Joel Chandler Harris’s Reading of Uncle Tom’s Cabin”
by: Robin Bernstein
This essay is adapted from Robin Bernstein, Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights (New York University Press, 2011)
Joel Chandler Harris, one of slavery’s most effective and influential apologists,
seems to have been engaging in wishful thinking when he called Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin a “wonderful a defense of slavery.”[i] Harris registered this judgment in his 1880 introduction to his first book, Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings, which would launch a series of volumes featuring an elderly African American named “Uncle Remus” who cuddles a white, unnamed Little Boy while telling folkloristic stories of Brer Rabbit. Harris’s Uncle Remus books would become bestsellers of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, influencing writers from Mark Twain to Rudyard Kipling to Beatrix Potter, and ultimately serving as the basis for Walt Disney’s Song of the South. Harris used Stowe to introduce, frame, and thus define his first book, which he described as a “supplement” to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Harris understood that Stowe intended to “attack” the system of slavery, but in his interpretation, “her genius took possession of her and compelled her, in spite of her avowed purpose, to give a very fair picture of the institution she had intended to condemn.”[ii]
Harris did not simplistically misunderstand Stowe, nor did he merely impose or project his own proslavery politics onto her abolitionist novel. Rather, Harris read Stowe with a warped genius for selectivity, and he crystallized his selective reading in the fictional relationship between Uncle Remus and the Little Boy. Joel Chandler Harris told the story of what could have happened if Uncle Tom had never left Kentucky.
Stowe inadvertently made herself vulnerable to selective readings when she employed the twin literary strategies of irony and vivid visual description. Stowe described these intertwined strategies in an 1851 letter to Gamaliel Bailey, editor of the National Era. Stowe wrote to Bailey, “My vocation is simply that of a painter, and my object will be to hold up in the most lifelike and graphic manner possible Slavery, its reverses, [and] changes [that is, its ironies] . . . There is no arguing with pictures, and everyone is impressed by them, whether they mean to be or not.”[iii] These strategies of irony and painterly description supported each other: for example, Stowe’s descriptions enabled her vividly to render the interior of Uncle Tom’s cabin, which made the reader all the more emotionally “impressed” with Tom’s loss of that cabin—that is, the ironic reversal of Tom’s fortune. Even as the intersecting strategies buttressed the novel, however, they simultaneously rendered it vulnerable to selective readings. The painterly descriptions vivified some scenes, characters, and plot elements but dimmed others, and the ironic reversals cleaved the novel into discrete, contrasting units that could be individually spotlighted or ignored. Stowe claimed optimistically that “There is no arguing with pictures, and everyone is impressed by them.”[iv] Joel Chandler Harris echoed and affirmed part of this statement in 1883 when he commented that Stowe’s novel, which he had read twenty years earlier, “made a more vivid impression upon my mind than anything I have ever read since.”[v] Stowe, then, wanted her readers to be “impressed,” and Harris said the novel did make an impression upon his mind. His actions, however, unraveled the other part of Stowe’s claim, that “there is no arguing with pictures.” Harris did indeed argue with her word-pictures—not by criticizing or contradicting them, but by selectively reading, appropriating, and re-staging them in a new context. Uncle Remus’s cabin is an “impression” of the cabin of Uncle Tom—that is, a negative like a woodcut that retains and reproduces the outline of a picture by reversing its foreground and background. Harris’s structuring device of Remus and the Little Boy cuddling in Remus’s cabin retains and reproduces some structuring elements of Stowe’s novel so as to reverse Stowe’s abolitionism.
The story of Stowe’s eponymous character begins and ends in the eponymous built environment—a cabin. Stowe introduces Tom and his cabin in her fourth chapter, where the reader encounters a happy, intact family and later, a Christian community, all thriving under slavery. The vividly-drawn cabin, filled with piety and ideal domesticity, shimmers ironically against the rest of the novel, which details the destruction of Tom’s and other families. Tom’s life ends in Simon Legree’s shed—an emptied-out inversion of the cabin Tom once shared with Chloe and their children. What unites Tom’s two cabins and bridges the ironic reversal is the presence of the young George Shelby. In chapter four, George Shelby, still childish at thirteen, visits Tom and Chloe in their cabin, where he enjoys Chloe’s cooking, teaches Tom to write, and participates in a Christian revival meeting. In Tom’s final scene five years later, George, now eighteen and the master of his estate, reunites with the dying Tom in a shed. The opening and closing scenes of Tom’s life thus triangulate the figures of Tom, George Shelby, and the cabin itself. Harris reproduced this triangle in his narrative device of Uncle Remus and the Little Boy cuddling in Remus’s cabin as Remus tells the Boy stories of Brer Rabbit (this device is commonly called Harris’s “frame”). Even as Harris’s impression of Uncle Tom’s Cabin retained and reproduced Stowe’s triangle, however, he obliterated her irony by restaging Stowe’s first Tom-George-Cabin scene, but ignoring the ironic echo in Stowe’s second Tom-George-Cabin scene. Harris’s Remus and Boy stay stuck in the cabin forever, replaying over and over the same scene of tender nighttime cuddling and storytelling. Each Brer Rabbit story that Remus tells us unique, but the frame, the scene of storytelling, repeats endlessly, comfortingly, with only minor variations, like multiple strikes of a woodcut. Remus and the Boy play out a fantasy of Stowe’s fourth chapter, and the happy slavery it depicts, never ending.
Stowe inadvertently facilitated this selective reading by titling the fourth chapter “An Evening in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” The title of this chapter, unlike any other, replicates and encloses the title of the novel. No other chapter contains the novel’s title; in fact, no other chapter title includes the word “uncle” or “cabin”). The chapter’s title suggests—falsely, pointedly falsely—that the entirety of the novel can be found microcosmically within this chapter; thus Stowe impresses the reader with a vivid and apparently whole story. This vivid wholeness could have the effect of making its twin scene—ironic echo of Tom’s death in another cabin—all the more devastating. Or it could overpower the ironic echo, and ultimately muffle it.