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Wednesday, 15 May 2019

La Sortie de L'Opera en L'An 2000 by Albert Robida

The following 1902 lithograph comes from the pen of Albert Robida, the preeminent French visual futurist. This excursion to the opera in the year 2000 builds on the concepts of his famed trio of books: Le Vingtième Siècle (The Twentieth Century, 1883), La Guerre au vingtième siècle (War in the Twentieth Century, 1887), and Le Vingtième siècle. La vie électrique (The Twentieth Century. The Age of Electricty, 1890). He would return to questions of the future many times in his career, with varying degrees of success. Simply by being a more conservative cynic, he could accurately predict many of the awful and stupid applications of technology that people would find. Unfortunately, his famously piscine flying cars never did come true. Click on the image below for a larger version.


Wednesday, 1 May 2019

Georges Méliès' Jeanne d'Arc

In the wake of the Industrial Revolution and the massive changes it brought to the communities and ways of life of Europe, there was a resurgence of interest in those traditions that were lost. It began with the Romantics of the 18th century and flowered with Gothic Revivalism in the 19th. Nor did this this movement escape the notice of France's pioneer of fantastic cinema, Georges Méliès. Indeed, he was fully and completely a part of it, articulating this ethos in the brand new medium of film.

Most famous for his films like Le Voyages dans la Lune (1902),  Le Voyage à travers l'Impossible (1904), and A la Conquête du Pôle (1912), Méliès was never a pure purveyor of Science Fiction. He consistently blurred the lines between the astronomer and the astrologer, the chemist and the alchemist, the scientific and the fantastic. Far more of his films had magic and fairy tales as their subject than futuristic inventions and mad scientists. Even his mad scientists, beneath Gothic arches, have more the character of wizards and sorcerers. Méliès' are the cinematic embodiment of the Scientific Romance and all that evocative term entails. 

As a patriotic Frenchman of the fin de siècle, Méliès would have been tapped into the fascination with Joan of Arc. Since her life, conquests, and tragic death, Joan of Arc became an amorphous symbol of French identity, ready to be used by anyone for any reason who have a stake in French society. A sign of strength and Divine Providence, she was appropriated by Republicans for her humble origins and by Monarchists for her support of the Crown. Just as she was a rallying point for France during the Lancasterian phase of Hundred Years' War (1415-1453), so too was she in the wake of the disastrous Franco-Prussian War (1870-1871). Against growing Industrialization she was a symbol of the Mediaeval, and against growing secularization she was a symbol of Catholicism. Nine years after Méliès' 1900 release of Jeanne d'Arc (English: Joan of Arc), she was beatified on the steps of Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris. In 1920 the "Maid of Orleans" was officially canonized as Saint Joan of Arc, Patron Saint of France as well as martyrs, captives, people ridiculed for their piety, military personnel and the US Women's Army Corps. Even those with no particular ties to France venerate the saint, and many women look to her as an icon of feminine heroism.

The nature of Joan's story, replete with angelic visitations and heavenly voices, lends itself well to Méliès' heady trick photography and the air of a fairy tale. Méliès crafts sets of sumptuous Mediavealism in extreme forced perspective, from the exterior of assaulted castle to the interior of churches gleaming with golden hand tinting. Perhaps for this auteur, there was really no necessary distinction to be made between gilded fairy land and the forces of political history. That is much like Joan herself, who turned an otherwise obnoxious war between English and French monarchical heirs into a populist, nationalist uprising and herself into an enduring symbol.




Wednesday, 17 April 2019

A Tribute to Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris



It's well known that I have a connection in my heart to France, and to nowhere is that connection deeper than to the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris.

For more than 850 years it has stood at the centre of Paris and in the centre of French history. In fact, it marks kilometre 0 for all distance measurements in France. To paraphrase Bishop Robert Barron, to say that Notre-Dame stands at the centre of Paris is to say that it stands at the centre of France, which is to say it stands at the centre of Europe, which is to say that it stands at the centre of Western civilization. And at the centre of Notre-Dame stands the Cross.

