Uncle Tom’s Cabin

(Critical Guide to Censorship and Literature)

The Work

In 1851 Harriet Beecher Stowe began composing an antislavery novel that was serialized in the National Era, an antislavery journal. In 1852 the novel, which chronicles the fortunes of a kindly slave called Uncle Tom, was published in book form as Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Appearing at a time when the abolitionist movement was gaining momentum, Stowe’s novel broke the sales records of all earlier American best sellers. However, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was not widely distributed in the South and was condemned as untruthful by Southern politicians, critics, and clergymen.

In 1853 Stowe’s novel was banned in the papal states by Catholic officials in Rome, perhaps because one character in the book predicts a worldwide revolution of slaves and exploited workers. This ban led to censorship of the novel in several European countries.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin has remained a victim of censorship during the twentieth century. A 1906 Kentucky law aimed at stage versions of Stowe’s novel made it illegal to produce any play depicting antagonism between slaves and masters. Since 1950 the novel’s sharpest critics have been African Americans, who have objected to Stowe’s meek and passive protagonist. The term “Uncle Tom” has come to mean a black man who shamelessly curries favor with whites, or who sells out the interests of his own people; it is extremely pejorative. In 1954, for example, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People attempted to block a stage production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in New Haven, Connecticut. During the 1970’s, 1980’s, and 1990’s, school boards in many cities with large African American populations opposed the novel’s appearance on high school reading lists.

Bibliography:

Adams, John R. Harriet Beecher Stowe. Rev. ed. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1989. This work expands Adam’s earlier study, the first and only comprehensive analysis of the life and works of Stowe. Adams discusses recently disclosed biographical information about the Beecher family and numerous critical examinations of Stowe written in the twenty-five years since the early study was published. The author connects Uncle Tom’s Cabin to the religious ideas and personal experiences of Stowe. The volume includes an up-to-date bibliography and chronology.

Beach, Seth Curtis. Daughters of the Puritans: A Group of Brief Biographies. 1905. Reprint. Freeport, N.Y.: Books for Libraries Press, 1967. This book contains a forty-page introductory biography of Harriet Beecher Stowe, a background against which to study Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The object of the study is to show the influences that molded Stowe, to present the salient features of her career and her characteristic qualities. The selection is interesting and informative and provides background material for all readers. It can be read by high school students as well as college undergraduates.

Crozier, Alice C. The Novels of Harriet Beecher Stowe. New York: Oxford University Press, 1969. Notes that Stowe was less interested in the novel as art than in the novel as history. Traces the influence of the British writers Sir Walter Scott and George Gordon, Lord Byron. Comments on the cultural context in which the novels were written, which accounts not only for the Victorian sentimentality of Uncle Tom’s Cabin but also for a distinctively American realism that anticipates Mark Twain.

Fields, Annie. Life and Letters of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1898. The second definitive biography of Harriet Beecher Stowe after the book by her son Charles, this sympathetic portrait was written by her personal friend and professional associate who was also a celebrity in her own right. This readable biography contains many now-famous anecdotes about Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Foster, Charles H. The Rungless Ladder: Harriet Beecher Stowe and New England Puritanism. New York: Cooper Square, 1970. This study of Stowe’s inner struggle with New England Puritanism identifies what she read and how that affected her life and writings. It shows that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a product of her religious thinking and personal anguish. Stowe projects herself and her own struggles, particularly her attempt to reconcile herself with the death of one of her children, onto the novel’s characters.

Gossett, Thomas F. Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture. Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1985. This excellent, detailed book shows why Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the most widely read American novel of its time. The first section, about eighty pages long, describes the conditions that led to the creation of the book. The second section, another eighty pages, is an analysis of the book as fiction and social criticism. The remaining two hundred and fifty pages recount the reception of the book in the North, the South, and Europe; the replies; the dramatic versions; and adverse criticism. Contains extensive notes and a comprehensive bibliography.

Hedrick, Joan D. Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. A good source of information about Stowe’s career as a writer. Traces her writing of Uncle Tom’s Cabin from her initial resolve, through her decision to address the sexual exploitation of female slaves, to her effort to substantiate the novel with facts collected in A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Also mentions her work on behalf of emancipation of slaves in both America and England after publication of the novel.

Stowe, Charles Edward. The Life of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1889. This excellent biography of Harriet Beecher Stowe was compiled by her son, the Reverend Charles Edward Stowe, from her letters and journals. The authorized family biography, it contains the first printing of indispensable letters and other documents and is the foundation of all later biographies. It tells the story of the life of Harriet Beecher Stowe as she had wished and had hoped to tell it herself in her autobiography. Two later books by members of the Stowe family add additional material: Charles Edward Stowe and Lyman Beecher Stowe’s Harriet Beecher Stowe: The Story of Her Life (1941) and Lyman Beecher Stowe’s Saints, Sinners, and Beechers (1934).

Wangenknecht, Edward. Harriet Beecher Stowe: The Known and the Unknown. New York: Oxford University Press, 1965. A combination of biography and literary criticism, this book contains an accurate description of the literary and personal character of Harriet Beecher Stowe. The details are arranged topically, with chapters on Stowe as writer, reader, and reformer as well as daughter, wife, and mother.