What opportunities did the fictional work, Uncle Tom's Cabin, offer Harriet Beecher Stowe that a nonfiction writer would not have had?Consider reasons why Stowe’s account of slavery,...

What opportunities did the fictional work, Uncle Tom's Cabin, offer Harriet Beecher Stowe that a nonfiction writer would not have had?

Consider reasons why Stowe’s account of slavery, Uncle’s Tom’s Cabin, might have been particularly effective because it was fictional.

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mwestwood | College Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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By her own admission, abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin as propaganda, an anti-slavery work that, according to Will Kaufman  "helped lay the groundwork for the Civil War." Written in the sentimental and melodramatic style typical of many novels of the nineteenth century, Miss Stowe did not strive for verisimilitude; rather, she exaggerated characters in order to make emotional impressions upon her readers.  While there may have been some slave owners as sadistic and cruel as Simon Legree, the majority would have taken measures to ensure the health of their slaves and, to a certain extent, their well-being because slaves were expensive to procure and necessary to the success of the plantation.  And, the fact that many stereotypes emerged from Stowe's narrative--"the happy darky," the "tragic mulatto," the "dark-skinned mammy," "the pickaninny" child--points to the unrealistic portrayal of slaves. In addition, it was reported that

Stowe mentioned a number of the inspirations and sources for her novel in A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin (1853). This non-fiction book was intended to verify Stowe's claims about slavery.However, later research indicated that Stowe did not read many of the book's cited works until after she had published her novel.

With the opportunity to create in the medium of fiction the message about slavery that she desired, Miss Stowe also was able to promote the message of the moral power of women, as well. For, in her feminine power, Elisa escapes from slavery and, consequently, saves her son as well.  Also, the political novel is a medium for Stowe's puritanical beliefs.  In fact, with the direct interjections by the author, the novel often assumes the form of "a sermon" as Stowe herself proselytizes. To this day, Harrie Beecher Stowe's novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin is viewed as a political novel. Interestingly, African-American author of the twentieth century, Richard Wright, called Uncle Tom's Cabin "Everybody's Protest Novel." Considering Stowe's fiction a "very bad novel" Wright declared it "racially obtuse and aesthetically crude."

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akannan's profile pic

Ashley Kannan | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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The most elemental answer here is that Stowe was not handcuffed by the demands of nonfiction writing.  She was able to construct "a great story."  She recognized that the historical novel can be used to influence people's view about history in a way that can spur social change.  The book is not real, but the events and people in it are and that is where her focus lies.  She was not concerned with dates, years, and the minutia of exactitude that governs nonfiction writing.  Rather, she recognized the socially transformative power of literature and writing and set out to create a work where this was evident.  It is here in this ability to not be handcuffed where Stowe is also able to freely move between narrator and social crusader.  Writing in a fictional context, she can break voice and "speak" to the reader in a way that nonfiction writing, by virtue of its genre, cannot:

If it were your Harry, mother, or your Willie, that were going to be torn away from you by a brutal trader, tomorrow morning…how fast could you walk?

In this narration, Stowe is able to confront the audience with the reality of empathy, critical in her mission to move people to change and action in the context of pre- Civil War America.  Stowe writing as a fiction writer is able to play with this uniquely, ensuring that she writes and speaks, as opposed to merely recreates.  It is in this where fiction is able to give Stowe opportunities that a nonfiction writer, committed to historical and factual reconstruction, would not have been able to as successfully seized.

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