Questions of Reception: Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Contrast to The Lamplighter
It is the middle of the nineteenth century, and, seemingly by coincidence, two novels, both written by women, are released in close proximity to one another, and each manages to grip tight the American public, and each in their own way becomes extremely popular, revered, and beloved, almost overnight. In the weeks that follow, thousands of copies of each book are sold, as printing presses run day and night just to keep up with the demand. Over the course of mere weeks, hundreds raise their voices, all praising or condemning the works of these two female writers. While a variety of emotions and opinions can be seen in the reviews of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Lamplighter by Maria Cummins, there is an undeniable public preference to the story and the feel good emotions that reside within The Lamplighter, while Stowe’s tale of slavery incites far more conflict and negative opinion. These trends in reviews can be seen not only when the reviews discuss plot, but in the views of the characters, the messages and connotations within the stories, and in how the authors themselves are seen. While history proved that Uncle Tom’s Cabin is the novel that stood the test of time and lived on, at the time these pieces were written, Stowe’s writing was considered secondary to the pleasure filled pages of The Lamplighter.
Upon analyzing the plots of both Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Lamplighter, it is evident that the two hold many similarities. Both watch a series of characters face tragedy and trouble, and throughout the years learn lessons and grow closer to God, until, after many a character dies, and many storylines conveniently intertwine, the story ends more or less happily, with the world a wiser and more pious place to live. Despite these similarities, within the reviews of these two tales, many discrepancies and differences of opinion can be found. According to The Boston Atlas, the tale of Gerty and her travels as she comes to age is, “remarkably happy, natural and lifelike. It’s incidents are probable, and though not remarkably startling, are never tame or commonplace.”(Boston Daily Atlas, 1854), this same review, so positive in looking at the story told by Ms. Cummins, is quick to use this novel to condemn the writings of Ms. Stowe, claiming, “The Lamplighter is much superior to the well known Uncle Tom’s Cabin, whose intelligences meet us at every turn.”(Boston Daily Atlas, 1854). This sentiment is not an isolated one, often Gerty’s adventures are acclaimed as, “Instructive and inspiring”(Bangor Daily, 1854) or, “highly cultivated and refined”(Boston Daily Atlas, 1854), while these same regions previously called the story of Tom and his family, “crude and diabolical”(National Era, 1853) or, “barbaric and…untrue”(National Era, 1852). This is not to say that all reviews of Uncle Tom’s Cabin were negative, many sang praise, claiming, “Here is a miracle!”(National Anti-Slavery Standard, 1852) and, “it is the prerogative of genius”(National Anti-Slavery Standard, 1852). Many fell in love with the story of Uncle Tom and little Eva, there was a reason it was the most popular book of its time, but there is a large wave of reviews for this piece that contain only slander and hate, and this distaste is not seen in a single review of Maria Cummins’s book. The reality was that Uncle Tom, the hero of his story, was a slave, and because of that the unfortunate truth is that single fact alone means that his story could never have been as widely loved at the time as his white opponent in the story of the lamplighter. His only character flaw was the prejudice cast upon him by his audience.
The characters of both stories were integral to their successes. It was not the plots nor the lessons in the stories that kept thousands of americans turning the pages, but rather a love and concern for the characters, and what would happen to them as the reader moved closer and closer to the last pages. The unending kindness of both Uncle Tom and Uncle True made it easy for the reader to instantly become enamoured with their stories, and the innocence and godliness of the young girls in the stories make them all the more inspiring and entertaining. But because of these strong characterizations, both Stowe and Cummins were criticized by Putnam’s Monthly and The Boston Atlas, respectively, for being too dependent on their characters, instead of their plot, and relying upon that emotional connection to make their stories successful. As with all art, it is impossible to appease everyone, but it can be seen from the majority of reviews that for both novels, little criticism was given in regards to the characters, with the exception of those viewing the characters solely through a lens of racism, the people of these stories were widely regarded as lovable, inspiring, and remarkable.
