Uncle Tom's Cabin Analysis

Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

The Work

In 1851 Harriet Beecher Stowe began composing an antislavery novel that was serialized in the National Era, an antislavery journal. In 1852 the novel, which chronicles the fortunes of a kindly slave called Uncle Tom, was published in book form as Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Appearing at a time when the abolitionist movement was gaining momentum, Stowe’s novel broke the sales records of all earlier American best sellers. However, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was not widely distributed in the South and was condemned as untruthful by Southern politicians, critics, and clergymen.

In 1853 Stowe’s novel was banned in the papal states by Catholic officials in Rome, perhaps because one character in the book predicts a worldwide revolution of slaves and exploited workers. This ban led to censorship of the novel in several European countries.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin has remained a victim of censorship during the twentieth century. A 1906 Kentucky law aimed at stage versions of Stowe’s novel made it illegal to produce any play depicting antagonism between slaves and masters. Since 1950 the novel’s sharpest critics have been African Americans, who have objected to Stowe’s meek and passive protagonist. The term “Uncle Tom” has come to mean a black man who shamelessly curries favor with whites, or who sells out the interests of his own people; it is extremely pejorative. In 1954, for example, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People attempted to block a stage production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in New Haven, Connecticut. During the 1970’s, 1980’s, and 1990’s, school boards in many cities with large African American populations opposed the novel’s appearance on high school reading lists.

Bibliography:

Adams, John R. Harriet Beecher Stowe. Rev. ed. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989. This work expands Adam’s earlier study, the first and only comprehensive analysis of the life and works of Stowe. Adams discusses recently disclosed biographical information about the Beecher family and numerous critical examinations of Stowe written in the twenty-five years since the early study was published. The author connects Uncle Tom’s Cabin to the religious ideas and personal experiences of Stowe. The volume includes an up-to-date bibliography and chronology.

Beach, Seth Curtis. Daughters of the Puritans: A Group of Brief Biographies. 1905. Reprint. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1967. This book contains a forty-page introductory biography of Harriet Beecher Stowe, a background against which to study Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The object of the study is to show the influences that molded Stowe, to present the salient features of her career and her characteristic qualities. The selection is interesting and informative and provides background material for all readers. It can be read by high school students as well as college undergraduates.

Crozier, Alice C. The Novels of Harriet Beecher Stowe. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969. Notes that Stowe was less interested in the novel as art than in the novel as history. Traces the influence of the British writers Sir Walter Scott and George Gordon, Lord Byron. Comments on the cultural context in which the novels were written, which accounts not only for the Victorian sentimentality of Uncle Tom’s Cabin but also for a distinctively American realism that anticipates Mark Twain.

Fields, Annie. Life and Letters of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1898. The second definitive biography of Harriet Beecher Stowe after the book by her son Charles, this sympathetic portrait was written by her personal friend and professional associate who was also a celebrity in her own right. This readable biography contains many now-famous anecdotes about Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Foster, Charles H. The Rungless Ladder: Harriet Beecher Stowe and New England Puritanism. New York: Cooper Square, 1970. This study of Stowe’s inner struggle with New England Puritanism identifies what she read and how that affected her life and writings. It shows that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a product of her religious thinking and personal anguish. Stowe projects herself and her own struggles, particularly her attempt to reconcile herself with the death of one of her children, onto the novel’s characters.

Gossett, Thomas F. Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1985. This excellent, detailed book shows why Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the most widely read American novel of its time. The first section, about eighty pages long, describes the conditions that led to the creation of the book. The second section, another eighty pages, is an analysis of the book as fiction and social criticism. The remaining two hundred and fifty pages recount the reception of the book in the North, the South, and Europe; the replies; the dramatic versions; and adverse criticism. Contains extensive notes and a comprehensive bibliography.

Hedrick, Joan D. Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. A good source of information about Stowe’s career as a writer. Traces her writing of Uncle Tom’s Cabin from her initial resolve, through her decision to address the sexual exploitation of female slaves, to her effort to substantiate the novel with facts collected in A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Also mentions her work on behalf of emancipation of slaves in both America and England after publication of the novel.

