Uncle Tom's Cabin (American History Through Literature)
When Uncle Tom's Cabin burst on the American scene, first as a series of installments in the antislavery journal the National Era in 1851 and 1852 and then in 1852 as a two-volume edition published in Boston by John P. Jewett, many readers were overwhelmed by Harriet Beecher Stowe's powerful portrayal of the sufferings of slaves. Within the first eight weeks alone, sales of Uncle Tom's Cabin reached a whopping fifty thousand copies, and six months after that it had sold a quarter of a million volumes. On a scale hitherto unknown in America's publishing history, readers responded to Stowe's novel of sentiment, family, separation, and reunion.
UNCLE TOM'S STORY
In Uncle Tom's Cabin Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811896) was determined to make the case against slavery by using a series of tableaux that appealed to the emotions and to the Christian faith of her readers: "There is no arguing with pictures, and everybody is impressed by them, whether they mean to be or not," Stowe wrote in a March 1851 letter to Gamaliel Bailey, editor of the National Era (Oxford Harriet Beecher Stowe Reader, p. 66). The first of the pictures is of Uncle Tom and his family living as slaves on the Shelby plantation in Kentucky. Because of financial debts, Mr. Shelby decides to sell Uncle Tom along with the son of Mrs. Shelby's personal slave, Eliza, to a vulgar slave trader. Eliza learns of this plan, and in order to save her son Harry, she escapes with him, dramatically crosses the ice floes on the Ohio River, and finally makes her way to a Quaker settlement, where she meets up with her husband, George Harris, who has also run away from his master.
Uncle Tom, however, is put on a steamboat to be sold in New Orleans. On the boat he meets the five-year-old Evangeline, or "Little Eva," whom he saves from drowning. Evangeline convinces her father, Augustine St. Clare, to purchase Uncle Tom. At the New Orleanian St. Clare mansion, Uncle Tom is one of many slaves and serves as a coachman as well as a friend to Little Eva. Eva's aunt, Miss Ophelia, runs the household. In the course of the plot Evangeline becomes ill and eventually dies, but first she converts the recalcitrant slave girl Topsy through Christian love and, in doing so, converts Miss Ophelia to a more compassionate approach to racial difference. Also, in response to Evangeline's death, St. Clare decides to free Uncle Tom, but he is killed before he is able to do so. Eva's mother, an unsympathetic character throughout, cruelly sells Uncle Tom and the other slaves in a slave auction.
Uncle Tom and a beautiful and virtuous slave girl, Emmeline, are bought by the evil master Simon Legree. They travel down the Red River toward Legree's dilapidated Louisiana plantation, where the mulatto Cassy is Legree's mistress and slave. Uncle Tom tries to maintain his Christian beliefs, which waver under Legree's brutal treatment, but he ultimately triumphs. After Uncle Tom is severely beaten for helping another slave in the fields, Cassy comes to his aid. He tells her to escape with Emmeline. Cassy invents an elaborate ploy to trick Legree into thinking that his house is haunted, which so frightens Legree that she and Emmeline are
George Shelby, the son of the father who had sold Uncle Tom, searches for Uncle Tom, only to find out that he has died at the Legree plantation. On his way back to Kentucky, George Shelby runs into Cassy and Emmeline on a steamboat. The three then meet George Harris's long-lost sister, Madame de Thoux, and discover that Cassy is Eliza's mother. George Shelby returns to the Shelby plantation in Kentucky, where he frees the slaves. Cassy, Emmeline, and Madame de Thoux travel to Canada, where George Harris and Eliza live. Topsy becomes a missionary in Liberia. George Harris, Eliza, and Cassy eventually move to Liberia to found a colony for former slaves.