Notre-Dame is an icon of the city and the supreme example of the Mediaeval genius for both faith and art. The appreciation of Beauty is the aspiration towards the enduring, the transcendent, and the sacred. Beauty is the splendor of Goodness and Truth, their radiance into the world in modes far deeper and more powerful and more moving than an ethical or scientific debate. That is why Beauty - true art, the autonomy of art, uncontrollable art unfettered by propaganda and politics, art of the human experience - is always the first thing to come under attack in zeitgeists that seek to extinguish Goodness and Truth. The quest for Beauty is the longing for meaning. Few, if any, man-made places are as beautiful to my eye as the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris.

Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris is centuries of devotion and sacrifice petrified into stone. Statuary adorns it in high places that no Earthly eye is able to see. It moves humankind exactly because it was the best of humankind poured into something built to the glory of God. It is sublime and ageless, having survived disaster, desecration, and dilapidation before being restored to its rightful place as a jewel in the crown of Christendom. The July Monarchy deliberated on whether or not to tear the venerable cathedral down, after it had suffered so cruelly by the French Revolution's hatred of all Goodness and Truth and Beauty. Yet a popular novel by Victor Hugo reignited passion for everything about the romance of mediaevalism, patriotism, and religiousity that the cathedral represented. Notre-Dame was not only a symbol for the Church or the nation of France, but for the growing dissatisfaction with the failed promises of modernity. That is also what it represents for me: a living, ancient, enduring emblem of the romance of history, majesty, and faith. 

Notre-Dame figured prominently in my two trips to Paris, once during a brief layover in 2008 when it was one of only three attractions I had time to visit (the others being the Eiffel Tower and Disneyland Paris) and again in 2013 when we passed it nearly every day for two weeks. I lost track of the number of times we stepped inside to offer devotion, but its awesome presence, the breath of the Spirit moving through it, the weight of its ages and the innumerable people who have passed there all seeped into my bones. In the words of Sinclair Lewis: "He who has seen one cathedral ten times has seen something; he who has seen ten cathedrals once has seen but little; and he who has spent half an hour in each of a hundred cathedrals has seen nothing at all."

If there was any one building that I would consider my spiritual home, even more than my local parish, it would be the Cathédrale Notre-Dame de Paris. It broke my heart beyond words to see the terrible images of its roof ablaze on April 15, 2019, and all I could do not to burst into tears at the good news that the stone structure was saved, along with the three rose windows and majority of the stained glass, and all of the art and relics. She still endures. Thanks be to God. 



Wednesday, 3 April 2019

America's Wonderland: Yellowstone National Park

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the tract of land in the Territories of Montana and Wyoming, lying near the headwaters of the Yellowstone River... is hereby reserved and withdrawn from settlement, occupancy, or sale under the laws of the United States, and dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people...
With these words spoken on May 1, 1872, the United States Congress created what has been called America's best and only truly original idea: the world's first National Park.

Native American peoples have been using the rich resources of the Yellowstone region for more than 11,000 years. Obsidian from the caldera of this supervolcano provided the Apsáalooke (Crow) and Shoshone people with material for speartips, arrowheads, and trade with other tribes. Projectile points made from Yellowstone obsidian have been found as far away as the Mississippi. John Colter, a guide for the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804-1806, was ostensibly the first white man to see Yellowstone. In mocking tones, an unbelieving public called it "Colter's Hell." As more and more mountain men ventured into the area and returned to verify Colter's story, public condescension turned into pubic curiousity. Three expeditions were launched between 1869 and 1871. The last of these - the Hayden Geological Survey of 1871 - brought in a veritable army of geologists, botanists, zoologists, meteorologists, ornithologists, mineralogists, photographers, entomologists, statisticians, artists, hunters, and guides, along with an actual military escort. In 1872, the indisputable tract of land called Yellowstone was declared a National Park. Afterwards, Northern Pacific Railway attracted the well-heeled with promises of  a real-life "Wonderland."

