A Wonderful Defense of Slavery



Joel Chandler Harris’s Reading of Uncle Tom’s Cabin

by Robin Bernstein

Harvard University

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.”[1]  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.”[2]

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.”[3]  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.”[4]  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.”[5]  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.

Stowe’s fourth chapter title gave Harris even more fodder by preceding and framing the novel’s title with the phrase, “An Evening In.” “An Evening in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”  The word “in” is crucial: Stowe opens her chapter with a one-paragraph description of the cabin’s exterior, and then leads her second paragraph with the sentence, “Let us enter the dwelling” (17).  Thus Stowe ushers the reader into the cabin, into intimate space lit warmly against the evening sky.  But the chapter title’s use of the word “in” also produces a pun.  The “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in the chapter title refers both to the character’s home and to the novel itself.  So with the addition of the word “in,” the chapter title means, “The Characters are Spending an Evening inside Uncle Tom’s Dwelling” and “The Reader is Spending an Evening Reading the Novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”  The word “in” refers to both physical enclosure in a cabin and mental interiority created by the act of novel-reading.

Stowe’s first Tom-George-cabin scene, hinged to the final Tom-George-cabin scene, is devastating; but that first scene, impressed upon a reader’s mind and severed from its ironic echo, constructs enslavement and slaveholding as beautiful, tender, and innocent.  In a 1904 article in The Saturday Evening Post, Harris described Stowe’s novel—or at least the parts of it that impressed themselves into his mind—in exactly these terms:

Uncle Tom . . . the beloved Master, and the rest—are products of the system the text of the book is all the time condemning. . . .The real moral that Mrs. Stowe’s book teaches is that the . . . realities [of slavery], under the best and happiest conditions, possess a romantic beauty and a tenderness all their own; and it has so happened in the course of time that this romantic feature . . . has become the essence, and almost the substance, of the old plantation as we remember it.[6]

Through Remus, Harris restaged Stowe’s “old plantation” as he remembered it.  In Henry James’s word, Tom “flew” into Harris’s fiction, and like Dorothy, he brought his dwelling and his little friend, too.  Harris opened his first book with a chapter titled “Uncle Remus Initiates the Little Boy.”  This chapter title, like Stowe’s fourth, is the only one to include the word “Uncle,” the first word in the book’s respective titles.  Where Stowe’s chapter title names Uncle Tom and his cabin but not George Shelby, Harris names Uncle Remus and the Little Boy but not the cabin.  However, the cabin, for Harris, is as important as George Shelby is for Stowe.  Harris’s first chapter “initiates” the Little Boy, and the reader, with the vision of a cabin lit warmly against the night sky.  This is the opening to Harris’s first book:

One evening recently, the lady whom Uncle Remus calls “Miss Sally” missed her little seven-year-old.  Making search for him through the house and through the yard, she heard the sound of voices in the old man’s cabin, and, looking through the window, saw the boy sitting by Uncle Remus.  His head rested against the old man’s arm, and he was gazing with an expression of the most intense interest into the rough, weather-beaten face, that beamed so kindly upon him.[7]

Harris ushers the reader into his narrative “frame” through the eyes of Miss Sally, who looks through the cabin window to witness the tender intimacy between the man and the boy.  The characters, as Sally sees them, are motionless, a tableau of idealized servitude.  The window frames the scene, simultaneously boxing the characters and opening them to visual inspection.  Harris’s night-lit cabin, his restaging of the Tom-George-cabin triangle, is a diorama that invites appreciation, a tenderly-sensed interiority, and above all, noninterference. Stowe, in her antebellum context, vivified scenes of slavery to incite abolitionist action, but Harris, writing immediately after the end of Reconstruction in 1877, restaged slavery as a unique and romantic institution—a Lost Cause.

Harris retained and reproduced Stowe’s triangle of “Uncle”-boy-cabin; he set that triangle, as did Stowe, against the beautiful evening sky.   But he reversed Stowe’s abolition along the axis of that little word, “in.”  Stowe implicated her reader politically when she titled her chapter “An Evening in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”  The reader who accepts Stowe’s invitation to “enter the dwelling” spends an evening “in” Uncle Tom’s cabin when he or she spends an evening reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  By being “in” the novel—that is, by reading it—the reader enters the cabin—that is, not only Tom’s freestanding dwelling, but also the full panorama of linked pictures, of subsequent cabins.  That is, when Stowe ushers the reader into “An Evening in Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” she locates the reader in the far-reaching system of slavery.  Stowe’s punning title says to the reader, “You are in (reading) my novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin.  You are in (reading the scene set in) Uncle Tom’s dwelling.  You are in (implicated in) the political system I condemn.”

The title of Harris’s parallel chapter, “Uncle Remus Initiates the Little Boy,” inverts Stowe.  Whereas Stowe draws her readers into the cabin for the purpose of implicating them, spurring them to moral action, Uncle Remus initiates the Little Boy, draws him into Remus’s cabin for the purpose of escaping into fantastical tales of Brer Rabbit’s amoral mayhem, framed by Remus’s unchanging tenderness.  Harris took the Brer Rabbit tales from African American folklore, and he took his narrative “frame” from Stowe.  But it was Stowe’s strategies of irony and vivid description that, ironically, enabled Harris to re-deploy Tom, George, and the cabin in defense of slavery.

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