Stowe, Charles Edward. The Life of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1889. This excellent biography of Harriet Beecher Stowe was compiled by her son, the Reverend Charles Edward Stowe, from her letters and journals. The authorized family biography, it contains the first printing of indispensable letters and other documents and is the foundation of all later biographies. It tells the story of the life of Harriet Beecher Stowe as she had wished and had hoped to tell it herself in her autobiography. Two later books by members of the Stowe family add additional material: Charles Edward Stowe and Lyman Beecher Stowe’s Harriet Beecher Stowe: The Story of Her Life (1941) and Lyman Beecher Stowe’s Saints, Sinners, and Beechers (1934).

Wangenknecht, Edward. Harriet Beecher Stowe: The Known and the Unknown. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965. A combination of biography and literary criticism, this book contains an accurate description of the literary and personal character of Harriet Beecher Stowe. The details are arranged topically, with chapters on Stowe as writer, reader, and reformer as well as daughter, wife, and mother.

Uncle Tom's Cabin Places Discussed (Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*Kentucky

*Kentucky. South-central U.S. state that provides the setting for the first third of the novel. Kentucky is an appropriate location for slaves hoping to escape because it is separated from free territory only by the Ohio River. Harriet Beecher Stowe also felt comfortable describing this area since she spent a number of years living in nearby Cincinnati, Ohio.

Shelby farm

Shelby farm. Kentucky farm on which two slaves, Uncle Tom and Eliza Harris, reside. Eliza’s husband, George Harris, also a slave, lives nearby. As the narrative makes clear, Eliza and Tom both enjoy relatively pleasant lives on the Shelby farm; however, when financial problems threaten Mr. Shelby, he makes the decision to sell two of his slaves, Tom and Eliza’s young son, Harry. Mrs. Shelby is the first of many principled women who speak out against the moral evil of slavery in the way that it breaks families apart. Stowe illustrates the perils facing slave families as Eliza decides to run away to protect her child, and Tom opts to stay and be sold, sacrificing himself to protect his family and the other slave families on the Shelby farm from a similar fate.

The narrative returns periodically to the Shelby farm to follow the fate of the Shelby family and of Tom’s wife, Aunt Chloe. By the end of the novel, Mr. Shelby’s son, George, after seeing Tom’s brutal fate, frees all the Shelby slaves; therefore, Tom’s bitter end does effect change, at least in one home.

Uncle Tom’s cabin

Uncle Tom’s cabin. Cabin on the Shelby farm in which the slave known as Uncle Tom lives until he is sold and forced to leave behind his wife and family, demonstrating that slaves can never have a true home.

*Ohio River

*Ohio River. First of several bodies of water that play an important role in the novel. This river forms the border between Kentucky and Ohio, and hence between slavery and freedom. Here, Eliza makes her dramatic journey across ice floes to the free state of Ohio, illustrating the risks that a mother will make for her child and underlining the importance of family; Stowe uses this dramatic scene to engender sympathy for her imperiled slave heroine and to show how motherhood transcends race and social circumstances.

*Ohio

*Ohio. Free state to which Eliza flees from Kentucky. She finds refuge, first at the home of Senator and Mrs. Bird and then at the Quaker settlement, where she is reunited with her husband, George. Both these places represent model homes where family members act on moral principle. Senator Bird, although he has recently voted in favor of the Fugitive Slave Law, cannot bring himself to turn in Eliza. Instead, his wife persuades him to act not according to political expediency but moral principle, and he furthers Eliza’s escape.

Words and actions are also one at the Quaker settlement, a model of perfect domesticity, both in its actual physical arrangement as well as its moral order. The group’s actions and principles coincide as they harbor and aid fugitive slaves under the moral guidance of another strong woman, Rachel Halliday.

*Mississippi River

*Mississippi River. Another of the novel’s important rivers, which marks yet another boundary. Aboard the steamship La Belle Rivière (the name of a real steamship on which Stowe’s brother Charles Beecher had traveled when he worked in New Orleans), Tom journeys farther and farther away from his home and family. At the same time, as a novelist, Stowe ventures away from her own firsthand experience. The river also marks the boundary between sections of the novel as Tom gains his second owner, Augustine St. Clare, after rescuing St. Clare’s young daughter Eva from drowning in the river.