Though the railway station has long since withered away, along with the decline in the railway as a means of mass public transportation across the continent, the town of Gardiner, Montana still serves as the northern gateway to Yellowstone. Carriages would line up along the station's boardwalk to receive the newly arrived tourists, ferrying them to distant points of scenic beauty and wilderness romance within the vast expanses of the park. In 1903, President Teddy Roosevelt laid the cornerstone of the triumphal arch that the carriages would pass through, like Alice through the rabbit hole, demarcating this preternatural landscape from the ordinary. The Roosevelt Arch, inscribed with those words sacred to democracy - "For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People" - still beckons travelers today.

The Roosevelt Arch.
All photos in this article by Cory Gross.

The United States in the mid-19th century had two conditions that were fertile for the development of the national parks idea. One was wilderness, and the other was an impending threat to the sanctity of that wilderness. Unlike the nations of Europe whose civilizations were measured in millennia, the United States was a new country born in the wilderness of North America. Whereas England, France, Spain, and Germany had monumental Gothic cathedrals, crumbling Roman ruins, and lands long-since carved up by feudal aristocrats, North America had pristine forests, expansive prairies, and towering mountains with the perception that they belonged to no man, Indigenous peoples notwithstanding. Americans like Ralph Waldo Emmerson and Henry David Thoreau began to recognize that just as democracy was essential to the political health of the individual, so was nature essential to their spiritual, emotional, and moral health. To quote Thoreau, from his 1854 memoir Walden:
We need the tonic of wildness... At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder-cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.
As the population of America grew and the line of frontier expansion was declared closed in 1890, the nation's collective attention turned from moving outwards to moving inwards and upwards: settlement, development, industrialization. It became apparent to another generation of conservationists and nature transcendentalists like John Muir that America was quickly in danger of losing its natural heritage to the rapacious exploitation of natural resources. The more threatened wilderness spaces became, the more industrialized and urbanized the nation became, the more apparent the need for nature became and the more desperate the need to take legal action to preserve it. Wrote Muir, in the introduction of his 1901 classic Our National Parks:
Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life. Awakening from the stupefying effects of the vice of over-industry and the deadly apathy of luxury, they are trying as best they can to mix and enrich their own little ongoings with those of Nature, and to get rid of rust and disease. Briskly venturing and roaming, some are washing off sins and cobweb cares of the devil's spinning in all-day storms on mountains; sauntering in rosiny pinewoods or in gentian meadows, brushing through chaparral, bending down and parting sweet, flowery sprays; tracing rivers to their sources, getting in touch with the nerves of Mother Earth; jumping from rock to rock, feeling the life of them, learning the songs of them, panting in whole-souled exercise, and rejoicing in deep, long-drawn breaths of pure wildness. This is fine and natural and full of promise. So also is the growing interest in the care and preservation of forests and wild places in general, and in the half wild parks and gardens of towns.   
Thus was born the National Park. A wilderness space preserved as inviolate as possible, as a common trust for the common good of the nation and, indeed, the world. Today there are over 3032 national parks spanning over 100 countries. In the United States alone there are 61. The first was Yellowstone National Park.


Wednesday, 20 March 2019

An Experiment in Gyro-Hats

Though employed full-time as a banker and sadly shadowed in posterity, Ellis Parker Butler was one of the most prolific and popular American humourists of the early 20th century. His most famous story, Pigs is Pigs, was even adapted into a Disney animated short in 1954. 

An Experiment in Gyro-Hats was originally published in the June 1910 edition of Hampton's Magazine, illustrated by Albert Leavering. In it, an inventive hat-maker takes very seriously his profession's sacred calling to improve the conditions of men and the world at large. Specifically, creating a hat designed to steady the tipsy and staggering. 

As in most cases of  humourist writing, like Darius Green and his Flying Machine before it, there is less point in talking about how funny it is than in letting it speak for itself. The complete text of An Experiment in Gyro-Hats follows.



