Harriet Beecher Stowe in Our Time

by Susan Belasco, University of Nebraska-Lincoln

 

When Harriet Beecher Stowe died at her home on July 1, 1896, the author of the extensive obituary in the New York Times called her death “one of the closing leaves in an era of our century.”[1]  Similarly, her hometown newspaper, the Hartford Courant, observed: “The death of Mrs. Stowe removes from this world one of the most interesting and conspicuous figures of this generation.”[2] The well-known African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar published a laudatory poem about her in the Century Magazine in 1898.  While the tributes immediately after her death were international in scope, in the following Stowe’s reputation faded.  Through the early twentieth century Uncle Tom’s Cabin was largely unread and certainly little studied as literature.  The novel lived on mainly in negative stereotypes of “Uncle Tom.”  At the same time, both the character of Uncle Tom and the novel together served as a kind of negative touchstone for African American writers such as Charles Chesnutt and Richard Wright, eager to expose the racism of white American society. 

Nonetheless, during World War II, Stowe and her novel became the subject of a successful play.  In the fall of 1944, theater-goers in droves attended performances of Harriet starring Helen Hayes first in New York, and then in Boston and Philadelphia.   Written by the prolific playwriting team, Florence Ryerson and Colin Clements, and directed by Elia Kazan, this historical drama about Stowe’s life mixed fact with fictional characters from Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  The play, dedicated to Eleanor Roosevelt and clearly aimed at weary wartime audiences, concluded with Hayes in her character as Stowe giving a speech extolling the importance of fighting against tyrants: 

Since the dawn of history there have always been tyrants, great and small, who seized upon and enslaved their fellow men.  But, equally always, there have been noble souls who bravely and gladly gave their lives for the eternal right of man to liberty.  The hope of today lies in this:  That we, as a people, are no longer willing to accept these tyrants, and the world they make, without question.  We are learning that a world which holds happiness for some but misery for others cannot endure.[3] 

As the curtain falls on the play, the Beecher and Stowe families gather around Harriet, singing “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” Relating the fight for the abolition of slavery in the U.S. Civil War with the cause of the Allied Powers against the Axis Powers in World War II, the play offers a uniformly positive portrayal of Stowe as a crusader who successfully moved a President and a large number of people to action against a social and moral wrong.   

Mid-twentieth century critical attention to Stowe and her novel was considerably less favorable.  In a famous essay first published on the eve of the emerging Civil Rights movement, “Everybody’s Protest Novel” (1949), James Baldwin called Uncle Tom’s Cabin a “very bad novel, having, in its self-righteous virtuous sentimentality, much in common with Little Women.”[4]  Baldwin presented Stowe as a pamphleteer who not only did little to change attitudes in post-Civil War America, but who actually inculcated racist attitudes and behaviors.  

Beginning in the 1970s, however, the rise of feminist criticism provided an opportunity for new readings of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the study of Stowe as one of the major women writers of the United States.  As these scholars integrated Uncle Tom’s Cabin into the canon of American literature, the novel became a part of the classroom experience of new generations of students and readers.  Today, interest in Stowe is reflected in a long list of projects such as Joan Hedrick’s Pulitzer-Prize winning biography, Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life; an award-winning electronic archive, Steve Railton’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture; a flourishing Harriet Beecher Stowe Society;  new dramatic adaptations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, including Last Supper at Uncle Tom’s Cabin / The Promised Land, choreographed by Bill T. Jones, and an edited dramatization of George Aiken’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Vera Mattlin Jiji, available on a DVD with an extensive study guide for classroom use.   There are also new editions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin prepared by eminent scholars such as Henry Louis Gates, Charles Johnson, Elizabeth Ammons, and David Reynolds; the thriving Stowe Center and Library in Hartford with the new Stowe Prize For Excellence in Writing to Advance Social Justice; dozens of articles and new books on Stowe; and the bicentennial “Stowe at 200” conference at Bowdoin College in June 2011.  The study and teaching of Stowe and her work is flourishing, even as American society continues to grapple with the legacies of enslavement and prejudice. 

Stowe’s characters also remain deeply woven into American culture.  In contemporary dictionaries “Uncle Tom” is usually defined as a derogatory term.  The entry in the Oxford English Dictionary reads: “The name of the hero of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a novel (1851–2) by Harriet Beecher Stowe, used allusively for a black man who is submissively loyal or servile to white men,” providing a lengthy history of the use of the term during the twentieth century.[5]  Fresh controversy over the term erupted in the fall of 2011 when former Republican Presidential candidate Herman Cain was called an “Uncle Tom” by an array of bloggers, and Cord Jefferson writing for the online Good Magazine wrote:  “Cain is black and he’s a conservative, and to many people that makes him an Uncle Tom (or, in deference to anyone not up on their Stowe, a black person who’s especially subservient to whites).”[6]   “Little Eva” was the stage name taken by Eva Narcissus Boyd, the African American singer who was best known for her 1962 hit song,  “The Locomotion.”  The song currently enjoys a new kind of hit status in a video on YouTube.   In one of the more innovative uses of Stowe’s characters, “Topsy” is the name of a new internet search engine which links users to online discussions, Tweets, and other social media.  “Simon Legree” is listed in  Dictionary.com as a term for “a hard merciless taskmaster.”[7]  During Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayer’s confirmation hearings in 2009, the New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd wrote an ironic column responding to Sotomayer’s opponents who felt she was soft on crime.  As she described some of the judge’s tougher rulings, Dowd wittily referred to the judge as Sonia Legree—clearly not thinking that such an allusion required any explanation.[8] 

Finally, in one of the more remarkable moments of recent times, Stowe and her famous novel made history again during the state visit of President Barack Obama and his wife to England in late May 2011.  The Guardian published an image of President Obama and his wife, Michelle, standing with Queen Elizabeth and other members of the royal family examining a special exhibition at Buckingham Palace on May 24.  Among the treasures that President and Mrs. Obama were shown was a first edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin that once belonged to Queen Victoria.  Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of a novel that continues to engage our attention in the twenty-first century was once again in the news, this time with the first African American President of the United States. 

 


[1]“Harriet Beecher Stowe:  Death of the Authoress of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’” New York Times, July 2, 1896, p. 5.

[2] “Harriet Beecher Stowe,” Hartford Courant, July 2, 1896, p. 8.

[3] Florence Ryerson and Colin Clements, Harriet: A Play in Three Acts (New York:  Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1943), p. 211. 

[4] James Baldwin, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” Partisan Review 16 (1949): 578-79.

[5] “Uncle Tom,” Oxford English Dictionary Online.  Accessed December 15, 2011.

[6] Cord Jefferson, “Herman Cain Isn’t an ‘Uncle Tom,’ He’s Rich,” Good Magazine (Winter 2011). Accessed December 15, 2011.  http://www.good.is/post/herman-cain-isn-t-an-uncle-tom-he-s-rich/

[7]Dictionary.com.  Accessed December 15, 2011.   http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/simon+legree

[8] Maureen Dowd, “White Man’s Last Stand,” New York Times, July 15, 2009, A25. 

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