*New Orleans

*New Orleans. Louisiana city in which the St. Clare family home is located. Stowe describes the house as an ancient mansion, built in a mixture of styles. The St. Clare home’s confusion of styles and exoticism stand in stark contrast to the ordered simplicity of the Quaker settlement in Ohio. The eccentricity and disorder of the place illustrate the disarray in which slavery leaves families, both black and white. Significantly, the St. Clare family also lacks a strong female moral center as Marie St. Clare devotes her attention to her own invalidism. While both Marie’s daughter, Eva, and her cousin-in-law, Miss Ophelia, try to make up for this lack, neither has control over the household.

*Red River

*Red River. Tributary of the Mississippi that forms part of the Texas-Oklahoma border and flows through Arkansas to Louisiana. The third important river in the novel, it marks yet another boundary between Tom’s old life and his new one. After the death of St. Clare, Tom is sold to Simon Legree and transported on a small boat to Legree’s farm.

Legree plantation

Legree plantation. Louisiana cotton plantation on the Red River that becomes Tom’s final home and illustrates how far his lot has fallen since leaving his Kentucky home. It is run-down, with some windows boarded up. At Legree’s home, the veneer is wholly lifted from slavery, and its brutal ugliness stands fully revealed as Tom meets his fate. Significantly, Legree has only the memory of his dead mother to urge him toward better behavior, and another slave, Cassy, manipulates that memory to her advantage.

*Lake Huron

*Lake Huron. Another important body of water that serves as the boundary between freedom and slavery, Canada and the United States, for the Harris family.

*Montreal

*Montreal. Capital of Quebec, Canada, where the Harris family eventually settles, illustrating that the United States is not able to provide a safe and suitable home for escaped slaves.

*Liberia

*Liberia. West African republic settled largely by freed American slaves who began migrating there in the 1820’s. The Harris family eventually migrates there. This final destination for the Harris family seems to suggest that no room remains for former slaves on the American continent. Tom dies in slavery and the other major slave characters settle elsewhere.

Uncle Tom's Cabin Form and Content (Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Or, Life Among the Lowly is the most powerful and enduring work of art ever written about American slavery. It was the greatest fiction success of the nineteenth century. Uncle Tom, Simon Legree, and Little Eva became symbols known to most people. Although the book was out of print in the middle of the twentieth century, in the 1960’s, with the renewed struggle over civil rights in the South, the book became available again and there was a new interest in the book.

The purpose of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is to provide powerful propaganda against slavery. The theme of the novel is the idea that slavery and Christianity cannot exist together. Stowe believed that the owning, buying, and selling of slaves was inhumane and un-Christian. The widest opposition to slavery, Stowe believed and demonstrated, stemmed from an individual’s—usually a woman’s—outraged feeling. She gave constant examples, presented emotionally, from the world she knew, the world of home and family, of incidents she had seen herself or of stories she had heard that dealt with atrocities to individuals or to family units. She felt that to describe the process of so harshly tearing child from mother, husband from wife, was to expose the heartlessness and cruelty of slavery. The audience to which she appealed consisted largely of women such as herself who could comprehend the horror of families being separated, churchgoing women whom she made to see the inhumane and un-Christian aspects of slavery. She showed her readers how slavery violated the home and went against the religion of her readers. She wrote the book out of religious inspiration.

The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which not only gave slave owners the right to pursue their escaped slaves even into free states but also forced the people of these free states to assist the slave owners in retrieving their “property” led to Stowe’s decision to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin. She wrote the book in serial format, to be published in the National Era, an abolitionist paper in Washington, D.C. The first chapter was published on June 5, 1851, the last on April 1, 1852.

One learns much about how Uncle Tom’s Cabin was written through anecdotes in the biographies of Harriet Beecher Stowe written by Annie Fields, a fellow author and close friend, and compiled by the son of Harriet, the Reverend Charles Edward Stowe.