Wednesday, 6 March 2019

The Domestic World of Knut Ekwall

Familjelycka
Born in Säby, Sweden in 1843, Knut Ekwall eventually came to study at the prestigious Academy of Arts in Stockholm from 1860 to 1866. His speciality was drawing and woodcut printing blocks, and through his career it was such magazine illustration work that largely kept him going. But during his tenure in Germany - Berlin, Munich, and Leipzig - during the late 1860's to early 1880's, and again in Sweden until his death in 1912, he also attained a reputation as a painter. His favourite subject matter seems to have been domestic life of the upper classes, and especially the stages and complications of romance. One could almost piece together his paintings to form a complete story from courtship and proposal to eventual widowhood, all against the opulent, tchotchke-laden background of wealthy homes.    


Wednesday, 20 February 2019

J.M. Barrie's Peter Pan

The character of Peter Pan was first developed by J.M. Barrie in his 1902 adult novel The Little White Bird. In this semi-autobiographical tale, the narrator tells his young ward David about a week-old infant named Peter who overhears his parents discussing their future hopes for his adult life. This all sounds rather dreadful to him, so Peter absconds to Kensington Gardens where he encounters the various fairy folk who make this London park their home. These few chapters in The Little White Bird inspired Barrie to write a full theatrical play entitled Peter Pan; or, the Boy Who Wouldn’t Grow Up in 1904. The chapters in Little White Bird were slightly rewritten and published as the book Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens in 1906. 

Though published to capitalize on the success of the play, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens is not a prequel to Peter Pan. Rather, it is a first draft of sorts. Barrie would revisit many of the themes and situations in that short story, not the least of which being the flying boy who refuses to grow up. Kensington Gardens would become Neverland, though Peter does allude to having spent some time in the Gardens when he first decided not to age. Maimie, the girl who develops an affection for Peter, becomes Wendy. Finally, in 1911, Barrie rewrote his play as a novel. Peter and Wendy became the definitive literary version of the story that has inspired countless adaptations on stage and screen since.



Wednesday, 6 February 2019

The Magic of Disneyland's Background Music

The creation of background music for a theme park is a fine art unto itself. Most visitors to one of Disney's worldwide theme parks tend to fixate firstly, and most enduringly, on the rides themselves. This may be followed most closely by the visual dynamics of the parks, placing the most emphasis on the work of Imagineers and set designers. Yet Disney's parks famously (or infamously) strive to affect all the senses. It is a poorly kept secret that scents are pumped through vents throughout Disneyland to accent the areas guests pass through. The enticing aromas of candy-making, for example, do not derive from within the candy shoppes on Main Street USA, but from hidden vents across the storefronts.

Concept art for Main St. USA. Image: Disney.

Music is another important aspect of themed design. Of course, Disney's relationship with music is longstanding: it was the innovation of synchronized sound with the animated cartoon that propelled Mickey Mouse and his creators into stardom, and it would be impossible to imagine a Disney film without its Academy Award winning songs. The same holds true of the rides in the world's various Disney parks, and not just the rides. Streetscapes and area music requires just the right playlist to immerse guests into the places and times they are meant to represent. Theme parks are not designed to merely replicate reality, but to craft an environment of heightened reality. Main Street USA does not mimic an actual turn of the century American community, but the romantic ideal of the Gay Nineties owing most to cinematic representations. Like cinema, Main Street USA needs a soundtrack.

