The cultural repercussions of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, are undeniable. Uncle Tom’s Cabin became one of the most widely read and profoundly penetrating books of the nineteenth century. Richard Yarborough remarked that, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the epicenter of a massive cultural phenomenon, the tremors of which still affect the relationship of blacks and whites in the United States” (Levine, 524). As a novel that impacted the American perceptions of racial identity and character so greatly, one would hope that the truth was presented. Instead, Stowe’s strikingly influential novel was a romantic racialist text, which mirrored nineteenth century white racial ideology. Uncle Tom’s Cabin, was successful in arousing sympathy for the enslaved and may have strengthened the abolitionist cause. But, ultimately Stowe’s portrayal of the enslaved paralleled the romantic racialist ideas common to her time.The doctrine of romantic racialism, as presented by George M. Fredrickson in his essay, Romantic Racialism in the North, proposes that racial differences exist without inherent hierarchy (Fredrickson, 430). In his essay, Fredrickson outlined various beliefs about the differences between blacks and whites. Caucasians on the other hand were portrayed, in romantic racialist thought, to be aggressive, domineering, and yearning to conquer (Fredrickson, 431). The submissive black was the portrayal of the typical enslaved person. The enslaved were thought to be docile, meek, faithful, and childlike. Fredrickson goes on to describe Alexander Kinmont’s views of attributes of blacks,consisting of “lightheartedness, a natural talent for music, and above all a willingness to serve” (Fredrickson, 435). This “willingness to serve”, docility, and servility were all virtues of true Christians. A Unitarian clergyman, James Freeman Clarke, stated that blacks had “a strong religious tendency, and that strength of attachment which is capable of any kind of self-denial and self-sacrifice” (Fredrickson, 436). Harriet Beecher Stowe lived in an era and location that was steeped in romantic racialist thought. Kinmont expounded the doctrine of romantic racialism in Cincinnati, Ohio while Stowe was residing in the city. Kinmont’s influence on Stowe’s racial perceptions, reflected in her writing, is undeniable.If there is any question as to whether or not the novel is a romantic racialist text, one only has to look as far as Tom, the main character. Stowe depicted Tom, the docile and pious slave, as an admirable and sympathetic character, willing to sacrifice everything for the common good, his faith, and his master. His traits resemble those in romantic racialist thought. Stowe’s depiction of Tom as a strong, kind man who also possessed a “humble simplicity” (18) falls into the classic romantic racialist characterization of blacks as simple and childlike. Tom refuses to run away upon hearing the news he had been sold by Mr. Shelby into the cruel hands of Haley, an incorrigible slave trader. He chooses not to run for the sake of the rest of the slave’s on the Shelby plantation and out of faithfulness to his master. Tom’s willingness to serve and Christian virtue are depicted throughout the novel. To reassure his wife Chloe that all will be all right, Tom says, “There’ll be the same God there, Chloe, that there is here” (Stowe, 81). Tom’s faith in God and docility does not falter even when he is betrayed by his master and torn from his family. Tom’s passivity is due to his deep religious values, which compels him to love everyone and selflessly endure great pain throughout his life. Stowe depicts the protagonist of her novel, to be a prototypical enslaved person, according to the precepts of romantic racialism. Tom is humble, docile, faithful to his masters, a perfect Christian, and submissive. His “willingness to serve” is displayed by the description of him “standing wistfully examining the multitude of faces thronging around him, for one he would wish to call master” (Stowe, 289). The novel is focused around Tom’s behavior and morals. His virtues align with romantic racialist beliefs. It is unavoidable that it is a romantic racialist text.Stowe remarks that “…of all the races on the earth, none have received the gospel with such eager docility as the African. The principle reliance and unquestioning faith…is more native in this race than any other… whose abundance has shamed that of higher and more skillful culture” (Stowe, 343). This statement epitomizes romantic racialist thinking. It provides a glimpse into the supposed internal persuasions of the enslaved — it displays a difference between whites and blacks while not belittling personal qualities of either race.Caucasian characters within the novel also reflect romantic racialist thought. Both Haley and Simon Legree posses the stereotypical characteristics attributed to white men. Haley, the slave trader that purchases Tom from Mr. Shelby, is a harsh and merciless man. He pulls the families apart with no display of emotion or sympathy and speaks of the deaths of slaves as part of business, “Wal, yes, tol’able fast, ther dying is; what with the ‘climating and one thing and another, they dies so as to keep the market up pretty brisk” (Stowe, 86). This characterization of the white slave trader parallels with the romantic racialist depiction of white males as being aggressive, dominant, and materialistic (Fredrickson, 431). Simon Legree epitomizes the typical Caucasian male, in regards to romantic racialism. Legree is driven to assert his dominance over Tom. In one of the many confrontations between the Legree and Tom, Legree angrily says, “I’ll chase you down, yet, and bring you under…” (Stowe, 339). Legree yearned to dominate Tom, but Tom’s unconquerable faith and goodwill prevented the master from doing so. In order to assert his supremacy, Legree had to kill Tom — by having him beaten to death.Female characters, within Uncle Tom’s Cabin, are also held to romantic racialist stereotypes. Aunt Chloe, Tom’s wife, is depicted as a jovial cook who loves to serve. When the readers meet this character she is described as the typical “mammy”. Stowe portrays Aunt Chloe as fat, pitch black, and that when company came to the house it “awoke all the energies in her soul” (Stowe, 17). Another “mammy” characteristic that Aunt Chloe possessed was that she was the controller in her household, as displayed when reprimanding Mose and Pete, “Stop dat ar, now, will ye? Better mind yourselves, or I’ll take ye down a button-hole lower, when Mas’r George is gone!” (Stowe, 22). The “mammy” stereotype is not the only aspect of racialism attributed to Aunt Chloe. She also is assigned the trait of being “home-loving and affectionate” (Stowe, 82). In reference to Aunt Chloe’s distraught reaction to her husbands fate, Stowe remarks, “In order to appreciate the sufferings of the negroes sold south, it must be remembered that all the instinctive affections of that race are peculiarly strong” (Stowe, 82). This is an incredibly romantic racist comment. Stowe is saying that the “instinctive affections” are unique to that race. It touches back to the romantic racialist sentiment of racial differences without inherent hierarchy (Fredrickson, 430).It is also worth noting that the only slaves who rebelled against their masters were all of mixed race descent. George and Eliza Harris, as well as Legree’s servant Cassy, all escaped to the North and rid themselves of their white oppressors. This trend of the character’s actions can be attributed to the romantic racialist stereotypes of both blacks and whites. When these two races mixed and produced mulatto offspring, these people possessed the supposed attributes of both races. Eliza had a great “willingness to serve” her mistress and was devoutly religious, as displayed when she said to her husband, “…but, after all, he is your master…I always thought that I must obey my master and mistress, or I couldn’t be a good Christian” (Eliza 14)”(Stowe, 13-14). Conversely, all three mulatto characters had the aggressive and crafty characteristics (as defined by romantic racialist doctrines) of Caucasians. The mix of these supposed traits, produced characters that Stowe depicted as rebellious and victorious.Eva, the St. Claire’s virtuous daughter is depicted as a model of acceptance and goodness. The young girl is a perfect Christian who has one of the highest moral standings among all the characters of the novel. She deplores the institution of slavery and believes in equality. After befriending Tom, Eva becomes one of the most important figures in his life. In death, Eva becomes one of the text’s central Christ figures. Eva represents all that is good and perfect. She is a true abolitionist. She is also Caucasian. The perfect character, in a novel about slavery, is white. While most of the black characters possessed characteristics of weak, docile creatures. This undermines Stowe’s aspiration for her novel to be a bold abolitionist text.Even when faced with death, “Tom stood perfectly submissive…that submissive and silent man, whom taunts, nor threats, nor stripes, nor cruelties could disturb…Tom’s whole soul overflowed with compassion and sympathy for the poor wretches by whom he was surrounded” (342). At his demise, Tom was not allowed by Stowe to shed the romantic racialist characteristics put upon himself, and his whole race. The racial stereotypes that pervaded Stowe’s novel kept it from being a bold abolitionist work. The author may have succeeded in awakening sympathy within her Northern readership, but through the portrayal of her characters she greatly misrepresented the enslaved.
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written during the period of boiling tumult that was to erupt into the Civil War, has struck it’s readers in more ways than one. Wildly popular, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was made into theatrical pieces and children’s books. Advertisers, using Uncle Tom sentiment for their own devises, employed Stowe’s unforgettable characters to sell their products. The nation was inundated with Uncle Tom. Although widely criticized by the southern press for a so-called lack of facts and over-reliance on sentiment, Stowe’s novel succeeded not only in moving people to sympathy for the enslaved but also fostered political action. The influence of her novel is great because it draws forth powerful sentiments and convinces the reader that these sentiments transcend racial differences. Stowe deftly draws from many sources of growing sentiment to do this. However, her portrayal of motherhood and her direct addresses to female readers on this topic was very powerful to 19th century mothers. Motherhood in Stowe’s time, with it’s newly evolved emotions and duties is presented by Stowe as something that can and does transcend race. No doubt envisioning her mother readers, Stowe appeals to the sentiments evoked by motherhood to present slavery as, among other things, a violation of a woman’s “divine and inherent duty” to herself, her children and her nation. This violation, as Stowe shows, in accordance with popular views of motherhood, can only lead to a population that is brutal, selfish, disobedient and unsympathetic.Mrs. Lydia Sigourney is the author of “Letters to Mothers,” an encompassing view of 19th century motherhood. Sigourney’s views were both popular and respected at the time of Stowe’s novel. At a time when children were beginning to live longer and childhood experiences and learning became more important, the duties and privileges of motherhood expanded. Letter I of Mrs. Sigourney’s publication outlines these privileges and duties. Sigourney encourages women to mold the “unformed character of their infants” (1). Only through a mother’s good influence, was it believed, could a child be able to develop into an intelligent and conscientious person.Stowe’s characters, showing from much to no maternal upbringing, are evidence of Sigourney’s conclusion. Chapter Twenty of Stowe’s novel is devoted to Topsy, a young girl of nine or ten bought by St. Clare. Topsy has known no maternal love and has suffered no pangs of sympathy for the plight of others. Her “wickedness” is great, and it is stated that she is an accomplished thief. Topsy has never cared for anyone because no one has cared for her. Like many slave children, maternal love was denied her, having been raised by a speculator on what amounted to a child-farm. Topsy wasn’t raised, but rather just “growed-up”. Slavery has created this tragic girl. Having been taken from her mother, whom Sigourney, with 19th century society, would say should have been her moral educator, Topsy is described as “so heathenish, as to inspire a good lady to utter dismay” (352). One may imagine the 19th century mother’s shock and scorn at the system which could allow this to happen.Mothers of the time were lead to believe that their duties were so great, and even divine, that denial of them was both inherently wrong and detrimental to the child and society. Topsy’s mother, having been denied the right to raise her and even to feel her child’s love, is most pitiful. Motherhood was popularized as both a duty and a privilege thought to emanate from a “Divine Source.” Sigourney goes back to ancient times to suggest that motherhood is the most natural occurrence and even holds to the terribly mistaken notion that being a mother is the most a woman can hope to be. She sites the dignity involved and compares it to “trifling amusements and selfish pleasures” which she feels only motherhood can lead away from. Although one can see the mistaken nature of these notions, one can imagine women a century ago accepting this rhetoric and living in accordance with it. Motherhood was not only one of the few things socially acceptable for a woman to be employed at, but was also dignified and extremely important. Teaching by example and influence was seen as a woman’s duty and it was repaid by the “transforming love” her children gave her. Stowe’s mothers could therefore feel for Topsy and her mother. Stowe has done an excellent job of proving to her readers that slaves have the same human sympathies and readers are called to feel for this novel’s poor women who have been denied their children, duty and privilege. Mothers who have lost young children are especially akin to the pain of slave mothers. Knowing a mother’s pain in losing a child, Stowe shows the pain wrought from a child being sold as equal, if not worse, than their death.Mothers and non-mothers alike are called to feel for Topsy and the society of people she represents. Everyone can see her “wickedness” and deduce what it is attributable to. Unlike other children, both white and black, raised with caring mothers, Topsy is disobedient and thievish. This distinction is important. Topsy is introduced to us only after we have seen the distinguished behaviors of Harry and the child-typical playful disobedience of Aunt Cloe’s children. This distinction allows readers to see that Topsy’s behavior is not racial but rather situational. Stowe shows that above all things denied Topsy as a slave, lack of a mother figure has had the greatest impact on her. Denial of a mother meant denial of mutual love. The children of Mrs. Bird obey her, not because she whips them but because they don’t want her to feel bad. Stowe shows that children obey out of mutual love and respect for their mothers. Topsy, having been denied the love of a mother is selfish and thievish and we are told that there are many others like her. Not only is this meant to be sad as it draws us into sympathy for slave mothers and children, but it also is meant to lead us to think of the slave problem in society. Instead of motherly love, many slaves were educated in “barbarism and brutality” (391). This problem is important to the North and South. Without refined sympathies in his slaves, a slaveholder can not hope to control them. The thought of this would have alerted northerners also. Even abolitionists wouldn’t have been happy with the thought of brute slaves killing their owners and escaping North. Sigourney writes of insubordination becoming a “prominent feature” in many cities and imparts upon her readers the need for “obedience – to be inculcated with increased energy, by those who have the earliest access to the mind.”Unfortunately slavery many times does not permit this to be the case. The injustice Stowe shows here is a violation of motherhood as understood by her first readers. What motherhood does and should entail according to 19th century writers like Sigourney often times was not permitted by the institution of slavery. Stowe’s success is due in a large part to her ability to draw in maternal sympathies. Called into sympathy and anger, I’m sure that many a view was changed by reading of the flagrant disregard for an institution believed to be so sacred, natural and important. The discount of which has led to a small version of society’s fear – a person educated by brutality and devoid of sympathy and morals – Stowe’s character Topsy.
