Stowe, Harriet Beecher Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life among the Lowly - Essay

Harriet Beecher Stowe


(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

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.

Biographical Information

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.

Major Themes

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.

Critical Reception

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.

David Levin (essay date 1971)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "American Fiction as Historical Evidence: Reflections on Uncle Tom's Cabin," in Forms of Uncertainty: Essays in Historical Criticism, University Press of Virginia, 1992, pp. 249-59.

[In the excerpt that follows, originally from an essay published in 1971, Levin addresses Stowe's treatment of various social issues in Uncle Tom's Cabin from a historical perspective, concluding that Stowe should be commended for her often-overlooked, complex intellectual statement.]

The historical document known as Uncle Tom's Cabin illustrates a truth that has been known to American historians ever since Washington Irving published Knickerbocker's...

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Ernest Cassara (essay date 1973)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Rehabilitation of Uncle Tom: Significant Themes in Mrs. Stowe's Antislavery Novel," in CLA Journal, Vol. XVII, No. 2, December, 1973, pp. 230-40.

[In the excerpt that follows, Cassara outlines the features that make Tom a heroic figure, in contrast to those who view him as the obsequious character from which the pejorative term "Uncle Tom" has derived.]

The expression "Uncle Tom" in the context of today's racial tensions has come to stand for a servile, cringing, hypocritical Negro who is willing to accommodate to the white power structure and to a less-than-equal place in American society. The melodramatic stage adaptation of Uncle Tom's Cabin by...

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Elizabeth Amnions (essay date 1977)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Heroines in Uncle Tom's Cabin," in American Literature, Vol. XLIX, No. 2, May, 1977, pp. 161-79.

[In the following excerpt, Ammons discusses various feminist themes in Uncle Tom's Cabin, suggesting that Stowe replaces masculine values with feminine and maternal ones.]

Late in me nineteenth century Harriet Beecher Stowe announced mat God wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852). The novel by then seemed too monumental even to its author to have been imagined by one woman. Earlier in her life, in contrast, Stowe had no doubt mat she wrote the subversive book or mat she was inspired to write it, despite marital and household irritations,...

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Cushing Strout (essay date 1981)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Portent of Millennium," in The Veracious Imagination: Essays on American History, Literature, and Biography, Wesleyan University Press, 1981, pp. 59-69.

[In the following excerpt, Strout examines the nineteenth-century theological traditions that informed the writing of Uncle Tom's Cabin, defending Stowe against modernist critics who accuse her of racism.]

"Everybody's Protest Novel," James Baldwin called it in 1949, in order to condemn it and its descendants. Looking at it through the eyes of a modern Negro, he found it a hysterically moralistic melodrama of stereotypes with a cast of genteel mulattoes and quadroons...

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Leslie Fiedler (essay date 1982)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Home as Heaven, Home as Hell: Uncle Tom's Canon," in Rewriting the Dream: Reflections on the Changing American Literary Canon, edited by W. M.; Verhoeven, Rodopi, 1992, pp. 22-42.

[An American critic, novelist, short story writer, essayist, poet, and editor, Fiedler is a commentator on American literature who has generated a great deal of controversy. Using primarily Marxist and Freudian perspectives, he attempts to uncover the origins of modern literature and show how myth is used in literature today. In the excerpt that follows, from an essay originally published in 1982, Fiedler discusses the myth of marriage and parenthood shared by Stowe's female audience, examining its role...

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Walter Benn Michaels (essay date 1983)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Romance and Real Estate," in The Gold Standard and the Logic of Naturalism: American Literature at the Turn of the Century, University of California Press, 1987, pp. 85-112.

[In the following excerpt from an essay originally published in 1983, Michaels examines the economic themes of Uncle Tom's Cabin, focusing on the role of slavery in the marketplace.]

. . . . The conjunction of death and secure property has its place in [Uncle Tom's Cabin, a text] intended not as a romance but, in its author's words [in A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, 1853], as a "representation . . . of real incidents, of actions really performed, of...

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Kristen Herzog (essay date 1983)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin: Women and Blacks Revolutionizing Society," in Women, Ethnics, and Exotics: Images of Power in Mid-Nineteenth-Century American Fiction, The University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, 1983, pp. 102-20.

[In the excerpt that follows, Herzog discusses the women and African-American characters in Uncle Tom's Cabin, focusing on their role in the author's vision of a new religious and political order.]

A well-known social history of the nineteenth-century South [William R. Taylor's Cavalier and Yankee] features a chapter entitled "Women and Negroes: One and Inseparable." Certainly women and blacks in the...

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Minrose C. Gwin (essay date 1985)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "A Lie More Palatable than the Truth': Fictional Sisterhood in a Fictional South," in Black and White Women of the Old South: The Peculiar Sisterhood in American Literature, The University of Tennessee Press, Knoxville, 1985, pp. 19-43.

[In the following excerpt, Gwin discusses the relationships between white and black female characters in Uncle Tom's Cabin, emphasizing the strength of these bonds against the threat of slavery.]