The lead piece of controversy in reviews both for and against Uncle Tom’s Cabin is unsurprisingly its defense for abolition. Some scream with anger and fear, “This book will make 20,000 new abolitionists!”(Liberator, 1852) while others exclaim this same phrase with joy. The Liberator claims that this novel was monumental because it created sympathizers out of northerners otherwise uninvolved in the conflict, and was a motivator for those stuck in the middle of the road, previously unable to choose a side. According to the Enquirer, because of Stowe, “ a deeper, powerful, and gigantic sentiment against slavery pervading the country”(10). The foundation of slavery is that those held by chains are lesser than those holding the whips, and by writing about slaves being just as, if not more, loving, compassionate, religious, and generous than their white counterparts, Harriet Beecher Stowe effectively caused that foundation to crumble. This strong stroke caused so much uproar and debate that Abraham Lincoln himself, upon meeting Ms. Stowe, smiled and said, “So, you’re the little lady who started the war.”. Her powers of persuasion caused her audience to split down the middle, either enamored or disgusted by her ability to make compassionate, religious, and overwhelmingly human characters out of slaves. Maria Cummins never made such claims, she had no need to persuade in her story, for it held very little agenda. The Lamplighter was viewed in such a positive light in comparison to Uncle Tom’s Cabin because there is nothing disagreeable about characters trying to be as kind, pious, and loving, as possible. No one is angered by the message that people ought to be nice to one another, it holds none of the controversy that racism and slavery did, and therefore did not require emotionally charged and polarized debate, as Stowe’s message did.
Despite these differences in messages and in lessons, both The Lamplighter and Uncle Tom’s Cabin were wildly popular for their time. First Stowe sold, “160,000 volumes in the brief period of eleven weeks!—a sale unprecedented in the country, in any instance, if not in the whole world.”(Liberator, 1852), but once Cummins released her novel, this record was quickly broken, as, “Uncle Tom is eclipsed by The Lamplighter, selling 10,000 copies in ten days!”(Bangor Daily, 1854). Cummins sold more copies, and sold them faster than Stowe did, but the significant difference between their sales is the scope of their reach. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was not only popular in the United States, despite being an American novel focused on a specifically American issue, instead, it gained a large amount of popularity across the sea, selling thousands of copies in France, Germany, and England, and was even passed around in secret by many Russian readers as well. On this subject of global popularity, Putnam’s Monthly talked extensively, “ We confess that in the whole modern romance literature of Germany, England and France, we know of no novel to be called equal to this.”(Putnam’s Monthly, 1853), Uncle Tom was a phenomenon, a spark for political debate, as well as religious persuasion and as a source for character analysis, among other conversations. Little Gerty did not hold this same level of importance. Almost every single review of The Lamplighter was from New England, and the only mention found of the book traversing the Pacific, was that it was not held in as high an esteem in France as it was in the States. At the time, Cummins’s book was described as, “The Great American Romance”(Daily Cleveland Herald, 1854), and it seems that, despite its wildfire spread into the hands and hearts of the American public, the romance more or less remained in America.
When pieces of art grow this popular and successful, they are invariably adapted and transformed, and these two novels are no exceptions to this trend. As Stowe’s book reached the height of its popularity, it was adapted into plays, illustrated children’s books, and “Uncle Tomlitudes”, or songs inspired by the story. On top of this, a variety of sermons and discussions, as well as many strings of letters in newspapers and essays were written in response to the reactions for or against the novel’s message. There was even a short story written, which criticized the popularity of the Uncle Tom plays, called “Amy Seward’s Temptation”(Youth’s Companion, 1853), which stated that these fun plays drew children away from the church and away from their work. The Lamplighter received much of the same responses, The Bangor Daily wrote on a series of sermons that were being presented centering around Gerty’s story, and essays and children’s versions were once again created, as well as a book of Lamplighter-inspired paper dolls, so young women could dress up Gerty and Emily in all sorts of outfits. As each of these novels were adapted and discussed, their popularity only grew, as their messages reached more and more of the population, taking the country by storm.