While lying on her death bed, in Chapter 26 of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, little Eva says to the servants in her house who have gathered around her, “You must remember that each one of you can become angels” (418). In this chapter and the one before it, Eva has actively worked to make the people surrounding her into “angels,” taken here to mean one who is saved by God. In chapters 33 and 34 of Stowe’s book, Tom similarly works, though more quietly, to turn the other slaves at Simon Legree’s plantation into “angels.” Both of these scenes, and particularly the evangelical characters within them, reveal Stowe’s Methodist theology, a theology that rejects the predestination of earlier American Christianity. In Stowe’s theology “each one” of the people can be saved; God’s love is universal. Original sin still exists, but now an individual is given control to escape this sin by embracing God’s love. At the heart of the theology and the resultant morality that Tom and Eva evince, is a warm, knowable God, who is knowable through love, and the heart. Eva is the most explicit in explaining the dynamic between God and his people. She explains this by asking Topsy, “don’t you know that Jesus loves all alike? He is just as willing to love you, as me” (412). Earlier in the book Tom had asked a similar question to a downtrodden woman on the boat with him: “Han’t nobody never telled ye how the Lord Jesus loved ye, and died for you?” (324). God offers everyone this love, but it can only be claimed by loving God in return. Eva pleads with the people around her that they should, “pray every day,” (419) so that they can find God as she has. The way that Tom and Eva bring others to see this caring God is by acting in the same fashion as Godby loving the people around them in the same way that Jesus did. When Eva draws all of the house servants together, in an effort to convince them all to become “angels,” the first thing that she says is, “I sent for you all, my dear friends, because I love you. I love you all” (418). Like Jesus, Eva goes beyond just telling them of love, she acts upon this love by giving each servant a lock of her hair. In this act she symbolically gives of herself (her hair). While Tom is less explicit in his vocalization of love, he is somewhat more apparent than Eva in his acting out of this love. When Tom and the other slaves are in Legree’s fields, Tom, “at the risk of all that he might suffer, [came] forward again, and put all the cotton in his sack into the woman’s” (503). By giving up his own cotton Tom shows a willingness to suffer at the end of the day, when the cotton is weighed, so that the woman, Emmeline, does not have to. Tom’s thoughtless willingness to suffer so that others do not have to, makes clear the similarity between the love that Tom and Eva give, and the love that God, through Jesus, gives.When Tom and Eva give in this way, they inspire the people around them to also give. For the first few months in the St. Clare household Topsy does little other than turn everything into her ownshe takes. Miss Ophelia tells of how Topsy stole her “bonnet-trimming, and cut it all to pieces to make dolls’ jackets!” (407). But then Eva tells Topsy something that Topsy has never heard before, “O, Topsy, poor child, I love you” (409). Topsy begins to cry, and in the next few days, she immediately shows a desire to give back to Eva. A few days later Topsy brings flowers for Eva from the garden, and Eva tells her mother, “You see, mamma, I knew poor Topsy wanted to do something for me” (414). It seems that once one sees that the world can be a loving place, people like Topsy can identify a loving force behind that world. Even by watching Eva deal with Topsy, Miss Ophelia tells Topsy that, “I’ve learnt something of the love of Christ from her” (432). This loving force is thus transformative. Eva tells Topsy that if Topsy is able to love God, “He will help you to be good” (410). Before Eva causes this change in Topsy, Topsy, when asked why she behaves so badly, says, “Spects it’s my wicked heart” (408). When her behavior begins to improve after Eva reveals love to her, it is certain that her heart has been changed too. As in Calvinist theology, God’s grace transforms individuals from the inside out, but in Methodist theology, the individual can seek out God by learning how to love. These acts of love become the central element of the Methodist theology. Many of the means that dominated earlier theology are shown to be far less important than these acts of the heart. Miss Opelia attempts to convert Topsy by teaching her from the Bible; she says, “I’ve taught and taught; I’ve talked till I’m tired” (407). But as St. Clare says a few moments later, “your Gospel is not strong enough to save one heathen child” (408). The Bible is certainly not rejected as a source of truthTom takes great assurance from the Biblebut Gospel, and training in the Gospel is not truly helpful in saving people. The clergy is not even mentioned in these chapters of conversion. It is people like Eva and Tom, who are schooled in the way of the heart, who are able to help people reach God. Eva, the one who is able to show others such love, first learned about love in her own family. While her mother is not the nurturing mother that could be hoped for, her father fills the caring role. St. Clare loves Eva so much that he is sent into lifeless despondency when Eva dies. Cassy, similarly, tells Tom how she learned of love in her own childhood with a mother an father who nurtured her and allowed her to “play hide-and-go-seek, under the orange-trees, with my brothers and sisters” (516). In these days, Cassy remembers that she “used to love God and prayer” (522). The love of the family is the essential source of love in Stowe’s theology. When St. Clare finally gains his peace with God, it is accompanied by an image of his caring mother before him (456).But just as convincing as these examples of a family giving someone access to love, are those examples where a lack of family deprives someone of an understanding of love. Topsy’s inability to love stems from her belief that, “can’t nobody love niggers.” Moments later, Eva implies that this belief makes sense given that Topsy never had “any father, or mother, or friends” (409). While Cassy had understood love at a time in the past, she lost it when she lost her family. It is the moment when her children are sold that she first, “cursed God and man” (519). She loses her love of God and humanity because she is stripped of the very source of this love. Cassy’s situation brings to light the important point that just as an individual can gain grace in God’s eyes, so can he or she lose it. But the situation emphasizes the larger point that Cassy’s source of love was her family. Much of Stowe’s novel is seen as a fierce strike at slavery, but Stowe is strongest in condemning slavery because of its force in breaking up families. Cassy’s story of the breakup of her family is one of the most vividly told. She tells of how her master would taunt her every day by saying, “‘if you don’t behave reasonably, I’ll sell both the children, where you shall never see them again'” (518). We see Stowe narrating these meta-narratives so as to evoke sympathy in the reader for the characters who have been cruelly pulled away from both their families, and their source of religious faith. Stowe’s book was written soon after the death of her own child, and this traumatic experience was certainly one of the motivations behind the writing of the book. Through the death of her own child, it is probable that Stowe saw the pernicious effects of the breakup of a family, and gained sympathy for the plights of innumerable slaves. In her novel Stowe works to engender that same sense of sympathy in the reader.
Even today, with literature constantly crossing more lines and becoming more shocking, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin remains one of the most scandalous, controversial, and powerful literary works ever spilled onto a set of blank pages. Not only does this novel examine the attitudes of white nineteenth-century society toward slavery, but it introduces us to the hearts, minds and souls of several remarkable and unprecedented characters.In a time when it was quite common for a black woman to see almost all of her children die, Harriet Beecher Stowe created Eliza; a strong and powerful woman fleeing slavery and risking everything to protect her son. In Chapter Seven, we see through Eliza’s eyes, just how painful and heart wrenching her personal sacrifices are to her.”It is impossible to conceive of a human creature more wholly desolate and forlorn than Eliza, when she turned her footsteps from Uncle Tom’s cabin. Her husband’s suffering and dangers, and the danger of her child, all blended in her mind, with a confused and stunning sense of the risk she was running, in leaving the only home she had ever known, and cutting loose from the protection of a friend whom she loved and revered. “Statements like this were not simply crafted to enhance character development; they were created in an attempt to make whites see slaves as mothers, fathers, Christians, and most of all…people. The character of Tom is described as “a man of humanity” certainly not a description commonly linked to black people at that time. Tom was truly the first black hero in American fiction. However, Stowe based many of her assessments on her own reality. And while it is obvious that she very much advocated the abolition of slavery, she did not completely rise above her own racism. After all, this work was written during a time in which racial equality was incomprehensible to most whites. Therefore Stowe’s ingrained prejudices were bound to seep out occasionally, despite her positive convictions.There is a section in Chapter 30 which reads as follows:”Ah, ha! that’s right. Go it, boys, — go it!” said Mr. Skeggs, the keeper. “My people are always so merry! Sambo, I see!” he said, speaking approvingly to a burly negro who was performing tricks of low buffoonery, which occasioned the shouts which Tom had heard.”This is not only how Stowe perceived blacks to be, but how she believed they perceived themselves to be. In writing the book, Stowe drew up on her personal experiences: she was familiar with slavery, the antislavery movement, and the underground railroad because Kentucky, across the Ohio River from Cincinnatti, Ohio, where Stowe had lived, was a slave state. Her settings were often described with great accuracy and detail. She reflected an awareness of the complexity of the culture she lived in, and an ability to communicate that culture to others. However, in her commitment to realism, and her use of local dialect, Stowe intimates a sense of prejudice simply by being honest and true to her surroundings.Stowe lived during a time when many whites claimed slavery had “good effects” on blacks. Uncle Tom’s Cabin depicts three plantations, each worse than the next, where even the most strong and honorable souls can be left completely broken. There is direct evidence of this degradation in Chapter 35:”I was a fool, it’s a fact, to let any such brangle come up,” said Legree; “but, when the boy set up his will, he had to be broke in.” “I reckon you won’t break him in!””Won’t I?” said Legree, rising, passionately. “I’d like to know if I won’t? He’ll be the first nigger that ever came it round me! I’ll break every bone in his body, but he shall give up!”Uncle Tom ultimately endures a martyr’s death under the whips of Simon Legree’s overseers. This dramatic tragedy is just one of the factors that makes Uncle Tom’s Cabin one of the most influential American social protest novels ever written. Tom was a very religious man who always told people to believe in the Lord if they had problems. He was an honest and upstanding man who deserved a fate much more kind than the one bestowed upon him. By setting up scenes that depicted Tom’s true character, Stowe made his demise seem even more tragic than any death intrinsically is. For example, when Mr. Shelby, the plantation owner, instructs Tom to go across the state to deliver a large sum of money, the reader is aware that Tom could easily take the money and cross the border to Canada where he would be free. Instead, Tom delivers the money as instructed and returns to the plantation. This part of the story is far more influential in the believability of Tom’s piousness than simply stating it is a characteristic. Another excellent example of this is Simon Legree constant insistance that Tom whip another slave. Tom’s refusal resulted in his own physical suffering yet he refused to give in to Legree’s demands. When the book was written, most slave holders and owners thought that all slaves would lie and steal unless they were beaten and kept under strict supervision. Stowe attempts to disclaim this assertion throughout the novel. By twentieth-century standards, her propaganda practically verges on melodrama. However, in a time when most people sat back and accepted slavery as a way of life, Harriet Beecher Stowe portrayed it as a long, slow death. Because she dared to be different, her fame will eternally endure. She was a strong , determined and outspoken woman causing controversy in a time when women were supposed to be “seen and not heard”. She was scorned and ridiculed in the South because of her protestations of slavery, yet she held her head high and remained true to her beliefs. She was an author who expressed her hatred for slavery in powerfully descriptive words and themes. Yet she was also a woman, a wife and a mother who was forced to try to balance her home life with her careera problem not at all uncommon in today’s society. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was revolutionary in 1852 for its passionate documentation the tragic breakup of black Kentucky families “sold down the river.” Its political impact was immense, and its emotional influence immeasurable. Yet, it has been labeled racist and condescending by some contemporary critics. Perhaps the question, “Is man ever a creature to be trusted with wholly irresponsible power?” applies to literary critics as well.