UNCLE TOM'S CABIN AND REFORM
The novel ends with slave families reunited, but Stowe's critique of "the peculiar institution" foregrounds the absolute vulnerability of the slave family. To be sure, the novel represents the unending labor of plantation slaves (with particular force as Tom journeys southward, eventually leading him to Legree's miserable plantation) and the physical punishments to which slaves were continually subjected, but the destruction of slave families was Stowe's special target. Chapter after chapter relentlessly repeats the charge that slavery's most baleful aspect was the separation of parents, especially mothers, and their children. This is Prue's story, Topsy's, Emmeline's, Eliza's, and Cassy's. The presence of light-skinned blacks in Uncle Tom's Cabin makes the pointhough in a less-graphic way than in Lydia Maria Child's Romance of the Republic (1867) or Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl (1861)hat slave women, who were raped by their white masters, were then forced to witness their children being sold from them. The devastation of the slave family is at once endless and economically advantageous to the master. The cycle begins with rape and ends with money, making black motherhood the site of avarice and pain, both of which could not have been more antithetical to the ante-bellum conceit of maternity as the apotheosis of female identity and the source of love and virtue.
That the biological family was one of the central institutions of antebellum American society, and the mother at its affective helm, make Stowe's polemic particularly effective. An indictment of slavery on the grounds of its pernicious domestic effects rather than a critique centered more on unfair labor practices (that might make northerners squirm by virtue of their own problems with labor) was one with which readers sympathized more easily. Indeed, Stowe's admonition to her readers to "see, then, to your sympathies in these matters" (p. 624), is based on her belief that Uncle Tom's Cabin had the potential to enable individuals to "see to it that they feel right " (p. 624) by activating their sympathies; by making equivalent the feelings that govern slaves as they face the annihilation of family ties and the feelings of those who are not slaves as they endure the pain of family wreckage.
Two events, one deeply personal and the other overtly political, converged to propel Stowe to write Uncle Tom's Cabin. The first was the death from cholera of her very young son Charley on 26 July 1849, and the second was the passage of the Compromise of 1850. The Fugitive Slave Law, which required that northerners cooperate in the capture of runaway slaves and suffer the legal consequences of noncompliance, was for many, including Stowe, the most outrageous part of the compromise in that it forced citizens of the North to become partners in slavery. That Stowe would even think to enter into this most divisive and important debate has much to do with the achievements and expectations of her family. Stowe was the daughter of Lyman Beecher (1775863), the wife of Calvin Stowe (1802886), and the sister of Henry Ward Beecher (1813887). Each of these three men was a New England minister, famous for religious activism (Lyman was one of the founders of Oberlin College; Calvin held professorships at Oberlin, Bowdoin, and Andover and also wrote religious treatises) and social activism (Henry was one of the most outspoken antislavery ministers in his Brooklyn church). The women in Beecher's family were similarly motivated. Catharine Beecher (1800878), Harriet's older sister, established Hartford Female Seminary and wrote several books, including A Treatise on Domestic Economy (1842), and Isabella Beecher Hooker (1822907), Stowe's half sister, was a women's rights advocate with close ties to Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Susan B. Anthony.
STOWE'S FICTIONAL FAMILIES
Uncle Tom's Cabin is, unsurprisingly, steeped in her family's commitment to the politically progressive possibilities of Christianity as well as what the historian Carroll Smith-Rosenberg has identified as "the female world of love and ritual" (p. 53). The chapter titled "The Quaker Settlement" brings together these two conceptual threads and offers a model of an ideal society as imaged by an ideal family. Rachel Halliday, whose "face and form . . . made 'mother' seem the most natural word in the world" (p. 216), is at the head of in an expansive domestic unit that gives shelter to fugitive slaves in the name of preserving and uniting their broken families. It is here that Eliza and Henry find comfort, and it is here that George, the husband and father, is reunited with them. Rachel's home represents a space of "motherly loving kindness" (p. 215), where Christian doctrine and Christian practice come together. Rachel's love extends the qualities of person-hood to virtually every aspect of her world, whether it is the peaches that respond to her "gentle whispers" (p. 218) or the knives and forks with their "social clatter" (p. 223) or her rocking chair "whose wide arms breathed hospitable invitation" (p. 214). Most important, of course, are the fugitive slaves whose person-hood she recognizes and works to protect. The Quaker settlement, in other words, serves as the antidote to and antithesis of families in bondage, where slavery presides and results in their nonrecognition as persons (legally speaking, they are things to be bought and sold) and the concomitant decimation of family ties. Over and again, whether it is in the opening scenes at the Shelby plantation or the middle passages that take place in Marie and Augustine St. Clare's household or the final scenes with Simon Legree, the reader witnesses how a slave owner's best intentions are no match for the economic incentives of slavery. Sympathy, or "feeling right," Stowe maintains, is simply impossible under a legalized regime that regards persons as things, that produces and profits from children like Topsy, who, when asked who her mother was, replies "never had none" (p. 355) and, when asked where she was born, answers "never was born!" (p. 355). For Stowe, slav-ery's greatest evil is the abrogation of consanguineous relationshat is, the bonds of blood.