The following are some choice background music loops from Disneyland and other Disney parks that are invaluable for aficionados of Victorian and Edwardian music. Each is carefully compiled, often by legends like Jack Wagner, to evoke the romantic ideal of the time period. Sometimes that means straying from actual period pieces to choice excerpts from Hollywood and Broadway, not to mention medleys of Disney's own tunes. Nevertheless, they are perfect background music for Scientific Romances in a bygone age. These links carry you to YouTube, which is an invaluable resources for Disney park music. The Google-savvy individual should have no problem finding means of making mp3 copies, if they are so inclined.
  • The Disneyland Emporium - Piano renditions of era staples from in and around Main St. USA's main shoppe, the Disneyland Emporium. 
  • Disneyland Paris' Emporium - Another variation on the Emporium music loop, more reliant on strings.
  • Plaza Inn - One of Disneyland's best eateries is the Plaza Inn, off the hub at the end of Main Street USA, with more elegant music to match its somewhat more elegant decor.
  • Main Street Station - This track records the functioning Nelson-Wiggen Orchestrion that once graced the halls of the Disneyland Railroad's Main St. Station.  
  • New Orleans Square - Ragtime standards are jazzed up for Disneyland's homage to the Crescent City. 
  • Port Orleans - French Quarter - Jazzier yet is the music for Walt Disney World's Port Orleans -French Quarter Resort (where my wife and I stayed on our honeymoon, in fact!). 
  • Frontierland - For something a little more down home, the Frontierland background loops offers banjo, harmonica, and the fiddle.
  • Splash Mountain - Even further down home and down south is the queue loop for Splash Mountain, which includes selections from the film Song of the South.
  • Aunt Polly's Refreshments Area - Tom Sawyer's Island at the Magic Kingdom in Walt Disney World accented its theme with a one-time counter service restaurant set to Aunt Polly's house. The counter service is now gone, but the house and its bluegrass music remain.
  • The Disneyland Gallery - For Disney lovers, elegant stringed versions of classic Disney film soundtracks.
  • Paradise Pier - This final music loop from Disney's California Adventure park (before the area was converted to "Pixar Pier") is meant to capture the jaunty feeling of a Victorian seaside amusement park. 
  • Paradise Park - Across the water from Paradise Pier is Paradise Park, a more genteel space with a more genteel soundtrack (that borrows liberally from Main Street USA's).
  • Hall of Presidents - For those Americans feeling somewhat more patriotic, the lobby background music for this celebration of America's presidents might fit the bill.
  • Disneyland Paris' Main Street USA Morning and Evening - Disney park music changes throughout the day to capture different moods, in this case along Main Street in Disneyland Paris. 
  • Liberty and Discovery Arcade Loop - Due to the fact that it can snow in France in winter, Disneyland Paris' Main Street is flanked by two enclosed walkways, one themed to technological invention and the other to France's gift of the Statue of Liberty. 
Another two tracks have appeared on Soundcloud: the 1976-1991 morning and evening background music for Walt Disney World's Main Street USA.


Wednesday, 23 January 2019

Disney's Song of the South and its Sources

It would be an understatement to say that Disney's Song of the South is a controversial film. How controversial is, however, largely proportional to the number of people who have not actually seen it. Upon its release in 1946, the film became a Disney staple and its animated cast - Brer Rabbit, Brer Fox, and Brer Bear - became company icons. That lasted until 1986, when Song of the South had its last theatrical re-release. It became a touchstone for protest over the conditions and representation of African-Americans, and despite one of Disney's best loved theme park attractions being based on it, Song of the South was pulled from distribution in the United States. For 20 years interested parties have had to be motivated to seek out bootlegged European releases, but its wide availability in the age of the Internet has done nothing to diminish its reputation as either one of the best or one of the worst Disney films, depending on who you talk to.

Song of the South was based was based, in spots, on the "Uncle Remus" stories transcribed by Joel Chandler Harris through the 1880's and 90's. Three animated segments in the film adapt stories pulled from Harris' anthology of African-American folk tales, linked by a live-action narrative penned by Dalton S. Raymond, Morton Grant, and Maurice Rapf. Some unspecified problem has beset the family of little Johnny (played by Bobby Driscoll, Disney's first contract child actor and voice of Peter Pan), causing a rift between his mother and father. The implication is that the problems stem from anti-segregationist editorials penned by Johnny's father for the family newspaper. He and mother (Ruth Warrick) are left in the care of grandmother (Lucile Watson) on the old plantation. Problems with his family and with local bullies leads Johnny to Uncle Remus (James Baskett), the elder storyteller and kindly father figure of the plantation's African-American ex-slave community. Remus guides Johnny through his troubles by way of stories about wily Brer Rabbit. It is these live-action segments that fuel most of the controversy, for portraying the complicated era of the Reconstruction with all the pleasantry and frivolity of a Disney movie.