“Is this the little lady who started the great war?” said Abraham Lincoln during his first meeting with Harriet Beecher Stowe. The reaction of one of America’s most celebrated president is a clear demonstration of the effectiveness of Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Harriet Beecher Stowe is an effective author, proven by her addressing the reader directly and her uses of allegorical stories to bring forth a clear and convincing argument and prove the unjust doings slaves were subjected to. Lincoln’s reaction was partly because of Stowe shattering the semblance of reality by directly addressing the reader, also known as breaking verisimilitude. The first reason this makes Stow and effective author is because she is able to force her audience to put themselves in the shoes of the characters. There are several times in the story Stowe does this.
One of the many time’s Stowe breaks verisimilitude is when she questions the readers maternal instincts. As Eliza is running desperately to protect Harry, her son, from the claws of malicious slave traders, Stowe asks the readers what extent they would go if it were one of their kids, “If it were your Harry, mother, or your Willie, that were going to be torn from you by a brutal trader, to-morrow morning…how fast could you walk? How many miles could you make in those few brief hours, with the darling at your bosom,—the little sleepyhead on your shoulder,—the small, soft arms trustingly holding on to your neck?” (Stowe 80). Here, Stowe blatantly breaks verisimilitude. She uses this literary tactic in order to force the reader to empathize with Eliza and Henry. In this example specifically, she is reaching towards mothers and those with maternal instincts. By putting a quote such as this in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Harriet Beecher Stowe gives readers no choice but to put themselves in Eliza’s shoes and feel with her, despite racial differences. As readers understand the unjust treatment of slaves, they will in turn understand what needs to be done to undo the wrongs.
In the final concluding remarks of Stowe’s novel, she forces readers to question their morals by again disturbing verisimilitude. She asks her readers a series of questions regarding what they truly know and believe to be morally right. “Does not every American Christian owe to the African race some effort at reparation for the wrongs that the American Nation has brought upon them?” (Stowe 507) In Stowe’s last chapter, she directly addresses her audiences, calling them to action. After having given insight to the lives of slaves, Stowe is forcing people to question themselves and whether or not they truly believe their doings are right and just. Many members of her audience would answer no to those questions.
Perhaps it was Stowe’s breaches in verisimilitude which caused her to elicit the reaction she did from Abraham Lincoln when they first met. “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that made this great war” (Abraham Lincoln). Although speculations are about as to whether or not Mr. Lincoln himself said this exact thing, it is a quote which the public has accepted, and it demonstrates the great impact Uncle Tom’s Cabin had on American Society. The Civil war had a irreversible impact on American Culture. If a book can lead to such a war, is it even possible for one to argue the author of said book wasn’t effective?
By breaking verisimilitude, Stowe is able to reach out to the audience and give the readers no choice but it empathize with the characters. When the audience is able to feel what the slaves do, they are also able to better understand how desperately something needs to change. The irreversible effect of Uncle Tom’s Cabin on society is obvious as one of America’s greatest presidents, effortlessly points out.
The next way Stowe reaches out to her readers is by using allegorical stories. These are symbolic stories which readers are more familiar with. Stowe knew and understood that her audience was made up of mainly Christians, so her allegories are also mainly biblical references. She is able to clarify themes and ideas within the allegories.
One of the first allegories Stowe uses is the crossing of the Ohio/Jordan river. As Eliza enters a village with her dear Harry, she sets her sights on a symbolic river. “An hour before sunset, she entered the village of T——, by the Ohio river, weary and footsore, but still strong in heart. Her first glance was at the river, which lay, like Jordan, between her and the Canaan of liberty on the other side” (Stowe 83). The Ohio river in this situation represents the biblical Jordan River. In Christian beliefs, Joshua led his people across the river to freedom. This particular scene where Eliza leaps and bounds over the Ohio river is an allegory for the Jordan river crossing. By comparing Eliza to Joshua, and the Jordan River to the Ohio river, it is, for well versed Christians (most of Stowe’s audience at the time), bringing out a theme of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Just as Joshua’s love for his people as unbreakable, so was Eliza’s for Henry. She was willing to risk her life to save her child and the strong motherly love present in all races alike. By comparing her to a holy figure, Stowe is demonstrating the nobility of Eliza’s river crossing.
Another way Stowe uses allegory, is through the angelic Eva. Eva is sitting in her bed inches from death, when decides to give a part of her to her slaves, “I’m going to give all of you a curl of my hair; and, when you look at it, think that I loved you and am gone to heaven, and that I want to see you all there” (Stowe 408 ). Eva cutting her hair distributing it among the slaves is an allegory of the Breaking of the Bread at The Last Supper. Eva is symbolic of an Jesus or an angel, while the slaves are representative of the disciples of Jesus. Again, by comparing characters to holy figures, Stowe is bringing out theme and demonstrating the nobility of the characters. Evangeline St. Clare loves everybody and believes all to be equal, and because of this trait, she is symbolic of an angel. By having such holy figure against slavery, slavery must be wholly wrong.
Tom is another good example of Stowe using allegory. As Tom sits on his deathbed, Sambo and Quimbo come to a revelation, “‘Why didn’t I ever believe in this Jesus before?” said Sambo, ‘But I do believe – I can’t help it; Lord Jesus have mercy on us!’” (Stowe 471). This final allegory is representative of the story of Jesus converting the two sinners while on the cross. Just as Tom was about to be crucified (die from Legree’s beatings) he converts two sinners into a life a Christianity. By including this allegory in the story, Stow is demonstrating that slaves aren’t bad through and through. The allegory shows how anyone can be converted to good just be being shown love.
Abraham Lincoln, arguably the nation’s greatest and wisest president, attributed Stowe to the start of the Civil War. Harriet Beecher Stowe is an effective author because she breaks verisimilitude and uses allegorical stories to elicit the strong reaction she did from her readers, as well as starting a nation wide war.
Of the two modern critical objections to Uncle Tom’s Cabin – sentimentality and intrusive narrator – the first one is accurate while the latter objection is disingenuous; however, both criticisms belie the overtly political nature of the book. In cultural and literary history, tastes change and critical standards change. Shakespeare was sharply criticized and dismissed in the neo-classicists and embraced by the Romantics. Zora Neale Hurston’s literary reputation was revived by Alice Walker after decades as an obscure apolitical Harlem Renaissance writer. Consequently, everything in this essay will be from a 2013 perspective which is will contain the cultural biases of the 21st century. These biases have been informed by modern literature, particularly the works of Hemingway and Raymond Carver that have emphasized control and economy over sentimentality and intrusive narration.
Of the two major “sins” of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the easiest one to defend is the intrusive narrator. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s narrative style involves a narration that is omniscient but also intrusive since it makes judgments about characters, sees things from individual character perspectives and ensures that the reader fully appreciates the episodes. This may seem intrusive from a modern perspective, since many contemporary writers use either first person narratives or limited perspectives where everything is from one character’s perspective. Even in books that tell stories on large canvases like George R.R. Martin’s fantasy series A Song of Ice and Fire use limited perspectives, changing the perspective to suit the story.
For various reasons, the shift away from universal narrative to limited perspective (or first person) is not necessarily a foregone conclusion. First, writers did not throw out the universal narrative so much as stop using it in books. Film and theatrical productions are usually omniscient and the voiceover represents an intrusive narrator. Second, every book has a degree of intrusive narration. In the modern era, that intrusive narration is less overt, but it’s unavoidable. Every choice that the author makes is an example of intrusive narration. In modern literature, the author is less inclined to tell the reader everything; however, there is almost always an agenda. In Samuel Delaney’s Triton the galactic war between the Earth and the outer moons is ostensibly the plot; yet Delaney keeps it firmly in the background until a character tells the protagonist what happened in a 2-page monologue. This is purposefully drawing the reader’s attention away from the war and towards the psycho-social world of group marriages, easy transgender operations and anarchic art. Other authors continue to use the intrusive narration, mostly notably Milan Kundera who stops the story every few pages to speculate on what everything means.
In this context, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s use of the omniscient intrusive narrator may seem off-putting to a modern reader; however, it is still a valid way of telling a story. Furthermore, Uncle Tom’s Cabin has an agenda and as modern readers, we understand that the agenda is going to be served by the narration where the author tells us what to think.
However, sentimentality is an issue that is less defensible in a modern perspective. Even though 19th century literature has a great deal of sentimentality, the convention of using sentimentality has gone out of favor to the point that it feels manipulative to use sentimentality. Many writing guides will tell amateur writers that sentimentality is the worst crime a modern writer can commit, defining sentimentality as the attempt of a writer to force an emotional reaction from the reader that isn’t organically coming from the characters themselves.
The characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin are mostly symbolic and they aren’t fully realized people with passions and faults. They are either villains or heroes and if they are heroes, they are completely decent. The death of Eva is very reminiscent of the death of Little Nell from The Old Curiosity Shop since it is written to make the reader cry. Eva is the innocent angel, the Christ figure, who dies with the most bathetic scene telling everyone that she loves them and having sudden bursts of feeling. With all of the talk of heavenly love and redemptive power of belief, it is still hard to forget that this scene is in the service of a plot twist that will see Uncle Tom being sold to Simon Lagree. Eva is merely the catalyst for the tragic last third of the novel where Uncle Tom’s completely saintly demeanor is tested and he is beaten to death.
The problem with sentimentality as Stowe uses it is the fact that the feeling of death is never explored. The death scenes are symbolic and full of statements about forgiveness and love, yet they are not emotional in a way that the reader can relate to them. Eva is a dying child and while dead children are sad, the very fact that she is a dying child is manipulation. The characters never have the kind of agency that modern readers want out of their characters. Uncle Tom and Eva might as well be holding up signs that say “Feel sad. I’m going to die!” They are too perfect to function as human beings and their perfection undercuts their characters.
In essence, literary critics are judging books from a 21st century perspective and some criticisms may have more to do with the current biases than any objective standards. However, books are classics because they can leave an impression that goes beyond their time periods, not so much because they are universal, but because the cultural signifiers are not as important as the overall impact. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the historical impact outweighs literary merit. Even though an intrusive narrator is merely un-stylish, the element of sentimentality is an element that drags the book into a place where telling the reader what to feel trumps allowing these feelings to come organically from characters that the writer makes the reader care about. As a historical document, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a triumph. However, the sentimentality of Uncle Tom’s Cabin keeps it from being a literary classic.