UNCLE TOM'S CABIN AND RACE
How is it, one might wonder, that Stowe's antislavery novel generated anything other than, on the one hand, unanimous praise from antislavery readers who applauded its critique of the peculiar institution and, on the other hand, outrage from those on the proslavery side who accused the novel (and Stowe) of everything from a deliberate misrepresentation of the facts to an unfeminine entrance into the male world of politics? The fact is that from the moment of its publication up through the twentieth-first century, some of the most powerful readings and critiques of Uncle Tom's Cabin have been conducted by African American writers, from Frederick Douglass and Martin Delany to James Baldwin and Richard Wright, who have been deeply troubled by several aspects of the novel that appear to undermine Stowe's progressive antislavery message. That one can find a thoroughgoing record of American racist thought by studying the afterlife of Stowe's novelhat is to say, the plays, minstrel shows, children's books, dolls, and household wares it inspireduggests that Uncle Tom's Cabin perhaps not only invites these kinds of racist appropriations but that this antislavery novel is itself racist. For example, as appealing and idyllic as the Halliday home is, George, Harry, and Eliza can only be temporary residents of it. Stowe is unable to imagine a permanent domestic space in the United States where the relationships between black and white characters are not defined according to the logic of slavery. As a result, virtually every black character must emigrate from the United States. Unlike Tom, who goes to heaven, they travel first to Canada and then, like Topsy, to their final destination, Africa, and more specifically, Liberia.
Perhaps Douglass, despite being a staunch supporter of Stowe, put it best when he reminded her in a letter, "The truth is, dear madam, we are here, and here we are likely to remain" (Levine, p. 535). Indeed, Stowe's claim, tentative though it is, that Liberia might just be the answer to the "problem" of America's emancipated slave population is only one among several difficulties that readers have had with the novel. A more thorough list includes the use of racial stereotypes; the aesthetic, intellectual, and psychological distinctions made between full black characters as opposed to quadroons, mulattos, and octoroons; and the way Stowe's representation of "feeling right" does virtually nothing to bring about the end of the institution of slavery. Moreover, what is a reader to think of a moment such as the one when Tom finds himself purchased by Augustine St. Clare, heading farther away from his wife, Chloe, and their children, and responds to his new household with "an air of calm, still enjoyment" because "the negro, it must be remembered, is an exotic of the most gorgeous and superb countries of the world, and he has, deep in his heart, a passion for all that is splendid, rich, and fanciful" (p. 253)? Or how is one to make sense of the novel's "Concluding Remarks," in which Stowe both makes an argument for why freed blacks, once educated, ought to settle in Liberia and then goes on to record the success stories of some of Cincinnati's emancipated slaves, but not without also identifying them as "full black" or "three-fourths black"? What is the point of conveying the relative amounts of black and white blood unless it is evidence that Stowe's antislavery polemic is structured by racist foundations?