According to an account of the creation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, certain scenes flashed before the eyes of Stowe and she included them in the book. One account said that the dramatic scene of the death of Uncle Tom came to her in church. She finally suggested that she had not written Uncle Tom’s Cabin herself but had taken it in dictation from God.

Uncle Tom's Cabin Context (Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Harriet Beecher Stowe visited the White House in 1863 to urge President Abraham Lincoln to do something positive about the thousands of slaves who had fled to Washington, D.C. The often-quoted statement by Abraham Lincoln on that occasion, that Mrs. Stowe was “the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war,” points to the role of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the history of women’s literature, not only because of its impact on the history of women’s literature but also because of its impact on American literature and American history in general. Because of her religious background, Stowe strongly opposed slavery because it was un-Christian. The buying and selling of slaves violated Christian regard for human rights, for the rights of other human beings.

The strongest objection to slavery expressed by Stowe as a woman was that slavery broke up slave families. In Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, the strongest, most emotional feelings expressed by the slave Jim were that he missed his family. Stowe stressed the dangers of capitalism to family values. She saw the slave trade as a masculine, unfeeling occupation and appealed to her female readers to end slavery because it destroyed the family. She never viewed women as abolitionists; that was a masculine pursuit. She believed that by writing her novels and appealing to her female reading audience, she could effect a change and abolish slavery. She reflected on the suffering that she herself felt when she lost a child and compared it to what a slave mother must feel when her child is sold away from her.

The enactment of the Fugitive Slave Act led Stowe to write Uncle Tom’s Cabin. From the beginning, Stowe had unequivocally advocated absolute legal freedom for all slaves. She shows in the novel the difference that being free makes on the former slaves. George Harris, once he regarded himself as “free,” held his head up higher and spoke and moved like a different man, even though he was unsure of his safety. Slavery, in its criminal disregard for human souls, in its treatment of human beings as property, was different from and worse than any other atrocity in life.

Uncle Tom's Cabin Historical Context

The Fugitive Slave Law
In its early years as a nation, the United States gradually became divided into two main regions, the...

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Uncle Tom's Cabin Literary Style

Point of View
The third person ("they," "he," "she") omniscient or, all-seeing, narrative point of view is necessary to Stowe's...

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Uncle Tom's Cabin Literary Techniques

The third-person ("they," "he," "she") omniscient, or all-seeing narrative, point of view is necessary to Stowe's novel, as the novel follows...

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Uncle Tom's Cabin Ideas for Group Discussions

Few writers, particularly nineteenth-century female writers, can say that their work changed the course of a nation. But that is exactly what...

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Uncle Tom's Cabin Social Concerns

When Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly was first published in 1852, no one—least of all its author, Harriet Beecher...

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Uncle Tom's Cabin Compare and Contrast

1850: The U.S. Congress voted to pass the Fugitive Slave Law, which required Northerners to return runaway slaves to their Southern...

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Uncle Tom's Cabin Topics for Further Study

Research mid-nineteenth-century American views of motherhood and domesticity and compare those views to Stowe's portrayal of mothers and...

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Uncle Tom's Cabin Literary Precedents

Uncle Tom's Cabin is considered by critics to be an excellent example of sentimental fiction, a genre that formed from efforts of...

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Uncle Tom's Cabin Related Titles

For more information about the life of slaves in their own words, look for Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave,...

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Uncle Tom's Cabin Adaptations

Directed by William Robert Daly, the 1914 silent film version of Uncle Tom's Cabin starred Mary Eline, Irving Cummings, and Sam Lucas....

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Uncle Tom's Cabin What Do I Read Next?

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, an American Slave, Written by Himself, Douglass's autobiography, was first published in...

(The entire section is 206 words.)

Uncle Tom's Cabin Bibliography (Masterpieces of American Literature)

Sources for Further Study

Adams, John R. Harriet Beecher Stowe. Rev. ed. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989. This work expands Adam’s earlier study, the first and only comprehensive analysis of the life and works of Stowe. Adams discusses recently disclosed biographical information about the Beecher family and numerous critical examinations of Stowe written in the twenty-five years since the early study was published. The author connects Uncle Tom’s Cabin to the religious ideas and personal experiences of Stowe. The volume includes an up-to-date bibliography and chronology.