March 20th, 1852 was an important day for the United States of America. Harriet Beecher Stowe finally published her much debated story, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, on this exact date. Recent stringent changes in fugitive slave laws had inspired the creation of this anti-slavery novel. The author described the story as a series of sketches depicting slave life on a plantation. Uncle Tom, Arthur Shelby, and Emily Shelby are the central characters of this story. Uncle Tom is a very religious black man who prays to God regularly to help keep his spirits high in his sufferings as a slave. Although there seems to be a large prevalence of religion as the main theme of the novel, there is an assembly of others that include race, gender, and oppression. This novel served as a cry for help to support abolitionism through the use of rhetorical devices and dramatic story-telling. After this novel was published, the beginning of the American Civil War followed nine years later. It has been a popular belief among historians that Stowe’s controversial novel was a final tipping point that brought our country into the American Civil War. During this time period, southerners held strong disgust for the novel and author. Uncle Tom’s Cabin not only serves as a piece of American history, but also a reminder that literature can have impacts on society far greater than imagined. This essay will discuss the impact of Uncle Tom’s Cabin to provide historical background all while giving credit to a story whose characters and plot grasped readers’ minds and refused to let go.
Around the time that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was released, the United States of Americas was rapidly evolving. During the decade of the 1850s, the United States of America grew in both size and socioeconomic problems. Franklin Pierce became the fourteenth president of the United States, the Fugitive Slave Act was enacted, and the National Women’s Rights Convention was held in Massachusetts (Unsigned, History). Yet the 1860s would be defined by the American Civil War that took place from 1861 to 1865. Scholar Edward B. Rugemer discusses the five important causes that contributed to the war between 1850 and 1865. The first major problem in America began with the difference between northern and southern culture. Due to the cash crop, cotton, the south relied on plantations and this led to white male slave owners ruling the top of the social hierarchy (Rugemer 56). The north did not endorse slavery (thus no plantations), which allowed for the culture of the people in this area to flourish in a variety of industrial professions, leading to a diverse range of citizens. The second major problem was the complicated distribution of federal and state rights that arose from the Articles of the Confederation and the US Constitution (Rugemer 58). The third problem that sparked the Civil War was the Compromise of 1850. This document created an imbalance in the distribution of slave and free states in America (Rugemer 60-61). Abolitionism became the fourth reason for the Civil War (Rugemer 62). Rising tensions over slavery began a culture clash between northern and southern citizens. Finally, the election of president Abraham Lincoln contributed to the genesis of the American Civil War (Rugemer 64). Lincoln’s progressive antislavery views had many supporters, yet just as many opponents. This huge split in reception regarding Lincoln’s presidency resulted in the American people hating for their own brethren. During the span of these five major events, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was released. This story became wildly popular amongst the American people since the novel’s content directly correlated with what was happening in the real world at the time.
To understand how one story could cause as much controversy as Uncle Tom’s Cabin did, it is essential to understand how the book was released and what critics said about the novel. Harriet Beecher Stowe was an already successful author before Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s release, having published Mayflower as her first novel. Uncle Tom’s Cabin did not begin as a full length published novel. Susan Belasco explains that Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote the story in serial installments and published them in an antislavery newspaper called the National Era (Belasco 319). Eventually, as readers learned about the story, it was published in novel form a year later in March of 1852. Once the novel was for sale, it sold approximately three-hundred thousand copies in less than half a year. Many states in the South banned the novel. During this time period, the bestseller went on to be read by people outside of the United States as well and became the second-best selling published novel in history (second to The Bible). In the wake of its publication, numerous responses from various authors were written including anti-Uncle Tom’s Cabin novels. Examples of the anti-Tom novels included Aunt Phillis’s Cabin and Southern Life as It Is (Belasco 319). These versions of original text would change story lines, eliminate characters, and parody. The popularity of the novel would be beneficial in awakening the United States of America of its racist ways.
Following the release of the novel, critics were split on their reactions to the novel. Some critics of the novel praised Stowe’s incorporation of religious undertones in the story and her portrayal of Tom and Eva as endearing characters. National Era Magazine stated that, “So great and good a thing has Mrs. Stowe here accomplished for humanity, for freedom, for God, that we cannot refrain from applying to her sacred words” (Unsigned, Bailey). For many readers of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, attention was drawn to the novel when anti-Tom novels and novel responses referenced the story, making potential readers interested in reading what this controversial story contained. As time passed, there were eventually three versions of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel. There was the serialization, the Norton edition, and the “Splendid Edition” (Belasco 322). The only things that differed in these stories were occasional one-word translations in certain passages that contained dialogue between characters. The instant fame and popularity of Stowe’s novel gave her financial success and reassurance that her story was effective in informing people about abolitionism. All of the attention brought to Uncle Tom’s Cabin acted as propaganda. Regardless of praise or criticism, the novel’s message of abolitionism was spread across the country and tensions began to run high.
The way that Uncle Tom’s Cabin is crafted has to do significantly with the way Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote the novel. She was after all an author associated with the American Renaissance, which explains her style of effective dramatic writing. The culture’s new ideas and ways of thinking inspired many authors to translate this into their writing, something Harriet Beecher Stowe accomplished. In specific terminology, she was a popular sentimental writer. According to Dr. Ashley Reed, these sentimental stories involved family relationships, religious conversion, and moral development (Reed). All of these concepts are themes that are prevalent in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The novel is infused with a myriad of social problems, yet the ideas of relationships, religion, and race resonate in Stowe’s work. Scholar Curtis Evans dissects the novel to understand the author’s ways of bringing attention to her call to action. He expresses that the emotion of doubt acts as a character in the novel. Doubt plagues Tom’s Christianity and the peace between blacks and whites (Evans 498). Another way Stowe appealed to readers was through the use of extreme racial stereotypes to disturb readers. As an example of this, Stowe describes blacks as “unlike the hard and dominant Anglo-Saxon race” (Stowe xiii) to grab attention. In terms of religion, Tom and Eva are used as Christ-like figures in the story to appeal to Christian readers (Evans 498). Depicting mistreatment of innocent slaves brought readers to their feet and made them want to end slavery in their Anglo-Saxon environment. As the story progresses, there is a bond created between the readers and characters. This creation of an emotional attachment is vital to Stowe’s call to action. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s role as one of the leading faces of the abolitionist movement could possibly be due to the fact that her past experiences were relatable for many readers of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. While her story of slavery brought a nation to its feet, the story of the inspiration behind the novel could also explain the novel’s success. Thomas Hagood explains that the child characters Eva and Topsy were influenced by the death of Stowe’s infant Samuel Charles Stowe. The pain and agony of losing a loved one was one key event that sparked the idea of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Because she had a connection with death, Stowe’s goal was to eradicate the harsh treatment of slaves and to “motivate Southern readers to ‘introduce into our system the law of kindness’” (Hagood). Another startling fact that made the idea of slavery too unbearable for readers was the fact that the novel was inspired by and contained many true stories (Reed). In film or text, when readers are told the story is inspired by true events, it creates logos for the reader to be persuaded by. In the case of abolitionism, the knowledge that slavery plagued innocent people meant that Americans needed to eradicate this practice. As people rallied behind a woman who had witnessed unsettling acts, the army of abolitionism continued to grow and sparked the beginnings of a civil war.
The emotional connection that readers felt towards the story’s characters are all due to the literary techniques Harriet Beecher Stowe employed in her novel. Even though Uncle Tom’s Cabin was officially banned in the Southern states of America, the novel was read across the country due to the sympathy Stowe built for the characters in the novel. These characters became icons in the pre-Civil War era. Harriet Beecher Stowe used rhetorical strategies, persuasion techniques, and writing style to get audiences to support the novel’s oppressed characters. Direct address and apostrophes are used in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which were two literary techniques that were popular in this time period (Reed). Motifs are also incorporated in the story through the images of dead children, fugitive slavery, and grieving mothers. These motifs caused readers to feel uncomfortable, but still drew them into the story. Stowe infused persuasion techniques into her novel. The incorporation of whites and blacks reading, praying and supporting each other establishes a pathos appeal to emotion for readers. Barbara Hochman notes that as blacks read The Bible in the story, it creates a sense of an ethos ethical appeal for audiences that realize that slaves are capable of holding spiritual beliefs and having literacy (Hochman 118-121). In reading such a racist novel, some readers would have been very offended, but the dramatic characterization in the novel helped to reveal the negativity and stigma of slavery in America. Stowe’s writing style of the novel was of the sentimentalism literary genre. Kevin Pelletier states that, “The quintessence of nineteenth-century sentimentalism, Uncle Tom’s Cabin predicates its anti-slavery politics on the belief that each reader can learn to sympathize with and ultimately come to love America’s slaves…love is central to Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (Pelletier 266). This sentimentalism infused into the novel really plays on the idea of what people’s emotions can persuade them to do. By writing a sentimentalist novel, audiences can form a deep connection to the story and be persuaded to commit the novel’s call to action. The impact of the putting all of these elements into Uncle Tom’s Cabin make for characters that audiences think about for generations to come.
In a visual outlook on Uncle Tom’s Cabin, publishers made abolitionism the prime focus on the front covers of the novel. While the inside pages were filled with controversy and commotion, the outside covers of the novel were just as contentious. The images depicted on the differing editions of the novel made potential readers of the novel judge the book by its covers. Exploring the visual archaeology of Uncle Tom’s Cabin reveals that there was a plethora of concepts that publishers used to advertise the novel. Samuel and Tara Fee both discover that the first edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin contained a cover with multiple slaves in front of a cabin. This represented the theme of home in the novel, which made readers associate their families with Tom’s, creating an emotional connection for potential buyers of the book (Fee 41). Another issue of the novel had a cover depicting Christ preaching to injured slaves. This image of Christ and his followers promoted one of the main arguments in the novel regarding the importance of religion (Fee 42-43). The third and final issue of Uncle Tom’s Cabin had a very simplistic cover with no pictures. On the cover, the words “245,000 Copies Already Published in America” were printed directly under the title (Fee 45). This advertisement displayed that the novel had much success and encouraged potential readers to give in to buying, reading, and eventually endorsing a popular American story. The imagery of abolitionism was thus another driving force of the novel. The different imagery amongst the designs challenged traditional ideas of literary and textual interpretation. By doing so, it opened a door for new found freedom of expression.
As the popularity of literature increased, so did the popularity of the theatre during the era of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. While the physical text of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s famous novel provided many citizens of America with an insight into the abolitionist movement, many people tend to neglect theatrical portrayals of the novel. During the antebellum period, theatre could offer entertainment and politics all wrapped up in one show. There were people who wanted to learn more about the story, but were not literate. Tom Robson notes that some women were more drawn to the idea of theatre than they were to reading. Live adaptations had the advantage of “capitalizing on mid-century women’s interest in moral reform dramas” (Robson). In this time period, there were groups of people who disliked reading and refused to pick up a large novel to read in its entirety. Theatre was the perfect solution for those less ambitious readers. Different stage acts based on Uncle Tom’s Cabin were more faithful to the text than others. These acts of theatre had aspects which, “advocated social change and resisted it” all at the same time (Robson). This means that the content in the plays was so controversial that it could be seen as helping or hurting Harriet Stowe’s call to action. Luckily for Stowe’s novel, the agenda for the story was still clear: advocate social justice to all slaves by showing the harsh social treatment. The live-action depiction of slavery and its hardships persuaded believers in slavery to realize the harshness of their actions.
While it has been argued that Stowe’s novel acts as a propaganda piece, readers of Stowe’s novel would have been able to form their own opinion on abolitionism and select their political views from there. In a historical sense, Uncle Tom’s Cabin depicted what had been going on in America for hundreds of years. The book was able to simulate a background of slavery, but in a dramatic context. Spread of word-of-mouth helped to bring attention to the story. In the social aspect of the novel, readers had the ability to digest the story and discuss it with friends if they chose to do so. Finally, the text itself was lengthy and provided challenges for some people who had weak or nonexistent reading skills. The novel acted as a way for people to learn about the English language and broaden their vocabulary usage all while broadening their methods of communication. Not only did the novel succeed in alarming the American people about the harshness of slavery, but also improving literacy in Antebellum citizens.