This last question can be convincingly answered by two very different, though valid, interpretations. The first is to argue that despite Stowe's objections to slavery, she nevertheless shares many of the racist assumptions of her culture, not least of which is the determining power of consanguinity. The relative proportions of black and white remain essential to her understanding of character, even in the case of the former slaves in Cincinnati, and therefore limit the progressive force of her antislavery polemic. The second is to read Stowe's insistence on the consanguineous makeup of blacks at the conclusion of the novel as evidence of her commitment to representing the biological origins of particular blacks. She is, quite simply, unwilling to erase the fact of black parentage because to do so would be to make her complicit in the very logic of the institution she is critiquing. After all, the slave economy functions by separating parents from children, by creating characters like Topsy, who think they have been "made," not born. That such consanguineous profiling so easily maps onto racist modes of identifying blacks is what makes Stowe's racial politics so difficult to assess.
UNCLE TOM'S CABIN AND ABOLITIONISM
In part, the interpretive difficulty this novel has encountered stems from a critical predisposition that wants to see Stowe as either completely progressive or utterly benighted rather than accepting her outlook as lying somewhere in between. Indeed, at the moment of its publication, Stowe's novel elicited a range of responses, which continue to get played out in contemporary critical analyses. The debate about Stowe and race has been polarized between those who insist that despite her essentialist view of African Americans, the case against slavery in Uncle Tom's Cabin was nevertheless influential, radical, and powerful: so influential that scenes from the novel were invoked in the U.S. Senate by no less a figure than the distinguished abolitionist Charles Sumner of Massachusetts; so radical that the novel was not permitted to enter southern states, and if it did, it was burned; so powerful that legend has it that when Stowe met President Abraham Lincoln, he greeted her with the words, "So you're the little woman that wrote the book that made this great war." On the other side of the political aisle, antebellum critics of Stowe's novel blasted her for her allegedly unladylike intervention into public discourse, for her unfair assault on southern life, and for her mendacious account of the peculiar institution. Some of the most scathing reviews of Uncle Tom's Cabin and A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin (Stowe's fascinating 1853 defense of the novel's authenticity) appeared in the Southern Literary Messenger and the Southern Quarterly Review and made the rather paradoxical claim that Stowe's novel was "a miserable tissue of falsehoods and abominations" (Thompson, p. 58), but even if it were true, the novel helped make the case for slavery. So writes Nehemiah Adams, in his detestable proslavery allegory, The Sable Cloud (1861), when Mr. North asks, "What made Uncle Tom the paragon of perfection?" and the narrator replies, "SLAVERY MADE UNCLE TOM. Had it not been for slavery, he would have been a savage in Africa, a brutish slave to his fetishes" (p. 135). Here Adams subverts the novel's point that slavery and Christianity are mutually exclusive and appropriates the Christian qualities of Uncle Tom as evidence of Stowe's covert defense of slavery.
The notion that Uncle Tom's Cabin could be taken as a vindication of slavery might strike one as a strained counter-reading of the novel and certainly of its antislavery intentions, but the fact is that Stowe's text has produced some rather strange bedfellows. For very different reasons, of course, both apologists for slavery and abolitionist activists, particularly African American writers, found themselves deeply offended by the novel. Martin Delany, author of Blake; or, The Huts of America (1859862), not only criticized Stowe for her seeming endorsement of the colonizationist argument but then took Douglass to task for not being critical enough of Stowe. He also found fault with her unacknowledged use of the narratives of fugitive slaves, especially Josiah Henson's and Henry Bibb's (she would later cite Henson's 1849 autobiography, The Life of Josiah Henson, as one of the sources for Uncle Tom in A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin), even going so far as to suggest that Stowe and her publisher share the profits of the novel with the fugitive slaves upon whose stories she had, in the words of Delany, "draughted largely" (p. 231).
IS UNCLE TOM AN UNCLE TOM?
Without a doubt, the character of Uncle Tom has been a special point of contention. He is a grown man who is consistently described as feminine and childlike, whether in the scene with Eva, where the narrator writes about their reading of the Bible, "she and her simple friend, the old child and the young one, felt just alike about it" (p. 380), or when "Tom's voice choked, and the tears ran down his cheeks" (p. 308) after talking with St. Clare about living a more Christian life. He loves the various masters who own him even when, in the case of Mr. Shelby, he is sold away from his family. Upon finding himself in the St. Clare mansion, his very soul seems to expand as he luxuriates in the Orientalism of their Louisiana household:
The negro, it must be remembered, is an exotic of the most gorgeous and superb countries of the world, and he has, deep in his heart, a passion for all that is splendid, rich, and fanciful; a passion which, rudely indulged by an untrained taste, draws on them the ridicule of the colder and more correct white (P. 253).
