Speaking Volumes
3:14 am
Mon July 15, 2013

American Stories: Cycles of Adaptation and Reinterpretation with CMU's Kathy Newman

Carnegie Mellon University professor Kathy Newman offers a look at six novels that changed America with their ability to cross genres and transcend their original forms.

CMU English professor Kathy Newman reads history through the lens of literary adaptation.
Credit courtesy Kathy Newman

Harriett Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin

Nearly every young author dreams of writing a book that will literally change the world. A few have succeeded, and Harriet Beecher Stowe is such a marvel. Although the American anti-slavery movement had existed at least as long as the nation itself, Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) galvanized public opinion as nothing had before. The book sold 10,000 copies in its first week and 300,000 in its first year. Its vivid dramatization of slavery’s cruelties so aroused readers that it is said Abraham Lincoln told Stowe her work had been a catalyst for the Civil War.

Today the novel is often labeled condescending, but its characters—Tom, Topsy, Little Eva, Eliza, and the evil Simon Legree—still have the power to move our hearts. 

-Barnes & Noble

L. Frank Baum, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz

First published in 1900, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz is one of the most beloved children's books ever written. When Dorothy and Toto are suddenly swept off the plains of Kansas by a huge cyclone to the land of Oz, they meet up with some of the most endearing characters ever created - the Scarecrow, the Tin Woodman and the Cowardly Lion. Together they set off on a fantastic journey down the yellow brick road in search of the wonderful Wizard of Oz.

After a cyclone transports her to the land of Oz, Dorothy must seek out the great wizard in order to return to Kansas.

-Barnes & Noble

Grace Metalious, Peyton Place

When Grace Metalious's debut novel about the dark underside of a small, respectable New England town was published in 1956, it quickly soared to the top of the bestseller lists. A landmark in twentieth-century American popular culture, Peyton Place spawned a successful feature film and a long-running television series-the first prime-time soap opera.

Contemporary readers of Peyton Place will be captivated by its vivid characters, earthy prose, and shocking incidents. Through her riveting, uninhibited narrative, Metalious skillfully exposes the intricate social anatomy of a small community, examining the lives of its people -- their passions and vices, their ambitions and defeats, their passivity or violence, their secret hopes and kindnesses, their cohesiveness and rigidity, their struggles, and often their courage.

-Amazon

Alex Haley, Roots: The Saga of an American Family

One of the most important books and television series ever to appear, Roots, galvanized the nation, and created an extraordinary political, racial, social and cultural dialogue that hadn’t been seen since the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The book sold over one million copies in the first year, and the miniseries was watched by an astonishing 130 million people. Roots opened up the minds of Americans of all colors and faiths to one of the darkest and most painful parts of America’s past. Roots fostered a remarkable dialogue about not just the past, but the then present day 1970s and how America had fared since the days portrayed in Roots. 

-Amazon