Analyzing the motivations and history behind the influential work that is Uncle Tom’s Cabin is not an easy task. This novel’s socio-political agenda received much praise, but still caused some critics to express their concern. Literature has the impact to do more than describe a story and teach people new vocabulary words. Literature has the chance to improve the education of a people and better society as a whole. The famous quote from Abraham Lincoln regarding Harriet Beecher Stowe that states, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war” resonates because it was the first time a woman had catalyzed public debate in the country regarding slavery (Unsigned, History). Harriet Beecher Stowe wanted to end the oppression caused by slavery in America. Her ultimate goal was to reveal the harshness people suffered and attain supporters. By doing this, all the techniques she contributed to her novel were put to noble use. While some actions speak louder than words, the words of Uncle Tom’s Cabin spoke loud and actions soon followed.
Works Cited Belasco, Susan. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin in our Time.” Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers 29.2 (2012): 318-28. Web. Evans, C. “The Chief Glory of God [is] in Self-Denying, Suffering Love!”: True Religion in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Journal of Religion 92.4 (2012): 498-514. Web. Fee, Samuel B., and Tara R. Fee. “Visual Archaeology: Cultural Change Reflected by the Covers of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Journal of Visual Literacy 31.2 (2012): 35. Web. Hagood, Thomas Chase. “‘Oh, what a Slanderous Book’: Reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the Antebellum South.” Southern Quarterly 49.4 (2012): 71-93. Web. Hochman, Barbara. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Reading Revolution.” Kritikon Litterarum 39.1-2 (2012): 117. Web. Pelletier, K. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Apocalyptic Sentimentalism.” LIT-LITERATURE INTERPRETATION THEORY 20.4 (2009): 266-87. Web. Reed, Ashley. “The American Renaissance 1820-1860.” English 2534. Virginia Tech, Blacksburg. Feb.-Mar. 2016. Lecture. Robson, Tom. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the American Stage and Screen by John W. Frick (Review).” Theatre Journal 66.1 (2014): 172-3. Web. Rugemer, Edward B. “Explaining the Causes of the American Civil War, 1787-1861.” Reviews in American History 37.1 (2009): 56–68. Web. Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1918. Web. Unsigned. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin Is Published.” History.com. A&E Television Networks. Web. Unsigned (Gamaliel Bailey). “Literary Notices.” The National Era 22 April 1852. Uncle Tom’s Cabin & American Culture. Web. 26 Apr 2016.
Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin in reaction to her own epiphany concerning the immorality of slavery, which accompanied the passing of the Fugitive Slave Law. Indeed, she developed a novel worthy of protest literature. With each character and scene depicted throughout the book, Stowe leaves no stone unturned as she appoints blame for the immoral situation across the United States. The author’s use of a character from the North, Miss Ophelia, aids in the novel’s ability to effectively protest slavery as well as the deep-seated prejudice against blacks in America. Miss Ophelia acts as an effective example of the validity of Stowe’s argument that it is not the solely the responsibility of the South to eliminate the system of slavery, but also that of the North.
Miss Ophelia St. Clare is, without a doubt, the most complicated female character in the novel. She is Mister St. Clare’s pious, hardworking, abolitionist cousin from the North and she is educated, independent, ambitious, and motivated by a certain sense of duty. Since she is single, and beyond marrying age, she agrees to accompany Mr. St. Clare to his Louisiana home to care for his daughter Evangeline and attend to the housekeeping while his wife Marie St. Clare is “ill.” The reader first begins to develop a relationship with Miss Ophelia as she arrives in the South and meets the servants on the St. Clare plantation. She states that she is horrified by little Eva’s ability to kiss African Americans as she “afterwards declared fairly turned her stomach” (193). Miss Ophelia admits that she is prejudiced when she says to Mr. St. Clare, “Well, I want to be kind to everybody, and I wouldn’t have anything hurt; but as to kissing-“ (193) she claims she could never bring herself to come in such close personal contact with a slave. Even though she considers herself an abolitionist, Miss Ophelia is still prejudiced against blacks. Readers might initially respect Ophelia’s work ethic and devotion to principle as they follow her around the St. Clare home where she “in a few days, thoroughly reformed every department of the house to a systematic pattern” (236), but Stowe uses her to satirize the subtle racism of the North. Stowe seems to think that there were many people like Miss Ophelia who did not like slavery but could not think of blacks as people. She is able to write about such problems through Miss Ophelia. The author recognized that many Northerners were eager to tell the South how to handle the institution of slavery and quick to condemn Southern practices, but those same Northerners were often unwilling to personally interact with blacks. For example, upon hearing the story of Prue’s life and death, Miss Ophelia interrogates St. Clare, “Thought so! –an’t you going to do anything about it? Haven’t you got any selectmen, or anybody, to interfere and look after such matters?” (244), but she does not actually intend to do anything about it herself. It seems to be Stowe’s opinion that too many abolitionists want the slaves to be freed, but sent away or otherwise kept at a distance. In other words, they are content with black people as long as they aren’t required to meet any of them personally. Stowe has pointed out that the abolitionists of the North are also racist and uses the character of Miss Ophelia to symbolize the hypocrisy of the Northerners in regards to slavery in the South.
On various occasions, Miss Ophelia discusses slavery with Marie and Mr. St. Clare. She questions them as to why they keep slaves and reminds them of their Christian duty in regards to the treatment and education of their slaves. During her first conversation with Marie concerning the servants, she asks, “Don’t you believe that the lord made them of one blood with us…Don’t you think they’ve got immortal souls?” (201). She is especially curious as to why Mr. St. Clare continues to keep slaves despite the fact that he believes doing so to be wrong. Miss Ophelia even goes so far as to divulge her own philosophy on the treatment of slaves: “You ought to educate your slaves, and treat them like reasonable creatures, — like immortal creatures, that you’ve got to stand before the bar of God with. That’s my mind” (204). Eventually, St. Clare gives Miss Ophelia a young slave girl to educate, Topsy. The woman’s initial repulsion at the sight of Topsy can be viewed as a criticism of the hypocrisy of Christians. “–Something [about her appearance], as Miss Ophelia afterwards said, ‘so heathenish,’ as to inspire that good lady with utter dismay” (261). At first, she is unsure about taking part in the upbringing of a slave girl, but she soon decides that it’s her duty: “’Well, it might be real missionary work,’ said she, looking rather more favorably on the child” (262). It is a strange experiment in which St. Clare teaches Ophelia about slavery by giving her a slave of her own. St. Clare allows Miss Ophelia to educate and treat Topsy according to her own philosophy without any interference.
While Miss Ophelia is teaching Topsy how to make a bed in the manner that she prefers, she catches Topsy stealing and demands a confession. However, she is horrified to learn that Topsy will lie even in confessing to things she hadn’t actually done, “Why, Missis said I must ‘fess; and I couldn’t think of nothin’ else to ‘fess” (268). Later, Miss Ophelia is humbled when Topsy admits that she knows Miss Ophelia can’t stand to love her or be touched by her even though little Eva is able to: “No; she can’t bar me, ‘cause I’m a nigger! -she’d soon have a toad touch her!” (302). In the course of her interactions with Topsy, Ophelia learns the difficulties involved in teaching slaves who have been brutalized and subjugated their whole lives. She also quickly discovers her own secret racism, “I’ve always had a prejudice against Negroes… and it’s a fact, I never could bear to have that child touch me; but I don’t think she knew it” (302). Miss Ophelia attempts to do the best she can in teaching Topsy household skills and the catechism, but is in reality entirely disgusted by the little girl and hates touching her. As a result, all of her strict discipline fails. The child only begins to change when little Evangeline offers Topsy her unconditional love.
It becomes clear that, aside from her personal contradictions, Miss Ophelia is truly an honest woman. She realizes where she is in the wrong, understanding that Evangeline’s innocent love has succeeded in curbing Topsy’s wild ways where all her stern discipline has failed: “Well, she’s so loving! After all, though, she’s no more than Christ-like… I wish I were like her. She might teach me a lesson” (303). Topsy is rendered despondent after Evangeline passes away because the only person who has ever shown her love and kindness is gone, and Miss Ophelia promises that she will try to love her: “Topsy, you poor child,’ she said, as she led her into her room, ‘don’t give up! I can love you, though I am not like that dear little child. I hope I’ve learnt something of the love of Christ from her. I can love you; I do, and I’ll try to help you grow up a good Christian girl” (317). It is in that moment that she wins Topsy’s heart.
Miss Ophelia demands that St. Clare fill out the paperwork necessary to sign Topsy over to her in order to secure Topsy immediately as Ophelia’s legal property. She declares that she wishes to eventually take Topsy back to New England and make her a free woman: “I want her mine, that I may have a right to take her to the free states, and give her her liberty, that all I am trying to do be not undone” (326). After St. Clare’s untimely death, Miss Ophelia returns to Vermont with Topsy in tow; the young girl becomes a pious, dedicated member of a Christian community in the North, and eventually a missionary. Miss Ophelia finally becomes a true Christian as her attitude towards Topsy changes. She recognizes the evil of a system that inflicts such emotional and physical damage on human beings such as Topsy. Stowe’s message to her Christian readers becomes clear; they are hypocrites until they realize that allowing slavery to exist in their country is a reprehensible sin.
In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Miss Ophelia clearly comes to represent “the very best of Northern people” as she is the only Northerner to take a focal role throughout the novel. In other words, she stands for those who pride themselves on being virtuous, hardworking, and clean of conscience. However, Stowe displays these people as somewhat harsh and lacking love or warmth. They insist on following a strict moral code, but do not do so in a kind or loving manner. As an example, Miss Ophelia is a Christian, but not Christ-like the way Tom and Eva are. She relies on her rationalized thoughts rather than her emotions to make decisions about her life and political beliefs.
Miss Ophelia’s character also functions in the story in another important way, by demonstrating how slavery threatens women’s household concerns. The scene where Miss Ophelia attempts to reorganize and set Marie St. Clare’s house in order becomes pivotal in understanding Stowe’s vision for a morally correct universe. In Stowe’s world, slavery was wrong because it was an outrage on the family life. Just as the waste in Dinah’s kitchen offends Miss Ophelia’s sense of an appropriately organized household, so slavery offends her morality. As a result of Miss Ophelia’s character, it can be argued that kitchens become a metaphor for social conditions in the North and South. In Ophelia’s mind, kitchens in the North are an epitome of economy and cleanliness, corresponding to the North’s moral stance on slavery. However, in the South, kitchens appear to be disorganized and wasteful just like the institution of slavery, which is bound to be ultimately destructive for everyone involved in it. It can then be said that Stowe used the character of Miss Ophelia to link the political sphere with the domestic sphere. She effectively confronts not only the government in the South, but also the households of the North. Stowe was aware that her audience would be primarily white women, and she effectively plays on their feelings of uneasiness and guilt over the treatment of slaves. With the help of the character Miss Ophelia, she is able to specifically address the Northern white women who could help with the abolitionist movement, but don’t believe that they can make a difference. Stowe used Ophelia’s condemnation of the slavery system to show Northern women that others feel the same guilt and doubt about the institution.
Miss Ophelia St. Clare effectively helps Stowe to make her protest against slavery. This character allows Stowe to address white Northern women by practically placing them in her novel alongside the characters in other strands of the narrative. Miss Ophelia’s revelation, inspired by Evangeline and Topsy towards the end, is the revelation that Stowe is begging her readers to undergo. Miss Ophelia validates Harriet Beecher Stowe’s arguments as an educated Christian woman in favor of not just abolition, but equality as well.
In considering how Stowe represents gender, it must be foregrounded that men and women inhabited different sectors within nineteenth century American society. Males belonged almost exclusively to a public world of work, whilst females were restricted to a private sphere within the home. Different characteristics that were stereotypically attached to gender- compassion and domesticity in women, and control and chaotic violence in men- can thus be accountable to the different spheres they belonged to. Additionally, we cannot examine how Stowe approaches gender as a singular concept; both masculinity and femininity are challenged through their synthesis with other concepts such as religion and slavery. A person’s gender is thus labelled according to which antithetical sphere their characteristics align most accurately to. Therefore, Stowe does not approach gender biologically, but instead socially in accordance with what is expected of both men and women within society.