A passage like this, with its essentialist view of racial characteristics (both black and white), confirms the historian George Frederickson's description of Stowe as a romantic racialist influenced by the ethnological works of Alexander Kinmont and Francis Lieber, with which she was familiar: "Although romantic racialists acknowledged that blacks were different from whites and probably always would be, they projected an image of the Negro that could be construed as flattering or laudatory in the context of some currently accepted ideals of human behavior and sensibility" (p. 433). The context for Stowe's novel is a nineteenth-century sentimental sensibilityf the sort found in Phoebe Pyncheon in Nathaniel Hawthorne's The House of the Seven Gables (1851) or Ellen Montgomery in Susan Warner's The Wide, Wide World (1850)n which the content of one's character is measured and validated by virtue of a childlike delight in and feminine sensitivity to one's environment. Add to these qualities Christian forbearance and, more literally, a Christlike ability to forgive one's tormentors (when Tom is being beaten by Simon Legree, Sambo, and Quimbo, he exclaims, "I loves every creatur', everywhar!" [p. 590]) and one has the ideal character that every nineteenth-century reader should strive to become.
Or not. Tom, after all, is not a youthful white sentimental heroine but a full black adult male slave who has been cruelly separated from his wife and children. Indeed, Tom's refusal to defend himself against his certain death at the hands of Legree and company has drawn critical fire. In a March 1852 piece that appeared in The Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison blasted Stowe for suggesting that slaves should suffer in Christian silence:
Is there one law of submission and non-resistance for the black man, and another law of rebellion and conflict for the white man? When it is the whites who are trodden in the dust, does Christ justify them in taking up arms to vindicate their rights? And when it is the blacks who are thus treated, does Christ require them to be patient, harmless, long-suffering, and forgiving? And are there two Christs? (Nelson, pp. 23940)
Garrison's pointed critique, as well as the arguments made by Douglass and Delany, has been taken up by twentieth-century authors, perhaps most famously by James Baldwin, whose collection of short stories, Uncle Tom's Children (1936), includes an epigraph with words that celebrate the end of Uncle Tom as an ideal of (black) nonresistance, "Uncle Tom is dead!" Ishmael Reed's Flight to Canada (1976) provides another example of an African American writer at once recognizing the powerful and, in his reading, invidious effects of Stowe's novel and the need to subvert authority. He uses the issue of Stowe's appropriation of Henson's narrative and turns the tables on her by asserting that the damage done by Uncle Tom's Cabin devolves not upon black readers and writers, trapped in Stowe's stereotypes, but upon its author: "When you take a man's story, a story that doesn't belong to you, that story will get you" (p. 9). The demise of the character of Uncle Tom (as well as the creator of the character) and the passivity for which he stands has often been viewed by African American writers as a key to their own literary and psychic liberation.
FEELING RIGHT (AND WRONG)
Yet Tom's death occurs in a chapter titled "The Victory." From another point of view, one that has been articulated most influentially by the feminist critic Jane Tompkins, the title character's reenactment of the crucifixion scene makes equivalent the sufferings of Tom and Jesus. Stowe, in this reading, is making the point that each time a slave is abused and killed, the death of Christ is being replayed. To end this pain, which is nothing less than the continued suffering of Christ, slavery must end. Tompkins urges readers to analyze Uncle Tom's Cabin from the perspective of a mid-nineteenth-century culture steeped in Christian ideology and knowledge of the Bible, in which to suffer as Tom does is to align oneself with God. To forgive is not to be weak; to submit is not to be docile. Such an argument also applies to the character of Eva, whose death scene, in the words of the literary critic Ann Douglas, is a distillation of how the novel's "political sense [is] obfuscated or gone rancid" (p. 307). According to Douglas, Eva's death releases tears, and lots of them, among the characters surrounding her as well as in some readers but does nothing to effect the end of slavery in the novel. In fact, Augustine never gets around to signing Tom's manumission papers, even though he intends to do so.