Beach, Seth Curtis. Daughters of the Puritans: A Group of Brief Biographies. 1905. Reprint. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1967. This book contains a forty-page introductory biography of Harriet Beecher Stowe, a background against which to study Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The object of the study is to show the influences that molded Stowe, to present the salient features of her career and her characteristic qualities. The selection is interesting and informative and provides background material for all readers. It can be read by high school students as well as college undergraduates.

Crozier, Alice C. The Novels of Harriet Beecher Stowe. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969. Notes that Stowe was less interested in the novel as art than in the novel as history. Traces the influence of the British writers Sir Walter Scott and George Gordon, Lord Byron. Comments on the cultural context in which the novels were written, which accounts not only for the Victorian sentimentality of Uncle Tom’s Cabin but also for a distinctively American realism that anticipates Mark Twain.

Fields, Annie. Life and Letters of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1898. The second definitive biography of Harriet Beecher Stowe after the book by her son Charles, this sympathetic portrait was written by her personal friend and professional associate who was also a celebrity in her own right. This readable biography contains many now-famous anecdotes about Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Foster, Charles H. The Rungless Ladder: Harriet Beecher Stowe and New England Puritanism. New York: Cooper Square, 1970. This study of Stowe’s inner struggle with New England Puritanism identifies what she read and how that affected her life and writings. It shows that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a product of her religious thinking and personal anguish. Stowe projects herself and her own struggles, particularly her attempt to reconcile herself with the death of one of her children, onto the novel’s characters.

Gossett, Thomas F. Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1985. This excellent, detailed book shows why Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the most widely read American novel of its time. The first section, about eighty pages long, describes the conditions that led to the creation of the book. The second section, another eighty pages, is an analysis of the book as fiction and social criticism. The remaining two hundred and fifty pages recount the reception of the book in the North, the South, and Europe; the replies; the dramatic versions; and adverse criticism. Contains extensive notes and a comprehensive bibliography.

Hedrick, Joan D. Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. A good source of information about Stowe’s career as a writer. Traces her writing of Uncle Tom’s Cabin from her initial resolve, through her decision to address the sexual exploitation of female slaves, to her effort to substantiate the novel with facts collected in A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Also mentions her work on behalf of emancipation of slaves in both America and England after publication of the novel.

Kazin, Alfred. God and the American Writer. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997. Chapter 3, “Christians and Their Slaves (Harriet Beecher Stowe and Others),” provides excellent historical context for Stowe’s literary works and religious ideas.

Sizer, Lyde Cullen. The Political Work of Northern Women Writers and the Civil War, 1850-1872. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2000. Discusses Stowe as a religious visionary while comparing and contrasting her work with texts by Lydia Child and Fanny Fern.

Stowe, Charles Edward. The Life of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1889. This excellent biography of Harriet Beecher Stowe was compiled by her son, the Reverend Charles Edward Stowe, from her letters and journals. The authorized family biography, it contains the first printing of indispensable letters and other documents and is the foundation of all later biographies. It tells the story of the life of Harriet Beecher Stowe as she had wished and had hoped to tell it herself in her autobiography. Two later books by members of the Stowe family add additional material: Charles Edward Stowe and Lyman Beecher Stowe’s Harriet Beecher Stowe: The Story of Her Life (1941) and Lyman Beecher Stowe’s Saints, Sinners, and Beechers (1934).

Wangenknecht, Edward. Harriet Beecher Stowe: The Known and the Unknown. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965. A combination of biography and literary criticism, this book contains an accurate description of the literary and personal character of Harriet Beecher Stowe. The details are arranged topically, with chapters on Stowe as writer, reader, and reformer as well as daughter, wife, and mother.

Wilson, Edmund. Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American Civil War. New York: W. W. Norton, 1994. The first chapter of Wilson’s book is devoted to a discussion of Stowe’s religious influences and beliefs within the context of the debates leading up to the Civil War.

Uncle Tom's Cabin Bibliography and Further Reading

Sources
Hedrick, Joan D. Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.

Langston...

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