Pictures and Stories from Uncle Tom’s Cabin

By Abigail Greif Kantorovich

In 1853, merely a year after the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the form of a two volume novel, a children’s adaptation appeared. Pictures and Stories from Uncle Tom’s Cabin includes adapted parts of the complete text, in prose and verse, as well as illustrations. Its preface clearly states that it is meant for both young readers, who can access the text independently, as well as children who can not yet read and require the mediation of a parent or a sibling.

The appearance of Pictures and Stories, and the fact that its audience is so clearly specified, implies a social change in the perception of novels which took place in the nineteenth century: novels were becoming a more respectable form of literature. The publication of Pictures and Stories so soon after the publication of the novel indicates that Uncle Tom’s Cabin in particular was perceived not only as appropriate, but also as having a particular relevance for children. However, an adaptation implies that the full text is not, for whatever reason, appropriate for them, and that there is a need to make changes in order to create a text that children can and should be exposed to – with the mediation of family.

This change in assumptions about children’s reading is part of a social change in the perception of children and childhood more broadly. In 1831 Lydia Maria Child’s The Mother’s Book was published, as one of the first child rearing manuals in the United States. The publication of such a book has two significant implications: that children, as a population, have certain needs that should be met by their mother, and that all aspects of maternity might not be natural and instinctive, but can and should also be discussed and taught. This places the emphasis in child rearing on education, teaching and discipline, rather than simply love.

 In 1839 came the Child Custody Act, which determined that in case of divorce children under the age of 7 would be in the custody of their mothers, rather than fathers. This new law is significant for understanding the change in the concept of a child: if before this act children were considered the property of the father, they were now beginning to be seen as individuals with emotional and physical needs. The act granted the mother custody because it was thought best for the child. In other words, the Act put the children’s needs before those of their parents; the child gained priority over matters of ownership and property. Thus, if children were perceived as people rather than property – and people whose needs differ from those of adults – then literature needed to be adapted to them, and not the other way around.

Pictures and Stories adapts Uncle Tom’s Cabin to children in two ways: form and content. It is printed in large, bold fonts, in order to make it easy for young children to read, and it has been adapted to the “understanding of the youngest reader” in terms of content. Children’s needs, as reflected in the text, include the simplification of the language and the explanation of specific terms, such as “Quakers”, or “Canada”. 

Harriet Beecher Stowe is said to have taken part in the writing of this particular adaptation. There is no concrete proof to confirm or refute this claim, and Stowe’s involvement in the adaptation, or lack thereof, continues to occupy scholars. But Stowe’s composition of the preface indicates that whether she took an active part in the adaptation or not, she approved of it and was willing to participate in it by addressing its intended readers.

             The difference between Pictures and Stories and Uncle Tom’s Cabin also create changes in the meaning of the original: if Uncle Tom’s Cabin in addressing its readers implies that slavery destroys the natural and instinctive love between parents and children by separating them, Pictures and Stories conveys a somewhat different, more didactic messages, to children – that they must listen to their parents, be respectful and disciplined and earn their parents’ love. This message is conveyed throughout the entire adaptation and its most distinct example is in the representation of Topsy’s metamorphosis from a wild, unruly little liar into a disciplined, well-behaved and loving child. This change occurs in both texts, but the route to change is different in each. 

After Eva’s death in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Ophelia promises to love Topsy, and “try and help [her] to grow up a good Christian child” (259). Then, and only then, does Topsy finally “[improve] greatly” (268). The fact that Ophelia promises to love Topsy before she finally succeeds in turning her into a good child is significant, since it suggests that love is the tool for the transformation, rather than its outcome, and is necessary for changes to take place. By contrast, child rearing manuals of the time imply that love should be earned rather than simply given to children naturally, and that teaching a child requires discipline and strictness rather than simply affection.

In her attempts to transform Topsy in Pictures and Stories, Eva tells Topsy “how Christ came down to shed his blood” since “none ever taught her so before” (27). The underlying assumption here is that Topsy behaves badly since she simply does not know any better and that she can easily be taught, and only then will it be possible to love her. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Topsy can not be taught successfully until she is loved.

These differences in the way Topsy’s metamorphosis is presented may be the result of the difference in the intended audience. The full-length Uncle Tom’s Cabin was intended for family reading, but young children necessarily heard it read aloud by  the parent, and the issue of a child’s behavior is only one among many. Pictures and Stories intends first and foremost to educate its young readers on more than Quakers and Canada: it aims to show them that being good pays off: it earns them their parents’ love. 

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