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Norton busts out Uncle Tom

Uncle Tom’s Cabin: key historic text or racist claptrap?

PW Daily‘s Three Answers column put this question to Norton executive editor Robert Weil, whose company is publishing September’s The Annotated Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

They grill him on why the notorious book deserves an annotated edition, to which Weil cries historical significance. “I challenge you to name a novel that has affected history as powerfully as this. It’s always been a great personal favorite and I’ve always felt that the reading public hasn’t read it and often doesn’t understand what it means,” he says.

PW Daily hits back with “James Baldwin famously vilified this novel in 1949, saying that it lacked literary credibility. How will this annotated version restore that credibility?”

Weil states that Baldwin’s trash talk of the book is part of the canon. He says, “I think in many ways he was responding to the ways in which Stowe’s novel had been abused and distorted. Clearly, Uncle Tom’s Cabin has been used to create and perpetuate very, very negative stereotypes, which often don’t appear in the book itself. Baldwin was very correctly responding to the racial epithets, the advertising, the film distortion, which the book had spawned for a century. So [one of the book’s editors, Henry Louis] Gates comes along and says, no, we have to use all of this to study race in the 20th century. Not only is the book itself a valuable document, but the entire history of race can be studied through the responses to it. One has to study the movie stills, the cartoons — and some of these negative stereotypes are continuing; they’re not entirely gone.”

Weil figures that Gates will give the book cred. “He’s saying we’re in a new era where we have to accept our history; we cannot just move it aside, bury it. This novel is seminal. It is not written by a black woman; it’s written by a white woman, and so she does things to make it more accessible to her audience,” says Weil. “But Gates also realizes the novel’s great historical power. You almost cannot understand the drift of the 19th-century novel without reading this; it was the Gone with the Wind of that century.”

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Read the column here