Tuesday, January 12, 2010

Recent reading: Uncle Tom's Cabin in the Public Domain

Terrence A. Maxwell, Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the Public Domain. From the introduction:

There is an enduring notion handed down from the Romantic era that authors are unique creatures, born of the world but separated by genius from the normal patterns of information creation and use. Regular people converse, authors transform information into things utterly new. Normal folk passively consume information. Authors peek behind the veil of the apparent world to uncover deeper meanings and express reality by methods and in levels of depth not available to the rest of us. Finally, successful authors and their books transform the world.

Embedded in this notion of authorship are several assumptions about the public domain. First, it acknowledges that much of the rough material for artistic work comes from the world outside the author’s head, with its information artifacts and ideas. At the same time, this view argues that base material is changed into something unique through an artist’s process of transformation. A corollary of this idea is a presumption of unique authorial possession different than the ownership of information in the everyday exchange of facts, thoughts and ideas. Finally, it presumes that authorship has some impact on the people who experience the text, and on the society in which people exist. However, not much is said about this impact or its consequences, because an author-­centered information universe demands our eyes remain focused on the single, creative individual and his intentions rather than the mass of humanity who digest and use the text in new ways not contemplated by the author.

In the following pages, we’ll explore these assumptions by viewing the cultural history connected to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

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