survive a ruthless revolution. Anna Karenina showed the destructive effects of a modernist view of divorce and infidelity. Sense and Sensibility related the pressures women faced to marry to avoid poverty. The Sun Also Rises predicted the coming faithlessness of twentieth-century men and women. The successes of Victor Hugo, Leo Tolstoy, Jane Austen, and later Ernest Hemingway, stimulated a demand for realistic fiction.

In the twenty-first century, that demand for great novels is gone. We’re in a different era. Everything today happens on a screen. We watched as movies overtook books as the de facto form of cultural entertainment. At least, they’re narratives, we thought. Some are based on great books. Then, video games eclipsed Hollywood and the music industry for sales. Video games.

The narratives found in video games are largely an afterthought. The player is directed, some would say prodded, by art and music to move pixels around a screen and beat the game’s objective. It’s about hand-eye coordination, turning off your brain, and letting instinct take over. We’ve all played video games. It’s like a harmless drink or two after work, a way to relax and escape.

Some will fire back, video games do have narratives. At least, some of them. The Bioshock series, the Red Dead Redemption series, and The Last of Us series are praised for mimicking the storytelling found in novels and movies. Even still, a video game is known for its “gameplay loop.” If pressing the controller buttons isn’t satisfying, no story will save it. Many video games, like the Destiny series, rack up millions of players with an incoherent story.

Culturally, we’ve fallen from the days of Tolstoy, Dickens, and Virginia Woolf. If narratives are important for understanding our society, we’re in trouble. What’s routinely called a story today, by players, journalists, and video game developers, is a few lines of dialogue every five minutes to remind you of the goals of the video game. It’s a thinned out version of storytelling from a movie, which was itself a diluted form of narrative from a novel.

Many will say, a movie offers as strong of a narrative as a book, but it can’t. A movie is an impressionistic artform based largely on visuals and facial expressions. Movies like 2001 by Stanley Kubrick offer little dialogue and are recognized as classics. Film directors who use novelesque dialogue, like Quentin Tarantino, risk adding a layer of white noise to the scenery. There are limits to what words can convey in a moving picture. Even a wall-to-wall conversation, as in My Dinner With Andre, can’t invite viewers to get inside the character’s heads. Movies are narratives viewed from the outside looking in. Novels invite you inside the story for both the external and internal views.

We all know when a novel is turned into a movie, a lot of the story goes missing. They can show the novel’s events and say the dialogue word for word. The narative you can’t show visually, the interior parts, aren’t there.

It’s in these interior parts where our views are formed, our habits reinforced, and, many would say, our immortal soul resides. As the psalmist wrote, “Deep calls to deep.” We’re fully engaged when immersed in a written narrative, one that connects us to a complex message with emotional, psychological, spiritual, and political elements. It’s the unique territory of a serious novel.

Aided by technology as we are today, we have many ways to pass the time. We can be amused by purely visual things like a cat video. We can stream the lateset superhero movie on our phones. We can read the latest book series about dragons, spies, or interplanetary war. But what about critical thinking?

Modern entertainment doesn’t address it. Intead of encouraging us to think for ourselves, the top-selling books, movies, and shows tell us to adopt the current message. Critical thinking has been done for us by academic experts and political leaders. If we think for ourselves, we’ll mess it up, get it wrong.

This view runs counter to the reality of a democratic society. Critical thinking is an essential part of being a free person. Harriet Beecher Stowe showed it to be true. Her novel upset the social order of an entire country. The current message was to ignore the insurmountable, unsolvable problem.

In the years since, we’ve received novels that speak to the uncertain world we continue to inherit. In the twenty-first century, the fear of totalitarianism is greater than ever. Many of us doomscroll headlines on Twitter. A few seek out The Trial by Kafka, Darkness at Noon by Koestler, and 1984 by Orwell.

Avoiding a great literary novel in favor of the latest book club selection with its whiff of intellectualism is understandable. The average person is living at the pace of a New Yorker from 30 years ago. People are exhausted in the evening. The uncertainty of a literary novel, with its lack of genre rules, is a nonstarter.

It begs the question: are modern people more advanced than in generations past? Does leisure time spent interacting with the internet, often social media or a video game, show superiority or regression? An older generation remembers our off-hours were once spent taking up gardening, a musical instrument, or a foreign language. For those who traveled, delight was found in deeply researching the upcoming trip. It could involve reading guide books for months. There wasn’t a smartphone on the road to bail you out.

In 2014, the British novelist Will Self predicted the fate of the literary novel:

I believe the serious novel will continue to be written and read, but it will be an art form on a par with easel painting or classical music: confined to a defined social and demographic group, requiring a degree of subsidy, a subject for historical scholarship rather than public discourse.

Will Self

Self wrote these kind of novels. Nevertheless, he predicted that people would lose their appetite for a challenge. “[T]he hallmark of our contemporary culture is an active resistance to difficulty in all its aesthetic manifestations, accompanied by a sense of grievance that conflates it with political elitism.”

Ten years later, Will Self’s prophecy has come true. Political complaint has replaced intellectual curiosity. People watch helplessly as the cost of living rises and the quality of life declines. Life expectancy has gone down. People are more entrenched in their views, less open-minded, and more fearful of the future.

No, reading literary novels won’t reverse this trend. And yet, investing in a culture of critical thinking, one that celebrates literary novels, just might.

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