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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...

(The entire section is 8,401 words.)