The biggest fault of Song of the South is being a consummate Disney movie. It has real heart, and compelling characters, and good music, and fun animated sequences. Even in a culture that has not legally been able to watch it for 30 years, its essence still endures in Splash Mountain, one of the most popular Disney theme park attractions of all time. The animated sequences are as good as the best cartoons from Disney's wartime era. The controversial live-action sequences don't quite have the same scope as a comparable classic like Gone With the Wind (1939) but it still carries that same sense of Southern charm, quaintness, and moments of grandeur. Ruth Warrick is resplendent in her gorgeous period dress, doing a slightly softer Vivien Leigh. Hattie McDaniel reprises basically the same character from Gone With the Wind, and like always it is fun to watch. It is a pity that James Baskett's wonderful performance as Uncle Remus is locked away in the Disney vault though. In 1948, Baskett received an Honorary Academy Award for his kindly, paternal, sympathetic portrayal of Uncle Remus defined by his own quiet strength of character, becoming the first African-American male to receive an Oscar (the first African-American was Hattie McDaniel, who won a Best Supporting Actress Oscar in 1939 for Gone With the Wind). It was especially ironic given that Baskett could not even attend Song of the South's premiere in racially segregated Georgia.


Though the African-American characters portrayed by Baskett, McDaniel, and Glenn Leedy are friendly, positive, and full of song - acting as the well-adjusted foils to the broken family of the white plantation owners - Disney nevertheless “Disneyfies” a difficult time in American history, in the immediate wake of the American Civil War, when African-Americans were technically free but had nowhere to go, dealing with the intergenerational trauma of slavery while racism was still rampant. It is offensive exactly because it is so inoffensive. The NAACP even said as much... In a press release following the film's debut, NAACP executive secretary Walter Francis White admitted (emphasis mine):
The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People recognizes in 'Song of the South' remarkable artistic merit in the music and in the combination of living actors and the cartoon technique. It regrets, however, that in an effort neither to offend audiences in the north or south, the production helps to perpetuate a dangerously glorified picture of slavery. Making use of the beautiful Uncle Remus folklore, 'Song of the South' unfortunately gives the impression of an idyllic master-slave relationship which is a distortion of the facts. 
It was this same time period that Joel Chandler Harris came into when he set about to transcribe and preserve the folk tales of African-American former slaves. Born in 1845 in Georgia to an unwed Irish immigrant mother and a father who fled immediately after his birth, 16-year old Harris took up work in a print shop on the Turnwold Plantation. During his time on the plantation, he became immersed in the lives of African-American slaves, feeling less self-conscious around them on account of his Irish heritage (including a shock of red hair) and illegitimate birth. The Uncle Remus character he later invented was a composite of several storytellers he knew, and Uncle Remus’ stories were those he heard around the evening fire. After the American Civil War, Harris moved from newspaper to newspaper, becoming a valued humourist and political commentator while promoting the vision of racial reconciliation in the “New South.” Eventually he set upon the task of transcribing the folktales he heard at Turnwold as a document of past times.


Like the movie based on them, Harris' writings are controversial. Some see his transcriptions as preserving an important part of America's cultural history, while others see him as having appropriated African-American culture. Some see his simulated slave dialect as a significant linguistic artifact, while others see it as demeaning. Some see the Uncle Remus character as a crude stereotype, others point out that according to slave narratives such personalities did exist. Harris was, on the one hand, a progressive advocate of racial reconciliation and African-American rights, and on the other he was paternalistic with a ingrained sense of nostalgia about the Antebellum South. He had even interpreted Uncle Tom's Cabin, an avowed abolitionist novel, as "a wonderful defense of slavery." In short, it may just be that in a country still dealing with the intergenerational trauma of slavery 150 years later, it is simply impossible to write about it without courting controversy.

So, let's write about it...