Through assumptions within American society of both male and female attributes, Uncle Tom can be seen as “feminine” through not completely fulfilling the expectations of American masculinity. Throughout Uncle Tom’s Cabin Or, Life Among the Lowly, Tom inhabits the world of slavery where the owners are predominantly incapable of religion. Characterisation of behaviour is thus based mainly on gender. Therefore, when Tom displays Christian attributes such as compassion and unconditional love, he can only be described as “feminine” through the source of these emotions being typically female. This expectation of gender is not only contextual, but is constructed within the novel: nurture and guidance stems naturally from female characters such as Eva and Rachel Halliday, whilst little but chaos and harm are caused by the patriarchal influence of Legree and Mr Shelby. Therefore, to examine the construction of gender through Christianity, Tom’s interaction with a male figure must be considered. Despite Legree being possibly the most cruel slave owner, Tom vows that: ““if taking every drop of blood in this poor old body would save your precious soul, I’d give ‘em freely, as the Lord gave his for me.” Whilst a feminine submission seems apparent through ‘[giving]’ physical strength to another, this act is elevated in presenting Tom through a religious context. In sacrificing himself for the sake of believing all souls are ‘precious’ despite their sinning, it aligns him with Jesus; his behaviour is therefore not submissive specifically to Legree but heroic for the sake of humanity. Through being forced to submit to life as a slave, it can be argued that Tom has no choice but to exhibit Christian values; either he seeks a higher salvation through showing humanity where Legree is lacking, or submits to a hatred that leaves him damned spiritually as well as physically. Whilst the emotion of compassion can be characterised as female, his sacrifice is physical and so remains predominantly masculine. This suggests a pain and toil that only men would encounter through work and women would not through residing in the home. Therefore, the construction of Tom’s gender is dependent not only upon his personal identity and actions, but the faith of others. Those who remain intrinsically faithless can only attribute his kindness to femininity through a lack of knowledge on Christian values.
Through Stowe’s interaction with wider issues of slavery, the female role is not centred on seeking relationships. Without this pre-occupation of romance and lack of objectification, the presentation of gender within the novel is more flexible. However, women can only show masculine traits through a perversion of their own femininity. Within The Feminization of American Culture, Douglas sees a “continuation of male hegemony in different guises”. Previously, work and home were contained in separate masculine and feminine spheres yet this is complicated through introducing race. Dinah is female in sex yet is unorganised and works without “logic and reason” (Stowe, p.620), characteristics of chaos that are typically representative of masculinity. The kitchen can also act as symbolic of the slave economy, of which Dinah attempts to organise through what: “she called “clarin’ up times,” […] and make the ordinary confusion seven-fold more confounded.” (Stowe, p.315) In attempting to rectify this process of domesticity and instead only producing it as ‘more confounded’, it suggests that the female sphere also needs reform before approaching the faults within the male sphere. However, the focus remains- as it does in slavery- on the results. St Clare cares only for the fact that Dinah “gets you a capital dinner” (Stowe, p.316); this almost identifies Dinah as a slave trader through her preference of chaotic method yet effective results, as slavery similarly produces. Dinah herself, as a purchase, also brings the economic in to the domestic. The expectation of American women was to influence men through being a “wise and appropriate influence” at home. Through placing a lower class of slaves instead in the home, it renders the expectations of the American wife impossible to carry out. Stowe thus inverts gender through presenting a female character that exists within a female world, yet is this ‘continuation of male hegemony’ being essentially a male-invested economic purchase. Yet it must also be questioned whether this lack of femininity is caused by patriarchal influence or an initial lack of femininity in Dinah; whilst she economically belongs to St Clare, she intrinsically lacks a feminine nature embodied by domesticity and organisation.
Stowe’s narration works not only to describe the events, but becomes a self-fashioned “penetrating” voice in itself. Gender roles are therefore inverted through Stowe assuming a voice that can reach all through publication. She also transcends her sphere through topic; Stowe breaches typically masculine topics of slave auctions and violence beyond the household. Once her character’s issues have been resolved as far as possible, she uses the ‘Concluding remarks’ to continue these issues to reality: “But, she asks any person, who knows the world, are such characters common, anywhere?” (Stowe, p.621) Instead of using a first person, she self-consciously places herself within the third, highlighting her gender’s ability to speak publicly where women were usually mute. The reader is also called upon to consider the type of person they are. She seeks for answers only in a specific group, those that ‘[know] the world’, thus suggesting a challenge to look inward on oneself after a novel of examining others. Stowe almost acts like a conscience, re-iterated by Jane P. Tomkins, of whom suggests “the novel functions both as a means of describing the social world and as a means of changing it.” In considering whether characters of “nobility, generosity, and humanity” (Stowe, p.621) are common within humanity, it once again encourages readers to consider themselves. This suggests an intended readership of those who also display “feminine” characteristics; through this, the slaves Stowe gives a voice to can be approached with sympathy. However, it can be argued that her description of the ‘social world’ is purposefully inaccurate. Through the coincidences of two reunions and a future happiness for previous slaves, Stowe presents an idealistic future that can only be achieved through human development in to these said characters. Therefore, a sense of realism is twisted to present possibility beyond reality. To encourage action through words almost suggests Stowe’s narrative as a speech. She thus embodies what would have been recognised as patriarchal control, yet she successfully inverts it through her female voice; she presents the possibility that matriarchy could incur change also.
Despite examining how it is repeatedly constructed and inverted, gender becomes irrelevant within Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Whilst restrictions of gender could dictate the action physically taken against slavery, such as Mrs Shelby being powerless to prevent the sale of Tom, gender becomes irrelevant when considering the morality of the individual. Throughout the novel, Stowe questions how much human progress has been made if men are still enslaved. It is therefore standards of morality that needed to evolve, and this remains independent from which gender predominantly rules society; being female did not automatically denote care and domesticity, as Marie St Clare shows. It is therefore not a solution to displace patriarchy with matriarchy if human nature and morality is arbitrary and not specific to gender.
Beecher Stowe, H., Uncle Tom’s Cabin Or, Life Among the Lowly (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1986)
Brown, G., Domestic Individualism (University of California Press, Oxford: 1992)
Douglas, A. ‘Introduction’ in Uncle Tom’s Cabin Or, Life Among the Lowly by Harriet Beecher Stowe (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1986)
Tompkins, J. P., ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Literary History’ in Uncle Tom’s Cabin ed. by Elizabeth Ammons (Norton & Company: London, 1994)
Yellin, J. ‘Doing it Herself: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Woman’s Role in the Slavery Crisis’ in New Essays on Uncle Tom’s Cabin ed. by Eric J. Sundquist (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1986)
 Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin Or, Life Among the Lowly (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1986) p.583 (All further references are to this edition and will be given parenthetically.)  Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture in Domestic Individualism, Gillian Brown (University of California Press, Oxford: 1992) p.18  Jean Fagan Yellin, ‘Doing it Herself: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Woman’s Role in the Slavery Crisis’ in New Essays on Uncle Tom’s Cabin ed. by Eric J. Sundquist (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1986) p.88  Ann Douglas, ‘Introduction’ in Uncle Tom’s Cabin Or, Life Among the Lowly by Harriet Beecher Stowe (Middlesex: Penguin Books, 1986) p.15  Jane P. Tompkins, ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Literary History’ in Uncle Tom’s Cabin ed. by Elizabeth Ammons (Norton & Company: London, 1994)
In Martin Scorsese’s 2002 film Gangs of New York, the two main characters—Amsterdam Vallon (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) and Bill “the Butcher” Cutting (played by Daniel Day-Lewis)—attend a ‘Tom’ show (a stage adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin) in New York City. In this scene, which depicts the end of the ‘Tom’ show, the deus ex machina in the form of Abraham Lincoln descends from the rafters to console the African-American characters (played by white actors in blackface). Lincoln’s presence is met with derision from the nativist audience members, who throw vegetables at the actor playing Lincoln and shout, “Down with the Union!” By staging this scene in a 2002 blockbuster film, Scorsese demonstrated that the ‘Tom’ show was a nearly universal experience in Civil War-era American life, pervading its culture and its politics during and even long after the Civil War. In addition, Scorsese visualized the multiple ways in which Stowe’s novel was adapted and appropriated for the stage, ultimately reflecting the racial, cultural and political tensions of the times.It is first important to note that Stowe had mixed feelings about adaptations of her novel for the stage. Although she would eventually withdraw her objections, as an orthodox Protestant, she feared that the theatre as a whole was detrimental to the moral fabric of society (Gossett 261-262). Nevertheless, countless adaptations hit the stage in the years following the novel’s publication. Harry Birdoff counts 271 separate companies which performed the show; most of these productions took place between the 1850s and the early 1900s, although at least one production was still in existence as late as 1953 (Railton). Thomas F. Gossett writes that “perhaps as many as fifty people would eventually see Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the play, for every one person who would read the novel” (260); in 1912, Stowe’s son estimated that the play in its various forms had been performed about 250,000 times (Birdoff 388). This was no small feat, given that publisher John P. Jewett sold 300,000 copies of the novel in its first year of printing alone (Meer 4).Due to lax copyright laws at the time, it was inevitable that despite her objections, Stowe’s enormously popular novel would be adapted and produced in various ways to suit a multitude of purposes. The use of the phrase Uncle Tom’s Cabin in a play’s title only meant that the spectacle to be staged would somehow depict a certain view of slavery, and little else. Among other aspects of the novel, Uncle Tom’s fate was at stake, depending on the production’s view of slavery. The various playwrights—or rather, adapters—of these versions were seen to be competing with the original novel in presenting a “correct” view of slavery. This competition for authority on the issue was seen in numerous advertisements for ‘Tom’ shows: among the names given to the plays were Uncle Tom’s Cabin: or Life in the South as It Is (Gossett 280) and Life Among the Happy (Gossett 276). These titles suggested that Stowe’s idea of slavery was just one of many possible interpretations of the issue at hand, as adaptations argued a political equivalence between their Uncle Toms and that of Stowe.By adapting the novel in so many ways for such a large number of people, the ‘Tom’ shows took on lives of their own, eventually becoming more Uncle Tom’s Cabin than Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In this way, the locus of the slavery debate was shifted from the print media to the theatre—especially important in an age where literacy rates were lower among whites and blacks than now—as the various stage adaptations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin represented a larger struggle over how to deal with the ‘black’ issue in the United States.As it is evident that the ‘Tom’ show was not a monolithic creature which imposed a solely abolitionist message on its audiences, the main question then becomes how the meaning of the ‘Tom’ show shifted and adapted over time and in accordance with its audiences’ political ideals. In this essay, I will first locate these various adaptations within their proper historical contexts. Birdoff’s book The World’s Greatest Hit, Gossett’s book Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture, as well as Stephen Railton’s website of the same name, provide production histories of the ‘Tom’ show, yet unfortunately, they do not provide much meaningful cultural context. Nor do they provide any critical analysis: it is my intention in this essay to fill these gaps, examining the ramifications of the performances of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in contributing to a discussion about slavery, politics and race relations in America.Minstrelsy, Political Theatre and the ‘Tom’ ShowBefore I launch into case studies of the specific productions, however, it is necessary to describe the general history and aspects of the ‘Tom’ show. As blackface minstrelsy was still the dominant genre of theatrical entertainment in