The Inadvertent Epic: From Uncle Tom's Cabin to Roots, New York: Simon and Schuster, 1979: 85, by Leslie A. Fiedler
Reviewed by Elizabeth Ladner
In The Inadvertent Epic, Leslie A. Fiedler investigates the value and “mythic” power of Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, The Leopard’s Spots and The Clansman by Thomas Dixon, Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell, and Roots by Alex Haley. Fiedler argues that while none of these works is “high literature,” they have so greatly influenced the American cultural mindset that they have formed a powerful epic narrative despite their sentimental nature.(17) Thematically, Fiedler predominantly focuses on the importance of mothers, the sanctity of the home, and the fears of racial miscegenation as played out in these five books.
The first half of The Inadvertent Epic focuses exclusively on Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, exploring the importance of scenes pertinent to notions of motherhood and the home. In the first chapter, Fiedler believes that “the scenes which stay with us forever seem as archetypal and oneinic as those protagonists” of the book.(23) Although these scenes, namely Eliza’s crossing and Eva’s death, are not “high literature” according to critics, they are powerful because of their mythical proportions. They create a fantasy that is “realer-than-real,” similar to the way Stowe’s portray of Tom’s beating at the hands of Legree produces a visceral reaction in readers because of its dream-like vividness. Fielder argues that these archetypal scenes comprise the worst written yet best remembered passages of Stowe’s narrative.
After thoroughly framing his critique within the confines of the power of mystic and the centrality of womanhood, Fiedler explores how Uncle Tom embodies both the best white woman and the “Good Good nigger” archetypes. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Tom is “the books ultimate good mother,” a white, saintly woman merely in blackface.(33) Unthreatening, even to Eva, because of his Christian faith, Tom stands in stark contrast to later figures such as the rapist Gus in Thomas Dixon’s works.
Before embarking on the third chapter, Fiedler quickly contextualizes Uncle Tom’s Cabin within the era in which it was written. As a result of the nascent women’s movement and the threatening revolutions occurring throughout the world, Stowe portrays women as the bearers of conscious righteousness while sketching her black characters as non-militants.(33, 38)
In The Leopard’s Spots and The Clansmen, Thomas Dixon writes the ultimate anti-Tom novel according to Fielder. Taking archetypes as created by Stowe, Dixon reverses their meanings thereby portraying black men as “half-bestial” beings.(45) Fielder asserts that the power of Dixon’s racist books lies in their ability to create vivid imagery within the minds of the audience rather than their inherent literary qualities. Haunting scenes with Gus foaming at the mouth terrorized white audiences creating an uproar not easily forgotten in the American psyche.(51) Highly informed by Stowe’s narrative, The Leopard’s Spots (with a working title of The Rise of Simon Legree) also addresses the sanctity of the home and white women. In contrast to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, however, none of the black men bear any resemblance to the upstanding, non-threatening, Christian Tom. Whereas the slave trader embodies the terrors that assault white women and the all-important home, in Dixon’s works, the black man becomes the ultimate threat.(45)
Tracing the theme of threats to the home and white women, Fiedler next addresses Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell. After a lengthy opening that reveals his own qualms with treating the book as a literary work, Fiedler acknowledges that it had a profound effect on American regional and racial prejudices because of its powerful mystique. Connecting the work back to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, he posits that Mammy, the perfect loyal slave who Scarlett depends on, is really Uncle Tom.(61) She is the female version of Uncle Tom as a “Good Nigger.”(60) This portrayal of a “Good Nigger” fell in line with notions of docile, subservient blacks who posed no threat to the white woman.
Concluding with Alex Haley’s work Roots, Fiedler investigates how the meaning of a “Good Nigger” versus a “Bad Nigger”, as well as their shifting status as a threat to white women and the home, have changed. Written after the Civil Rights movement and at the beginning of the Black Power movement, Roots forms an integral component of Fiedler’s interpretations because “a Black American succeeded for the first time in modifying the mythology of Black-White relations for the majority audience.”(71) Similar to the previous four works, Roots is not a literary masterpiece. In relation to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Roots becomes the anti-anti-Tom. It pushes against previous white works from Dixon and Mitchell to create a “Good Bad Nigger” in the character of Kunta Kinte.(79) This “unreconstructed Noble African, who after a symbolic castration and a Happy Marriage becomes a Good Bad Nigger, passing on the hope of freedom but running away no more,” embodies the only mythic space within Roots.(79) A powerful image, Kinte represents the new Black in American society for Fiedler. Notably, not one mention of Uncle Tom’s Cabin or an “Uncle Tom” appears in Roots although it is a work highly aware of its literary lineage.
As Fiedler concludes his critique, he conducts a soliloquy remarking on current events of the 1970s and the state of Black Power. These pages become his platform to expound on his views of American political life and form the weakest section of his book. While heavily biased comments such as, “she was not a hardcore feminist like her mad sister, who believed that Christ was about to return, ushering in a matriarchal age in which she would function as his Vice-Regent,” are scattered throughout the book, only at the end does his stream of conscious take over to expound on his own views.(34) While these passages provide a context for Fiedler’s interpretations, they are highly irrelevant to the rest of his critique.
In many ways, this critique is as much a product of its own times as the works that Fiedler reviews. The Civil Rights movement, Fiedler’s Marxist leanings, and the Black Power movement all inform how Fiedler uncovers meanings within each piece of literature. For example, throughout the book, Black and White are capitalized to emphasize their inherent properties and status meanings. Despite displayed bias, he does a masterful job of weaving together a narrative that traces the same theme of threats to white womanhood and the home throughout five highly memorable yet not critically acclaimed novels.