In November 1841, the brig Creole was carrying 135 slaves from Virginia for sale in the market at New Orleans. During a squall, 19 of the `cargo' rose under the leadership of one Madison Washington and seized the ship. The rebel `stood firmly at the helm' and told an officer: `Mr Mate, you cannot write the bloody laws of slavery on those restless billows. The ocean, if not the land, is free.' Washington steered the brig to Nassau in the Bahamas, where the British refused to yield up the escapees to the Virginia slavers who came to reclaim their `property'.

Pure Hollywood - as least as the great abolitionist Frederick Douglass (himself born into slavery in Maryland) recounted this true story in his newspaper, The North Star, in 1853. The curious thing - as anyone who has caught even a whiff of the hype will spot - is that the Creole mutiny matches the simple needs of a big-screen epic much more closely than the cultural confusions and legal niceties of the Amistad case. It boasts an eloquent English-speaking hero and a clear revolt by US chattel-slaves (rather than illegally kidnapped foreigners) against the laws that fettered them. Then again, I can't quite see the Anthony Hopkins part.

Jean Fagan Yellin prints Douglass's `The Heroic Slave' as an appendix to her fine new edition of Uncle Tom's Cabin (Oxford World's Classics, pounds 6.99). It helps her show how swift and sharp was the black response in free states to Harriet Beecher Stowe's treacly parable of uncomplaining martyrdom, published in 1852. Stowe's corny but (in its day) quite irresistible old warhorse joins seven other titles, from the Histories of Herodotus to Fitzgerald's The Great Gatsby, in the first batch of World's Classics to appear in a smart new format. For a paltry pounds 7.99, for example, the Oxford Herodotus gives you the 600 pages of Robin Waterfield's new translation plus a further 200 pages of notes from Carolyn Dewald. And, with its broad context and fresh angles, Yellin's presentation of Uncle Tom proves how much an alert editor can do to brush the cobwebs off the mustiest period- piece.

Expert editing of the kind that the Oxford series always supplies is more a handy crib for future examinees. It can stop modern readers from condescending to (or else drowning in) the sheer strangeness of the past. So Yellin explains why Uncle Tom - the heaviest gun of the anti-slavery cause until the Union armies took the field - still upholds a crass distinction between `active' whites and `passive' blacks. The past really is a foreign country, and its visitors need skilled interpreters. For all its tear- jerking allure, the Spielberg alternative merely dresses up folks just like us in a lot of fancy clothes - as Simon Schama has argued in his recent polemic against Amistad in the New Yorker.

`A classic,' joked Stowe's mischief-making contemporary Mark Twain, `is a book that everyone wants to have read and no one wants to read.' Without an Oxford guide to hold my hand, I suspect that Uncle Tom - if not Herodotus - would probably have stayed that way.

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