Harriet Beecher Stowe Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life among the Lowly
The following entry presents criticism of Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life among the Lowly (1852).
Uncle Tom's Cabin, the book that Abraham Lincoln reportedly claimed started the Civil War, was one of the most widely read and profoundly influential works of the nineteenth century. Its anti-slavery message, in direct response to the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, provoked unprecedented levels of critical disagreement throughout the North and South, serving as a catalyst for sectional conflict. Following the war and the end of slavery, the novel—and its numerous stage adaptations—continued to serve as a focal point for discussions of race in America well into the twentieth century. While usually recognized for its historical contributions, Uncle Tom's Cabin has also played an important role in shaping American literature and is noted for its influence on many prominent writers, ranging from Sarah Orne Jewett to Richard Wright and Ishmael Reed.
When the first installment of Uncle Tom's Cabin appeared in the abolitionist magazine The National Era in June 1851, Stowe had a modest reputation as a writer of didactic fiction, having published The Mayflower, a collection of sentimental short stories and sketches. The daughter of a prominent Presbyterian theologian, her income garnered from writing supplemented her preacher husband's paltry salary. Stowe often claimed that the writing of her most famous work was aided by the hand of God, tracing its inspiration to a Brunswick communion service in which she tried to imagine the death of a pious slave at the hands of a white master. Following the tremendous success of the novel, Stowe published A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin (1853), in which she defended the novel against Southern critiques. Although she continued to write prolifically for several more years, none of her later works achieved the success of her first novel.
Plot and Major Characters
Uncle Tom's Cabin chronicles the life and death of the title character, a black slave known for his reliability and Christian virtue. Beset by financial problems, Mr. Shelby, a Kentucky plantation owner, is forced to sell Tom and Harry, the young son of Eliza, Mrs. Shelby's slave, to a trader. Eliza, however, flees with her son, jumping from one ice floe to another across the Ohio River and narrowly escaping the pursuing slave dealer and his dogs. Later she is reunited with her husband, George Harris, a highly intelligent escaped slave, in the home of a Quaker family; with the help of the Underground Railroad, they eventually secure their freedom in Canada. While aboard a ship destined for a New Orleans slave market, Tom saves the life of a young girl named Eva, who later convinces her father, Augustine St. Clare, to purchase her heroic rescuer and friend. Tom quickly gains the affection of everyone on the plantation. He forms a close bond with little Eva, who befriends a young, unmanageable slave girl named Topsy before becoming ill and dying. Tom also discusses Christianity with St. Clare, who promises to set him free but is killed in a brawl, enabling Mrs. St. Clare to sell him to the cruel and sadistic Simon Legree, a plantation owner from the North. Intending to make Tom overseer of the other slaves, Legree orders him to flog a sick, weak woman for not working hard enough. After refusing, Tom himself is beaten by Legree's two black henchmen, Sambo and Quimbo. Legree's mistress, Cassy, a refined quadroon whose daughter had been torn from her and sold into slavery, attends to Tom's injuries and tries to enlist his help in murdering their master. But Tom, a model of Christian forgiveness, refuses and convinces her to abort her plan. Later, when Cassy and her daughter, Emmeline, pretend to escape by hiding in the attic that Legree believes to be haunted, Tom refuses to reveal their whereabouts and is again severely beaten. Two days later, after George Shelby, the son of Tom's first master, returns to buy him back, Tom dies with words of Christ's love on his lips. Shortly after Tom's death, Cassy and Emmeline finally make their escape, eventually joining the Harrises in Canada, where it is revealed that Eliza is Cassy's lost daughter.
Stowe wrote the novel for the specific purpose of ending slavery, but her portrayal of domestic values and her characterization of African Americans has continued to interest critics long after emancipation. The novel, as several commentators have observed, casts the "peculiar institution" as a crime against home, family, and true Christian values. Not only is slavery shown destroying familial relationships and morality within the slave community, it is depicted as a threat to the homes of all Americans, in both the South and the North. Many modern readers, however, have found in her antislavery arguments a critique against "masculine" values of individualism, competition, and the marketplace—and a concomitant affirmation of "feminine" values of community, love, and domesticity. Interpretations of Stowe's portrayal of Tom have also undergone considerable revision. While many contemporary readers identified him as a model of Christian virtue, modern readers have often viewed him as a symbol of African-American subordination to white authority.
Some of the most hotly contested debates in American literary history have surrounded Stowe's monumental work. In the antebellum years, the controversy focused primarily on her antislavery arguments and her depiction of the South. The first American book to sell more than a million copies, Uncle Tom's Cabin was well received in the North, despite the arguments of some abolitionists who felt she was too lenient; however, Southern reviewers accused her of slander, and dozens of "anti-Tom" novels soon appeared. After the Civil War, white critics in the North and South, for the most part, came to agree with Stowe's position on slavery, but many took issue with her presentation of African-American characters, claiming that they were depicted in too positive a manner. In the post-World War II years, however, the opposite view prevailed. Reviewers such as African-American novelist James Baldwin found in Stowe's portrayal of Tom a negative stereotype of servility and impotence. While "Uncle Tom" has remained a pejorative term, several scholars since the mid-1980s have vigorously defended both the political message and the artistic merit of the novel. Largely through the efforts of feminist and historically based critics who have focused on Stowe's attention to the domestic culture of her nineteenth-century female audience, Uncle Tom's Cabin has once again become the subject of serious academic study.
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