Category Archives: Further Reading

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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“‘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.”[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.

[Continue reading Robin Berstein’s essay HERE]


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