One facet of these reviews that was surprising upon first glance was the complete lack of gender discrimination in regards to the authors of the novels. Never was it explicitly said that these novels were either better or worse due to them being written by women. All mention of the authors themselves was respectful, and they were often described as, “highly cultivated and refined, as well as an original and imaginative mind that writes with the ease, the classical correctness of diction, and that choice selection of terms which indicates a good English scholar.”(The Boston Atlas, 1854). Harriet Beecher Stowe’s family was not only well known but well respected, and while for about a month after The Lamplighter’s first printing its author remained anonymous, there seemed little doubt that it was written by a woman, and the only problem was in regards to her identity, not her gender. The women were revered for their powers of prose and their ability to touch the hearts and minds of the public, and so in this regard no criticism was found.
It must be recognised that at the end of the day, criticism is not inherently indicative that a piece of art is inferior, but rather that it is controversial, contested, and deserving of people’s emotions, positive or otherwise. At the time of their publications, Gerty’s tale was far more well-liked than Tom’s, but that did not mean it was in any way of finer quality. In fact, it is not The Lamplighter that is often discussed in literature or history classes, but rather Uncle Tom’s Cabin, because despite people’s disdain for it, in the end it holds far more significance and a true discourse on society, both then and now. While it is easy to love Gery and Emily and their story of finding love and loving God, it is necessary to look at the state of the States presented by the lives of Tom and Eva and all the other characters Stowe carefully crafted to show all angles of the lives of slaves and southerners. Both novels are respectable and fascinating in their own regard, but Stowe has now eclipsed Cummins, as their books have pushed their ways through the test of time.
Looking back on the era both Uncle Tom’s Cabin and The Lamplighter were written and reviewed, it is clear that these novels respectively represented at the time what America needed and what America wanted. Originally, Maria Cummins’s story grew to be more popular, more sought after and more beloved, than Stowe’s, but as the nation edged closer and closer to the Civil War, pleasure progressively faded in importance, and when all was said and done, the story that the nation needed to hear remained strong, living on in infamy as the book that started it all.
“Amy Seward’s Temptation.” The Youth’s Companion [Boston, Massachusetts] Mar. 3, 1853. University of Virginia. Web. 26 Oct. 2016.
“Good God! to think upon a child That has no childish days, No careless play, no frolles wild, No words of prayer and praise!” Daily Cleveland Herald [Cleveland, Ohio] 4 Mar. 1854: n.p. 19th Century U.S. Newspapers. Web. 26 Oct. 2016.
“The Lamplighter Boston.” Bangor Daily Whig & Courier [Bangor, Maine] 2 Mar. 1854: n.p. 19th Century U.S. Newspapers. Web. 26 Oct. 2016.
“The Lamplighter.” Boston Daily Atlas [Boston, Massachusetts] 24 Feb. 1854: n.p. 19th Century U.S. Newspapers. Web. 26 Oct. 2016.
“Letter From New York” National Era. [Washington, DC] Jul. 1, 1852. University of Virginia. Web. 26 Oct. 2016.
“Multiple Classified Advertisements.” Boston Daily Atlas [Boston, Massachusetts] 3 Mar. 1854: n.p. 19th Century U.S. Newspapers. Web. 26 Oct. 2016.
“Multiple Classified Advertisements.” Bangor Daily Whig & Courier [Bangor, Maine] 1 Mar. 1854: n.p. 19th Century U.S. Newspapers. Web. 26 Oct. 2016.
“Notices” The Liberator. [Boston, Massachusetts] Jun. 11, 1853. University of Virginia. Web. 26 Oct. 2016.
“Uncle Tomlitudes.” Putnam’s Monthly Magazine [New York, New York] Jan. 1853. University of Virginia. Web. 26 Oct. 2016.
“Unsigned Notice.” The New York Times. [New York, New York] Mar. 1, 1853. University of Virginia. Web. 26 Oct. 2016.
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