antebellum United States, ‘Tom’ shows by and large incorporated elements of the minstrel show into their adaptations. Sarah Meer argues that the minstrelsy elements of the novel “may have made its antislavery message palatable for the cautious and scarcely noticeable for the indifferent” (12). So it was with many stage versions. Although blackface minstrel acts in the 1820s and 1830s had by and large been individual acts used to introduce an evening’s main theatrical entertainment, by the mid-1840s minstrelsy had developed a highly structured form. At the opening of the show, the entire company would stand in a semicircle on stage, with the first part of the show being composed of songs, dances, and somewhat ribald jokes. At the center of the semicircle sat the emcee, called the “interlocutor,” who often was the butt of the jokes of the “endmen,” two men on either end of the semicircle who would entertain audiences with comic sketches and puns (Meer 10). Minstrel shows were generally extremely racist, at today’s standards, parodying stereotypical features in physicality and personality which were commonly attributed to blacks at the time—including exaggerated lips, a heavy dialect, laziness, and ignorance, among others—as a declaration of white superiority over blacks.Although the work of German director and theorist Bertolt Brecht1 would not begin until the 1920s, I suggest that two well-known dramaturgical devices usually credited to Brecht’s Epic Theatre had already been used in minstrelsy, and later, the ‘Tom’ shows of the 19th century. In both instances, these devices were used to create a political or cultural dialogue among the audience: while Brecht, an avowed Marxist, used them to directly attack capitalism, the ‘Tom’ shows used them to indirectly discuss slavery and race relations in America.First, the ‘Tom’ shows used the technique of “demonstrating” a character, rather than “being” a character. This distancing, or “stepping back,” was used to encourage critical observation among the audience. As both the minstrel shows and the ‘Tom’ shows were performed exclusively by whites, most of whom were in blackface, the obvious mode of representation or demonstration combined with the exaggerated, stereotypical “black” dialect provided the audience with a mode with which to critically observe the presence of blacks in American society. Of course, I must also recognize that racism played an inherent role in the casting of whites as African-American characters in ‘Tom’ shows, so this mode of Brechtian “demonstration” was certainly not intentional. However, if the white actor’s body was a cultural signifier of power, then the white actor in blackface—literally covering the white with the black—seemed to symbolize the idea that the race issue pervaded all facets of American life and directly affected every white person.In demonstrating black characters, the ‘Tom’ show used parody where Brecht did not: as Hutcheon writes, “a critical distance is implied between the backgrounded text being parodied [in this instance, both Stowe’s novel and blacks] and the new incorporating work [the minstrel show and the ‘Tom’ show], a distance usually signaled by irony” (32). In many ways, blackface in ‘Tom’ shows had a negative effect on the portrayal of Uncle Tom: Gossett notes that “there had been few black characters in American plays aside from the malign stereotypes of minstrel shows” (260). In observing a white actor’s portrayal of Uncle Tom, audiences would certainly remember the comic portrayals of blacks in minstrel shows: in this way, Tom’s status as a tragic martyr figure was, by nature, marginalized in performance.Secondly, not only were the performers able to interact with the audience, but lighting conventions of the time (which would eventually be appropriated by Brecht) ensured that the audience was able to interact with each other. This lighting style was an especially important feature of a play which demanded the audience to be a consciously critical observer. As the house lights remained up throughout the performance, audience members were able to monitor one another’s reactions to the representations of slavery and race on stage. The use of the house lights also blurred the boundaries between player and spectator, forcing the audience to examine their own places in the events and issues presented before them.The Antebellum ‘Tom’ Show: Adaptation and ParodyThe first major production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the only version that could claim any true authenticity in comparison to the novel. Yet crucial changes which affected the slavery debate were undertaken in this adaptation, most of which played up the melodramatic moments while simultaneously watering down Stowe’s political arguments. Entitled Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Or, The Death of Eva, this adaptation was written by George L. Aiken for the Troy Museum in Troy, New York.2 The production opened on September 27, 1852, only months after the novel was first published. At this time in the United States, Americans had been confronted with arguably their first major issues of racial tension. Many citizens remembered Nat Turner’s bloody slave revolt from twenty years earlier, which fueled a suspicion of slaves and their desire to define themselves as free people. In addition, America was dealing with major questions about what it meant to be an American, as the young nation was experiencing its first major influx of immigrants from both Europe and Asia. As a result, racial and nationalistic tensions were on the rise, and entertainment such as the ‘Tom’ show stepped in to provide answers, reaffirming the “superiority” of American-born citizens over both the hordes of foreigners that were entering the country from all continents and the slaves that were fighting for their freedom.As the title suggests, Aiken’s 1852 play originally ended at the point in the novel where Eva succumbs to her illness, which strongly encouraged the audience to sympathize with the sick white angel, rather than Tom and his fellow slaves. Aiken would soon adapt the last portion of the book for the stage, this one entitled The Death of Uncle Tom, Or the Religion of the Lowly. By November, 1852, the two portions would be combined for the stage, featuring six acts, thirty scenes, and eight tableaux.3 Although Tom’s death was now the final scene of the new full version of the play, the final tableaux (in both versions) still showed “Gorgeous clouds, tinted with sunlight.—EVA, robed in white, is discovered on the back of a milk-white dove, with expanded wings, as if just soaring upward.—Her hands are extended in benediction over ST. CLARE and UNCLE TOM who are kneeling and gazing up to her.—Expressive music.—Slow curtain” (Aiken 6:6).4 The final visual image provided by Aiken ensured that Eva, the pure white character, remained the focus of the audience’s sympathies. Cherry aptly notes that even as Tom is finally “right in the door, going to Glory” (Aiken 6:5), free from Legree’s whip and the bonds of slavery, his death is not equal to Eva’s, as he is only able to enter Heaven on his knees (80).5 Although the Bible teaches that “the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matthew 20:16)—a verse which Stowe, a deeply religious woman, must have reflected on as she wrote the novel—Aiken seemed to think that blacks would inevitably be doomed to an eternity of servitude to whites, rather than receiving their rewards in heaven. The tableaux is also reminiscent of various pieces of Christian art, in which Christ is surrounded by sinners seeking forgiveness. Eva’s white hands, extended in benediction in this tableaux, must baptize the black (read: unclean) slave before he can enter heaven.The Aiken adaptation more or less retained the basic abolitionist message of the novel; however, these arguments as a whole were watered down in order to make the play more palatable to multiple audiences. While Stowe’s novel had a number of intellectual as well as emotional arguments in favor of the abolition of slavery, Aiken’s adaptation removed these intellectual arguments almost entirely. There are a number of characters in Stowe’s novel who express intellectual arguments, as opposed to emotional feelings, against slavery: George Harris, Mrs. Shelby, Mrs. Bird, and Augustine St. Clare. Mrs. Shelby and Mrs. Bird, two minor characters of Stowe’s novel—who, ironically, expressed the most convincing arguments against slavery—are deleted entirely from Aiken’s version. In addition, Aiken chose to omit St. Clare’s and Miss Ophelia’s long discussion of Christianity and slavery, and along with it, some of St. Clare’s most poignant and engaging words on the issue: “My view of Christianity is such . . . that I think no man can consistently profess it without throwing the whole weight of his being against this monstrous system of injustice that lies at the foundation of all our society; and, if need be, sacrificing himself in the battle” (Stowe 272). In this way, Aiken defused Stowe’s original abolitionist intent simply by removing her most passionate arguments from the play. In editing the play in such a way, Aiken had his audiences in mind: by avoiding the issue of slavery altogether, this toothless version was more satisfactory to multiple audiences.Finally, various stagings of Aiken’s adaptation emphasized the melodrama of the piece in often ludicrous form. As I previously mentioned, Aiken was intent on emphasizing the most exciting and melodramatic sections of Stowe’s novel, even at the cost of losing much of her abolitionist message. This emphasis on melodrama was most famously seen in the scene in which Eliza escapes across the ice from Haley, Sam and Andy: the escape and subsequent hunt was often—along with the scene of Eva’s death—the centerpiece of Aiken’s play. The playbill of one 1856 production loudly proclaimed, “SLAVE HUNT: OR, LEGREE’S BLOODHOUNDS!” (Birdoff 160).6 In Stowe’s novel, there is no mention of any dogs pursuing Eliza; however, as multiple productions began to appear and compete with each other for audiences, the heightened tension created by live—and often unpredictable—dogs on the stage played to audiences’ desire for spectacle over plot and character. Gossett notes that as these productions became larger and more elaborate, the dogs became larger, more numerous, and more ferocious: one advertisement shows three Great Danes, teeth bared, jumping on Eliza as she attempts to beat them away with a branch (Gossett, Illustration plate 16). This trend would continue long after the Civil War: Rahill mentions an 1891 ‘Tom’ show in which even “alligators [would] assist the hounds” in their pursuit of Eliza (152). While critics such as Rahill and Birdoff suggest that the increasingly absurd additions to the chase scene were merely techniques used to sell tickets, I would instead argue that there was an underlying racist tone in the use of alligators to chase Eliza. In Ceramic Uncles and Celluloid Mammies, Patricia Turner recalls a racist stereotype that alligators prefer to eat blacks rather than whites, writing that these stereotypes “depict more than the presence of a negative stereotype, they implicitly advocate a form of aggression in eradicating an unwanted people” (36). In addition, the semiotic visualization of the black body next to an “exotic” creature such as an alligator creates both a conscious and a subconscious association between the two: neither alligators nor blacks, implies this scene, have a place in proper American society.Although Aiken’s production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was not as ostensibly racially prejudiced as later adaptations (which I will discuss later), his version paved the way for these later, more explicitly racist, adaptations. In eliminating the political teeth from Stowe’s novel, removing Tom’s significance, and emphasizing the melodramatic aspects of the novel, Aiken created an environment where Uncle Tom—and blacks in general—could be parodied endlessly. In addition, Aiken failed to demonstrate alternatives to slavery or to show how free blacks could participate in American society. This was tantamount to an erasure of blacks not only from the American continent, but from the entire consciousness of whites: they are not freed from slavery, nor are they explicitly forced into slavery, nor are they sent to Africa. They simply do not exist. In some way, the propagation of this mindset throughout many incarnations of Aiken’s production aided in creating a path for the marginalization of free blacks in American society and the pervading sense of race-based societal stratification which still continues today.At the same time that the Troy theatre was enjoying record audiences for its Aiken adaptation, four pro-slavery ‘Tom’ shows were making the rounds throughout the United States. In all of these four versions, a major narrative shift was employed in that Tom did not die, but was saved from Legree by George Shelby and joyfully returned to his master’s plantation as a slave. While Stowe’s main argument against slavery was the physical brutality enacted against slaves—as was demonstrated by her casting of the brutal Legree as the antithesis to the gentle, pious Uncle Tom—then these three adaptations attempted to talk back to Stowe’s novel by refusing to agree with the premise that slavery was anything but a benevolent institution. By keeping Tom alive, these versions denied him status as a martyr and propagated among their audiences the view that there was no urgent need for slavery reform.The first of these productions was an 1852 production called Uncle Tom As It Is, Or The Southern Uncle Tom. As I mentioned earlier, the appending of the phrase “As It Is” to the well-known title of “Uncle Tom” encouraged the audience to believe that Stowe’s interpretation was only one of many, and that this production was to serve as a correction to Stowe’s misguided abolitionism. Birdoff writes that this production’s Uncle Tom “is not portrayed as a martyr, nor shown in less piety, but with absolute devotion to his master”: this devotion was illustrated by his line, “Sha! I was born a slave, I have lived a slave, and, bress de Lord, I hope to die a slave!” (21). Interspersed within these lines of “absolute devotion” were musical numbers which affirmed this concept: songs such as “Chorus: Nigga in de Cornfield” and “Kentucky Breakdown Dance” (Hirsch 