Wednesday, 9 January 2019

Uncle Tom's Cabin and it's Cultural History

It is a comfort to hope, as so many of the world's sorrows and wrongs have, from age to age, been lived down, so a time shall come when sketches similar to these shall be valuable only as memorials of what has long ceased to be.
These words, penned by Harriet Beecher Stowe in the preface to the first edition of her novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, expressed a hope that became a prophecy. The best-selling novel of the 19th century and second best-selling book of the century after the Bible itself, Stowe's fictionalized exposé of slavery in the United States was an epoch-making tome that accomplished its lofty ambition. Apocryphal accounts have Abraham Lincoln crediting Uncle Tom's Cabin with sparking the American Civil War. Whether or not that was true, it has taken a strange cultural arc: a radically progressive anti-slavery tract in the 19th century, Uncle Tom's Cabin eventually came to be seen itself as an outdated reinforcement of racist caricatures in the 20th. In the 21st century, it has furnished one of the only remaining acceptable forms of racism, which is for white progressives (in Chinese: 白左 or báizuǒ) to label any person of colour who disagrees with them an "Uncle Tom"... An acceptable form of racism because it is perpetrated by conspicuously self-described "anti-racists." 

What could account for such a major shift in its reputation? Undoubtedly, one reason is that, like Disney's Song of the South after it, Uncle Tom's Cabin is one of those things that are controversial in direct proportion to how many people have not seen it. James Baskett received an Honorary Academy Award for his positive, sympathetic, paternal portrayal of Uncle Remus in the 1946 film, becoming the first African-American man to receive an Oscar... And today, that award-winning performance is locked away in the "Disney vault", because of its reputation as a racist film among people who have never had the chance or taken the initiative to watch it. While the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin is widely available, it is less frequently on any primary or secondary academic curricula and has not had a Hollywood adaptation since the end of the silent era.

That may itself be symptomatic of the truism that the progressives of one era become the conservatives of the next. Uncle Tom's Cabin is a Victorian novel, published in 1852, and employs a vocabulary of imagery and archetypes that today seem like crude caricatures. The sort of "mammy" character made famous by Aunt Jemima and Hattie McDaniel (who was the first African-American to win an Academy Award, for best supporting actress, for her role as Mammy in Gone With the Wind) was popularized in Uncle Tom's Cabin. Likewise, the character Topsy is a "pickaninny" stereotype. Yet while seeming racist today, they were representatives of real sorts of people during the time period and would have been readily identifiable from actual experience. There were African-American maids like Mammy and storytellers like Uncle Remus. Furthermore, the same fictionalized shorthands were employed for the white American cast. It is the monstrous Simon Legree who bequeathed the image of the moustache-twirling villain satirized by The Great Race's Dr. Fate, Dudley Do-Right's Snidely Whiplash, and professional wrestler "The Villain" Marty Scurll. 

Film and Vaudeville did few favours for Uncle Tom's Cabin here either. Copyright law was virtually nonexistent when the novel was first published, allowing drama troupes free reign to interpret and reinterpret the text as they saw fit. Because the novel was controversial among those who supported the institution of slavery, pro-slavery "Tom Shows" were performed throughout the South, which valourized the white slavers and demeaned the African-American cast. These pro-slavery Tom Shows and even straightforward anti-slavery ones alike utilized actors in blackface, quickly merging with minstrel shows. Early film followed these traditions. Edwin S. Porter's 1903 adaptation for Thomas Edison is essentially a cinematic transcription of the Vaudeville shows, blackface and all. Disney also preserved this in the 1933 short Mickey's Mellerdrammer, in which Mickey and Minnie (in blackface) put on a Tom Show. It is a "vaulted" cartoon rarely released by Disney, but valuable in capturing an impression - amidst the cavorting characters for whom everything is going comically wrong - of how Tom Shows were produced, performed, and received by their audiences.

Edwin S. Porter's 1903 version of Uncle Tom's Cabin.


Digging beneath its popular reputation, what do we find when actually reading Uncle Tom's Cabin? We find a poignant, surprisingly nuanced, and powerful book affirming the dignity of the human person that is still relevant wherever and however that dignity is erased by those who would exploit others as mere instruments of gain.