Category Archives: Original Posts

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. 


April 1, 1852

Transcription of Part 2 of Chapter 42 to End

Chapter XLII—Continued.

George’s feelings and views, as an educated man, may be best expressed in a letter to one of his friends:

“I feel somewhat at a loss, as to my future course. True, as you have said to me, I might mingle in the circles of the whites, in this country, my shade of color is so slight, and that of my wife and family scarce perceptible. Well, perhaps, on sufferance, I might. But, to tell you the truth, I have no wish to.

“My sympathies are not for my father’s race, but for my mother’s. To him I was no more than a fine dog or horse; to my poor heart-broken mother I was a child; and, though I never saw her, after the cruel sale that separated us, till she died, yet I know she always loved me dearly. I know it by my own heart. When I think of all she suffered, of my own early sufferings, of the distresses and struggles of my heroic wife, of my sister, sold in the New Orleans slave-market—though I hope to have no unchristian sentiments, yet I may be excused for saying, I have no wish to pass for an American, or to identify myself with them.

“It is with the oppressed, enslaved African race that I cast in my lot; and, if I wished anything, I would wish myself two shades darker, rather than one lighter.

“The desire and yearning of my soul is for an African nationality. I want a people that shall have a tangible, separate existence of its own; and where am I to look for it? Not in Hayti; for in Hayti they had nothing to start with. A stream cannot rise above its fountain. The race that formed the character of the Haytiens was a worn-out, effeminate one; and, of course, the subject race will be centuries in rising to anything.

“Where, then, shall I look? On the shores of Africa I see a republic—a republic formed of picked men, who, by energy and self-educating force, have in many cases, individually, raised themselves above a condition of slavery. Having gone through a preparatory stage of feebleness, this republic has, at last, become an acknowledged nation on the face of the earth—acknowledged by both France and England. There it is my wish to go, and find myself a people.

“I am aware, now, that I shall have you all against me; but, before you strike, hear me. During my stay in France, I have followed up, with intense interest, the history of my people in America. I have noted the struggle between abolitionist and colonizationist, and have received some impressions, as a distant spectator, which could never have occurred to me as a participator.

“I grant that this Liberia may have subserved all sorts of purposes, by being played off, in the hands of our oppressors, against us. Doubtless the scheme may have been used, in unjustifiable ways, as a means of retarding our emancipation. But the question to me is, Is there not a God above all man’s schemes? May He not have overruled their designs, and founded for us a nation by them?

[Continue reading Part 2 of Chapter 42 to end of novel and Stowe’s departing message to Era readers, here.]

Commentary by David Reynolds

Distinguished Professor at the Graduate Center of the City University of New York

The last three chapters of Uncle Tom’s Cabin offer Stowe’s thoughts on possible solutions to the slavery problem.   With the wisdom of hindsight, these proposed solutions can seem idealistic or improbable.  But in the early 1850s, there was nothing like a consensus about how to resolve the slavery issue. The antislavery Liberty Party had fared poorly in the elections of 1844 and 1848, and the Whigs and Democrats were splitting apart over slavery.  Antislavery reformers were divided between radical Garrisonians, evangelical Tappanites, and Transcendentalist individualists like Thoreau and Alcott.  The various movements saw inner conflict—Frederick Douglass, for instance, made a dramatic break with William Lloyd Garrison over the Constitution, which Douglass viewed as antislavery in spirit, while Garrison saw it as a hellish, proslavery document.

