Uncle Tom's Cabin Critical Overview
by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Uncle Tom's Cabin book cover
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Critical Overview

(Novels for Students)

In 1853, Stowe published A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, with which she intended to quiet her critics' assertions that Uncle Tom's Cabin had been poorly researched. This second book cited actual documents, such as laws, court cases, and newspaper articles, that substantiated Stowe's portrayal of slavery in her novel. Accurate or not, Uncle Tom's Cabin hit a nerve in the United States and around the world. It maintained its popularity through the antebellum and Civil War years, inspiring translations into many languages as well as adaptations for the stage.

Although the notoriety of Uncle Tom's Cabin died down after the Civil War and emancipation of the slaves, it has endured as a mainstay of American literature. Stowe went on to write many other books, but her first book remained her most famous. Critics throughout the twentieth century have continued to examine Uncle Tom's Cabin. In his 1949 essay, "Everybody's Protest Novel," first published in The Partisan Review, James Baldwin criticized Stowe's novel, saying "it is a very bad novel" because of its "self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality…[which] is the mark of dishonesty." Baldwin contends that the novel is driven by "theological terror, the terror of damnation" or "a fear of the dark." He claims that the novel equates darkness, or blackness, with evil, and therefore those characters with black skin—like Tom—are "born without the light [so that] only through humility, the incessant mortification of the flesh…can [he] enter into communion with God or man." This treatment of black characters, Baldwin feels, denies them their humanity.

Langston Hughes, in his introduction to a 1952 illustrated edition of Uncle Tom's Cabin, praises the novel as containing "a good story, exciting in incident, sharp in characterization, and threaded with humor." Hughes narrates some of the background circumstances of the novel in order to illustrate the book's initial impact on readers and maintains that "the love and warmth and humanity that went into its writing keep it alive a century later from Bombay to Boston." Kenneth Lynn's 1961 introduction to another edition of Uncle Tom's Cabin proposes that Stowe' s novel is "a tear-jerker with a difference." By this, Lynn goes on to say, he means that "the novel's sentimentalism continually calls attention to the monstrous actuality [slavery] which existed under the very noses of its readers." Lynn claims that Stowe's novel departs from sentimental tradition in that it...

(The entire section is 581 words.)