320) identified the slave with “light and cheerful hearts . . . enjoy[ing] themselves a while in the merry laugh and flowing good humor for which they are proverbial” (qtd. in Breeden 15). Again in reference to Brecht’s Epic Theatre, these musical numbers “stepped back” from the narrative in order to demonstrate the author’s interpretation of the wider social and cultural concepts at hand. In these songs, audiences heard an echo of didacticism, as the songs essentially told them exactly what to think about the issues of slavery and race relations.Another such adaptation was created that same year by Henry J. Conroy, who felt that the novel contained too many “objectionable features which meet the eye of the reader while perusing the book” (qtd. in Gossett 274). The production, which caught the eye of famed American showman P.T. Barnum and was played in his New York theatre in 1852, “avoided all argumentative portions of Mrs. Stowe’s work. . . . so shap[ing] his drama as to make it quite an agreeable thing to be a slave” (Birdoff 88). Heralded in advertisements as a depiction of “SLAVERY AS IT IS,” Conroy and Barnum attacked Stowe’s novel as a far too sentimental work. Instead, Conroy’s interpretation purported to “[appeal] to reason instead of the passions . . . this drama [will] be more salutary than those of any piece based on fanaticism without reason, and zeal without knowledge” (qtd. in Birdoff 89). As difficult as it is for me to defend such a piece, it can at least be said that its preferences for “knowledge” over “zeal” and “reason” over “fanaticism” at least attempted to encourage audiences to approach the issue intellectually. In the end, it could be said that this production succeeded more when it came to creating a political debate among its audiences, although its basic premise was obviously misguided: “do[ing] ‘nothing to extenuate nor set down aught in malice,’ while it does not foolishly and unjustly elevate the negro above the white man in intellect or morals” (qtd. in Birdoff 89). Although the play was a success, abolitionists decried it: as a New York Tribune critic wrote, “The effect of the dramatist has evidently been to destroy the point and moral of the story of Uncle Tom, and to make a play to which no apologist for slavery could object” (qtd. in Gossett 275). In producing a sterilized version of the book for the stage, Barnum and Conway succeeded in shifting the narrative entirely insofar as its relationship to slavery goes. However, as I suggested earlier, if audiences willingly saw the minstrel tradition in these adaptations, then a shift away from an abolitionist message would have been unsurprising and perhaps even acceptable to many audiences, as the minstrel shows had already conditioned them to interpret the black body on stage as a comedic figure.A third production, written by Joseph M. Field and performed in New Orleans, was called Uncle Tom’s Cabin: or Life in the South as It Is. Field made no attempt to disguise his politics, as he advertised the play’s author as “Harriet Screecher Blow.” In the play, a “philanthropist” comes upon Tom, who has successfully escaped to Canada but now finds himself wholly unprepared to deal with the harsh Canadian winters. Gossett reproduces the scene as follows:PHI. Well, Uncle Tom, you seem to be in trouble. What do you want?TOM. Donno, Massa.PHI. Do you want a house?TOM. No, massa.PHI. Do you want clothes?TOM. No, massa.PHI. Well, what do you want?(In the distance, the strains of “Old Folks at Home” are indistinctlyheard. Uncle Tom listens with tears in his eyes.)TOM. Massa, that’s what I want!Tom is then happily returned to the plantation, where he and the other plantation slaves dance and sing “Old Jawbone” as the curtain falls (Gossett 280-281). Of course, these plays reflected the concept that slaves wanted nothing more than to be slaves, thereby attempting to cast the abolitionists’ protests as ludicrous. One is reminded of the words of a Georgia planter in 1851: “. . .it is profoundly to be wished that every fanatical abolitionist in the country could but witness one of these scenes of mirthful hilarity. . . . they are the best fed, best clothed, and most cheerful and happy laboring population on the globe . . .” (qtd. in Breeden 15). As abolitionists became more forceful in numbers and in message—mainly due to Stowe’s novel, I suggest—these shows reaffirmed conservatism in America, reassuring the upper classes that their lifestyles would not be upended by a call for African-American rights.7Finally, Birdoff discusses an 1856 production with an even more shocking twist: not only does Tom remain alive, but “The Good Master [George Shelby] Dies to Save the Slave [Uncle Tom]!” (160).8 This stunning reversal of fate ludicrously suggested that slaves were a burden on their masters, as it aimed to paint the white man (Shelby) as the ultimate victim of slavery. The audience’s resentment for the blacks who “forced” whites to give up their lives for their unworthy slaves was further emphasized by the final subtitle of this production: “And The Happy Days of UNCLE TOM” (Birdoff 160). Whether intentional or not, the implication of this production was that freedom and happiness for enslaved blacks would ultimately be paid by the blood of whites: indeed, many Americans would resent the sacrificing of white Union soldiers for what they deemed to be an essentially “black” cause.The black body was also weakened in these productions, by way of the characterization of Uncle Tom. I would suggest that such interpretations placed an emphasis on Tom’s humility and ignored his powerful features as described by Stowe, as well as indirectly casting aside his mental faculties. Stowe describes Uncle Tom as such: “He was a large, broad-chested, powerfully-made man, of a full glossy black, and a face whose truly African features were characterized by an expression of grave and steady good sense. . . . with a confiding and humble simplicity” (18). In contrast, Birdoff describes actors such as twenty-year-old David Belasco, who played Uncle Tom in an 1873 adaptation in San Francisco. Belasco’s Uncle Tom is pictured as a fairly slight figure, with his low-bent, balding head showing traces of messy, pure white hair (Birdoff 222; see illustration on p. 19 of this essay). Belasco’s ill-fitting costume is full of patches, certainly conjuring memories of the clownish figures of the minstrel shows whose primary aim was to make audiences laugh, as well as the subservient African-American figure who is unable to act on his own accord. The subtitle of the previously-mentioned 1856 adaptation—‘The Happy Days of Uncle Tom’—further recalled the comic minstrelsy elements and cemented the audience’s view of Tom as a happy character, weakening his power and the pathos of his death.Uncle Tom After the WarAs the “the mighty scourge of war . . . pass[ed] away”—as Lincoln had hoped and prayed for in his second inaugural address in March 1865—and slavery was abolished throughout the entire Union, productions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin were by necessity forced to abandon the staging of their various interpretations of slavery. Instead, these performances discussed the wider issue of race relations, as newly-freed blacks struggled to find a place in a nation which was “dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal,” as Lincoln had noted in his Gettysburg Address two years earlier.9 Many productions, unwilling to accept blacks as equal members of society, harkened back to the minstrel shows which had given birth to a number of staging conventions of the ‘Tom’ shows and aimed to return blacks to “their place” as comedic figures not to be taken seriously. One anonymously-written parody from 1874, entitled Uncle Tom: An Ethiopian Interlude, simply used the name “Uncle Tom” as a derogatory slur against blacks, as Stowe’s Uncle Tom bore no resemblance to the character of the same name depicted in An Ethiopian Interlude. A basic synopsis of the short sketch is as follows: as “Pete” tunes up his banjo (a clear reference to the minstrel show), Uncle Tom—dressed in a clownish manner, in a “grey wig, slouch hat, soldier overcoat, with large black patches on back and sleeves; dark pants and vest, very shabby and slouchy; large shoes”—enters to sell Pete a “snackin’ turple” (snapping turtle). Pete offers to buy the turtle from Tom, if Tom will dance for him. As Tom dances, Pete “fastens the turtle on the rear expanse of Uncle Tom’s pants,” much to Tom’s chagrin, who yelps and runs off stage. As the character of Uncle Tom (in his various incarnations on stage) was well-known to audiences, this was another attempt to reappropriate and reinterpret Stowe’s famous depiction of African-Americans, incongruous to Stowe’s story as it was.As memories of the Civil War and slavery waned in American consciousness, ‘Tom’ shows began to take on a more general view of American life before the war without necessarily emphasizing slavery or even blacks. Meer writes that by this time, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin still had political connotations, but that now it could stand not only for slavery or even for the Civil War but also for antebellum nostalgia and the national literature as well as history” (253). Memories of Uncle Tom were still fresh; however, the weak, but happy character created by the minstrel shows and post-war parodies were—and continue to be—the most prevalent in the minds of citizens.10 Of course, slavery was no longer an issue; however, I would suggest that the lack of any major emphasis on the black characters in an adaptation of the world’s most famous abolitionist novel further damaged African-American interests and further banished them to the fringes of popular American culture. If blacks were no longer a central feature in a story originally written about blacks, then it seems they would have little hope of claiming a place in “the land of the free.”Furthermore, racially-charged representations of Uncle Tom paved the way for the many depictions of the “happy plantation worker” seen throughout the early part of the twentieth century. One of the most popular examples of this was in Disney’s 1946 children’s film Song of the South, featuring a character named Uncle Remus, who very closely resembled Belasco’s Uncle Tom in dialect and dress. Uncle Remus’ character lived on a plantation and was ostensibly an ex-slave with no desire for true freedom; the film played on the stereotype of the “happy black” by failing to mention slavery or race relations, instead featuring upbeat songs such as “Zip-a-dee-doo-dah.”11 In this way, popular culture used the “Uncle Tom” stereotype as created by these stage adaptations—long after the heyday of the ‘Tom’ shows—to capitalize on African-American “culture” without acknowledging their suffering.Concluding RemarksFinally, I would suggest that although Stowe supported abolitionism in her novel, she did not necessarily advocate full and equal rights for African-Americans after slavery had been abolished. In this way, it seems that the ‘Tom’ shows did not twist Stowe’s work as a means of discriminating against blacks, but simply amplified certain racial ideas which were already subtly present in the novel. For example, although Stowe endows Tom with positive qualities—piety, strength, and loyalty—these qualities, as Elizabeth Ammons has noted, have been equated to a feminization of Tom (162). Because of the exaggeration of these traits in the ‘Tom’ shows, which created an ultra-feminization of Tom to the point that he became a weak hero, I would venture to suggest that the ‘Tom’ shows were ultimately more detrimental to race relations than has previously been noted. This is not to say that these adaptations were the sole cause of the pervading racism in the United States throughout the twentieth century, as they simply reaffirmed what many audiences already felt about the relationship between whites and blacks. However, simply by reaffirming the tension between the races, as was demonstrated by Aiken’s play and various parodic offshoots of it, many shows unwittingly contributed to an environment in which racism against blacks was not only supported, but encouraged.Illustrations1. David Belasco as Uncle Tom.Works ConsultedAmmons, Elizabeth. “Heroines in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” American Literature 49:2 (May1977): 161-179.Birdoff, Harry. The World’s Greatest Hit: Uncle Tom’s Cabin. New York: S.F. Vanni,1947.Brawn, Shaleen. Repurposing Uncle Tom. Diss. Stanford University, 2000. Ann Arbor:UMI, 2000. ATT 9986443.Breeden, James O., ed. Advice Among Masters: The Ideal in Slave Management in theOld South. Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1980.Cherry, James M. Melodrama, Parody, and the Transformations of an American Genre.Diss. City University of New York, 2005. Ann Arbor: UMI, 2005. ATT 3169898.Gangs of New York. Dir. Martin Scorsese. Perf. Leonardo DiCaprio, Daniel Day-Lewis,and Cameron Diaz. Miramax Films, 2002.Gossett, Thomas F. Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture. Dallas: SouthernMethodist University Press, 1985.Hirsch, Stephen A. “Uncle Tomitudes: The Popular Reaction to Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”Studies in the American Renaissance 1978. Charlottesville, VA: University ofVirginia Press, 1978. 303-330.Hutcheon, Linda. A Theory of Parody: The Teachings of Twentieth-Century Art Forms.Champaign, IL: University of Illinois Press, 2000.Meer, Sarah. Uncle Tom Mania: Slavery, Minstrelsy and Transatlantic Culture in the1850s. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2005.Rahill, Frank. The World of Melodrama. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania StateUniversity Press, 1967.Railton, Stephen, and the University of Virginia. Uncle Tom’s Cabin and AmericanCulture. Accessed 14 Sept 2007. < http://jefferson.village.virginia.edu/utc/>.Robbins, Sarah. The Cambridge Introduction to Harriet Beecher Stowe. Cambridge:Cambridge University Press, 2007.Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Ed. Elizabeth Ammons. New York: W.W.Norton & Company, 1994.“Tom shows.” Time 8 Apr 1940.<“http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,763799,00.html”>.Turner, Patricia A. Ceramic Uncles and Celluloid Mammies: Black Images and TheirInfluence on Culture. New York: Anchor Books, 1994.Uncle Tom: An Ethiopian Interlude. New York: Happy Hours Company, 1874.