Is it possible to apply the theory of new historicism to Uncle Tom's Cabin?

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rrteacher | College Teacher | (Level 2) Educator Emeritus

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Not only is it possible, but it could be argued that few novels benefit from being studied in their historical context than Uncle Tom's Cabin. To fully imagine the impact of the book, we must remember first that Stowe wrote the book in response to the Fugitive Slave Act, which essentially mandated that Northerners were required to help return escaped slaves to their Southern masters. Eliza's escape scene, which is cited by many as the most dramatic passage in the book, is intended to draw attention to the heroism and plight faced by runaways. More broadly, the book should be understood as a document of the abolitionist movement. It is full of stock characters and tropes designed to highlight the humanity of slaves (who are themselves often portrayed condescendingly, typical of nineteenth-century racial views) and the inhumanity of not just slaveholders, but the institution of slavery itself.

But the "new historicism" goes beyond simply studying a work of literature in its historical context. We must also evaluate our own position relative to the text, and think about how events that have occurred since it was written might affect our understanding of it. The Civil War destroyed the institution that the book was intended to attack, and our moral revulsion at racism might cause us to take Stowe's fictional account of slavery at face value. It does not in any way detract from the importance of the work to point out that it is in many ways a polemic, and a product of its times. By keeping this in mind, we can see more clearly how texts like Uncle Tom's Cabin could have been so influential.

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