Regardless of whether Abraham Lincoln actually credited Harriet Beecher Stowe with writing the book that started the Civil War, Uncle Tom’s Cabin changed white American thought and action on the evil and injustice of slavery when it was published in 1852. In The Dream of the Great American Novel, Lawrence Buell notes that the book’s popularity was national and, soon afterwards, global; that Vladimir Lenin named it his childhood favorite; and that the then–Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court blamed Uncle Tom’s Cabin for “fomenting the ‘political hate’ that ensured the constitutional crisis of 1861.” The novel has since been criticized for representations of black experience that are sentimental at best and sentimentally dehumanizing at worst, and for Stowe’s lack of autobiographical connection to her subject matter. Nevertheless, she suffered no serious personal consequences for her effort, and the book influenced public opinion and political will on a fraught and grave matter that affected millions.
Read: The doomed project of ‘American Dirt’
Stowe’s experience is an outlier: It was both publicly significant and personally positive. The “Rushdie affair” was only half of that. Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses provoked riots around the world with its satirical representation of Islam and the Prophet Muhammad. The fatwa issued on the author’s life in 1989 by Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini led to domestic U.K. political debates over Rushdie’s right to state security; his novel featured prominently in discussions of free speech and Islam’s place in Western life. The novel also figured in geopolitics, agitating U.K.-Iran relations. Meanwhile, the novel’s public notoriety exacted great personal cost from Rushdie and others, including his Japanese translator, who was stabbed to death in 1993.
The controversy about American Dirt feels intramural by comparison. The novel is a fast-frothing thriller about Lydia, a bourgeois Mexican bookseller, and her son Luca, who flee to the United States to escape members of a drug cartel led by a bookish thug, after the cartel kills her journalist husband in the novel’s opening sequence. In fleeing, Lydia and Luca are subjected to indignities and brutalities associated with the thousands of desperate people caught up in the migrant crisis. As Cummins says in an author’s note, she wrote this book because she wanted readers to know that “the people coming to our southern border are not one faceless brown mass but singular individuals, with stories and backgrounds and reasons for coming that are unique.”
Unique, a word with a superficial sense of import that conceals capacious emptiness, perfectly captures the spirit of the novel. American Dirt is fantasy fiction for suburban readers, with its plétora of italicized Spanish words, its graphically rendered and fast-paced simulacra of real-world dangers and class- and culture-transcending solidarities, its damp lyricism, and its imperiled, resilient, working-mom hero. By the end of American Dirt, Lydia is up late at night reading a novel in her new home in El Norte. Her son is safe and asleep beside her as “the lamplight falls in soft circle across her tented knees, across the warm blankets, across Luca’s casting breath.” The novel that Lydia reads, like Cummins’s description of her reading, shudders with overwrought meaning, related to her past life, to near death, to love and hate and survival, but never mind: “No one can take this from her. This book is hers alone.”