Is that not precisely the point, though? "Feeling right" only takes one so far. Doing right comes next. Readers who experience Stowe's novel cathartically only to do nothing with those feelings, or what she elsewhere refers to as that "atmosphere of sympathetic influence [that] encircles every human being" (p. 624), have not gotten the message. Indeed, their political sense has "gone rancid," and one can witness what that looks like by reading misappropriations of Stowe's call for sympathy. Many proslavery novels, such as Mary Eastman's Aunt Phillis's Cabin; or, Southern Life as It Is (1852) and Caroline Lee Hentz's The Planter's Northern Bride (1854)o name just two of the many "anti-Tom novels" (a term used by Thomas Gossett to describe the tremendous out-pouring of novels specifically written as attacks on Stowe's) published in the 1850slaimed that sympathy for slaves required their enslavement precisely because of their childlike and dependent nature. It was in response to such misreadings of her novel that Stowe, within just one year of its publication, wrote A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, in which she argued not only for the veracity of her representations of slavery but, more forcefully, linked sympathy with action. Because "to mean well is not enough" (p. 217), she urges Christians to become activists and break the law "not in form, but in fact . . . [and] to seek the ENTIRE ABOLITION OF SLAVERY" (p. 250). A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin and, later, Stowe's novel Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (1856) represent Stowe's responses to proslavery critics who appropriated her call for sympathy and antislavery critics who chided her for her allegedly naive faith in "feeling right."
KEYS TO UNCLE TOM'S CABIN
An understanding of Uncle Tom's Cabin and, more precisely, Stowe's attitudes about race must take into account not only antebellum racial politics but also the many rewritings and critiques of the novel that appeared after its publication, ranging from the anti-Tom novels; to the ethnographic texts such as Adams's A South-Side View of Slavery (1854) and C. G. Parsons's An Inside View of Slavery (1855), which aimed to present readers with firsthand accounts of slavery that would either refute or confirm Stowe's fiction; to the twentieth-century responses such as James Baldwin's famous essay "Everybody's Protest Novel" (1949) and Robert Alexander's "I Ain't Yo' Uncle": The New Jack Revisionist Uncle Tom's Cabin (1992). It is impossible to read Uncle Tom's Cabin without having been exposed to scenes, characters, or interpretations of the novel before one even opens the first page. Just as most twentieth-first-century readers who have never read a word of Herman Melville come to Moby-Dick (1851) knowing that Captain Ahab is out to kill a white whale or have seen a film adaptation of the novel, those same readers have heard of Stowe's text, maybe even watched a Hollywood version of it, and are aware that it is a scathing indictment to call a black person an "Uncle Tom." And yet if one goes back to the novel, readers may find evidence of an Uncle Tom who is not docile, who does not play by the rules. One example can be found when a fellow slave, Lucy, is having difficulty picking enough cotton to satisfy Legree's minions, and Tom puts cotton from his sack into hers, knowing full well that this is a rebellious act that will lead to trouble. A subversive act with greater consequences is Tom's decision to assist in Cassy's escape from Legree's plantation. Although Tom is unwilling to effect his own escape, he instructs Cassy to take herself and Emmeline away: "If ye only could get away from here,f the thing was possible,'d 'vise ye and Emmeline to do it" (p. 562). Clearly, this Uncle Tom is different from the Uncle Toms who have succeeded him, and yet he is the origin from which the others have developed. Like the many contexts (biographical, cultural, and literary) that were foundational to the production of Uncle Tom's Cabin, readers of the novel come to it from within a particular cultural context that is equally foundational to their consumption of her text, a consumption that shows no signs of abating.
See also Abolitionist Writing; Blake; Civil War; Domestic Fiction; Ethnology; Female Authorship; Proslavery Writing; Quakers; Reform; Sentimentalism; Slavery
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