In Uncle Tom's Cabin, where slavery is linked to the male sphere, the bonds between white and black women not only provide succor but can generate enormous power against that sphere. The bonds between Mrs. Shelby...

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George Goodin (essay date 1985)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Virtuous Victim: Les Misérables, Billy Budd, The Power and the Glory, Uncle Tom's Cabin," in The Poetics of Protest: Literary Form and Political Implication in the Victim-of-Society Novel, Southern Illinois University Press, 1985, pp. 51-86.

[In the following excerpt, Goodin discusses the characterization of Tom and the ending of the novel in relation to themes of resistance and community.]

As [Stowes] title ought to suggest, [Uncle Tom's Cabin] is largely the story of a community. According to Stowe's 1878 essay "The Story of Uncle Tom's Cabin" the novel's animus was the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, which required even...

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Jane Tompkins (essay date 1985)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Sentimental Power: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Politics of Literary History," in Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860, Oxford University Press, Inc., 1985, pp. 122-46.

[In the following excerpt, Tompkins defends the value of Uncle Tom's Cabin as a work of sentimental fiction, discussing Stowe's attention to nineteenth-century women's culture and her vision of social reform.]

[The] popular domestic novel of the nineteenth century represents a monumental effort to reorganize culture from the woman's point of view; that this body of work is remarkable for its intellectual complexity, ambition, and resourcefulness; and...

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Jean Fagan Yellin (essay date 1986)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Doing It Herself: Uncle Tom's Cabin and Woman's Role in the Slavery Crisis," in New Essays on "Uncle Tom's Cabin, " edited by Eric J. Sundquist, Cambridge University Press, 1986, pp. 85-105.

[In the following essay, Yellin discusses the influence of mid-nineteenth-century feminist thought on the writing of Uncle Tom's Cabin, emphasizing the roles that Angelina E. Grimké and Catharine Beecher had on the creation of Stowe's female characters.]

The trembling earth, the low-murmuring thunders, already admonish us of our danger; and if females can exert any saving influence in this emergency, it is time for them to awake.


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Stephen J. DeCanio (essay date 1990)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Uncle Tom's Cabin: A Reappraisal," in The Centennial Review, Vol. XXXIV, No. 4, Fall, 1990, pp. 587-93.

[In the following excerpt, DeCanio examines the philosophical questions underlying Uncle Tom's Cabin, suggesting that Stowe's treatment of religion and faith has as much relevance for a modern audience as her commentary on gender and ethnicity..]

Uncle Tom's Cabin, the main work for which Harriet Beecher Stowe is now remembered, is enjoying a rebirth. With the received "canon" of American literature under attack as elitist, racist, and sexist, it is not surprising that an authentic anti-slavery novel, written by a...

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Stephen Railton (essay date 1991)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Mothers, Husbands, and an Uncle: Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, " in Authorship and Audience: Literary Performance in the American Renaissance, Princeton University Press, 1991, pp. 74-89.

[In the following excerpt, Railton focuses on Stowe's relationship to her audience, contending that Uncle Tom's Cabin is both a radical novel of social protest and a conventional recording of genteel Victorian preconceptions.]

There are still two good reasons to read Uncle Tom's Cabin: for its radicalism, and for its conventionality. As a novel of social protest, it generates so much passion within its own pages that, although the particular evil it...

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Winfried Fluck (essay date 1992)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "The Power and Failure of Representation in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, " in New Literary History, Vol. 23, No. 2, Spring, 1992, pp. 319-38.

[In the following excerpt, Fluck examines Uncle Tom's Cabin in terms of various definitions of sentimentalism, discussing both its cultural importance and its aesthetic limitations.]

Reacting against a long history of neglect, current revisionist studies of American literature have drawn our attention to Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin as an especially rich and powerful example of sentimentality in the novel. Such attempts to make sense of materials which critics drawing...

(The entire section is 7667 words.)

Jennifer L. Jenkins (essay date 1992)

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)

SOURCE: "Failed Mothers and Fallen Houses: The Crisis of Domesticity in Uncle Tom's Cabin, " in ESQ: A Journal of the American Renaissance, Vol. 38, No. 2, Second Quarter, 1992, pp. 161-87.

[In the following excerpt, Jenkins examines race, sexuality, and motherhood in Uncle Tom's Cabin, tracing what she contends is the collapse of Stowe's domestic plot.]

So this is the little lady who made this big war.

—Abraham Lincoln

Harriet Beecher Stowe viewed slavery primarily as a domestic issue. From her childbed she thought of it, at her kitchen table she wrote of it, and her novel...

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Further Reading

(Nineteenth-Century Literary Criticism)


Crozier, Alice C. "Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, History in the Making." In her The Novels of Harriet Beecher Stowe, pp. 3-33. New York: Oxford, 1969.

A broad analysis of themes, characters, and nineteenth-century culture that addresses the novel as a historically accurate "picture of Southern society."

Furnas, J. C. Goodbye to Uncle Tom. New York: Sloane, 1956, 435 p.

Condemns the novel for inaccurate and condescending portrayals of African Americans that have fostered the growth of twentieth-century racial stereotypes.


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