Into the fray stepped an overburdened housewife who, fueled by righteous anger, who wrote what was destined to become the most influential novel ever written by an American.  The solutions Stowe proposed in her final chapters—individual moral transformation, the voluntary manumission of slaves, colonization, and education and career advancement for blacks—seemed as plausible as any other programs of the time.  The first of her solutions, moral transformation, gets to the heart of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which portrays slavery as a wicked institution at odds with the Bible and with the principles of the founding fathers.  Is there anything Americans can do to get rid of slavery? Stowe asks.  She answers by moral fiat: “They can see to it that they feel right.”   That is, if individuals have a fundamental change of heart, they will perceive the injustice of slavery and work to rid the nation of this foul institution.  She invites readers to take action.  Her portrayal of George Shelby indicates what she wants Southerners to do: that is, recognize that the voluntary manumission of enslaved blacks is just and humane. Stowe drives home the tragic plight of slave families when she describes Chloe’s happy expectation of an imminent reunion with her husband, an expectation dashed byShelby’s report of Tom’s death at the hands of Legree. The extreme sufferingShelby has witnessed leads him to emancipate his slaves with the promise of paying them for their labor.  This act of voluntary manumission follows the emotional logic of the novel.  If blacks are no longer enslaved, they cannot be bought and sold; their families cannot be forcibly ripped apart, nor can women be used as breeding machines or as helpless pawns in the Southern sex trade.

[Continue reading the full text of  David Reynolds’ commentary here.]


March 25, 1852

Transcription of Chapters 41 and 42

Chapter XLI—Continued.

After this, Legree became a harder drinker than ever before. He no longer drank cautiously, prudently, but imprudently and recklessly.

There were reports around the country, soon after, that he was sick and dying. Excess had brought on that frightful disease that seems to throw the lurid shadows of a coming retribution back into the present life. None could bear the horrors of that sick room, when he raved and screamed, and spoke of sights which almost stopped the blood of those who heard him; and, at his dying bed, stood a stern, white, inexorable figure, saying, “Come! come! come!”

By a singular coincidence, on the very night that this vision appeared to Legree, the house-door was found open in the morning, and some of the Negroes had seen two white figures gliding down the avenue towards the high-road.

It was sunrise when Cassy and Emmeline paused for a moment in a little knot of trees near the town.

Cassy was dressed after the manner of the Creole Spanish ladies—wholly in black. A small black bonnet on her head, covered by a veil thick with embroidery, concealed her face. It had been agreed that, in their escape, she was to personate the character of a Creole lady, and Emmeline that of her servant.

Brought up from early life in connection with the highest society, the language, movements, and air of Cassy were all in agreement with this idea; and she had still enough remaining with her of a once splendid wardrobe and set of jewels, to enable her to personate the thing to advantage.

She stopped in the outskirts of the town, where she had noticed trunks for sale, and purchased a handsome one. This she requested the man to send along with her. And, accordingly, thus escorted by a boy wheeling her trunk, and Emmeline behind her carrying her carpet-bag and sundry bundles, she made her appearance at the small tavern like a lady of consideration.

The first person that struck her, after her arrival, was George Shelby, who was staying there, awaiting the next boat.

Cassy had remarked the young man from her loop-hole in the garret, and seen him bear away the body of Tom, and observed, with secret exultation, his rencontre with Legree. Subsequently, she had gathered, from the conversations she had overheard among the Negroes, as she glided about in her ghostly disguise, after nightfall, who he was, and in what relation he stood to Tom. She therefore felt an immediate accession of confidence, when she found that he was, like herself, awaiting the next boat.

Cassy’s air and manner, address, and evident command of money, prevented any rising disposition to suspicion in the hotel. People never inquire too closely into those who are fair on the main point, of paying well—a thing which Cassy had foreseen when she provided herself with money.

In the edge of the evening, a boat was heard coming along, and George Shelby handed Cassy aboard, with the politeness which comes naturally to every Kentuckian, and exerted himself to provide her with a good state-room.

Cassy kept her room and bed, on pretext of illness, during the whole time they were on Red river; and was waited on, with obsequious devotion, by her attendant.

When they arrived at the Mississippi river, George, having learned that the course of the strange lady was upward, like his own, proposed to take a state-room for her on the same boat with himself—good-naturedly compassionating her feeble health, and desirous to do what he could to assist her.

Behold, therefore, the whole party safely transferred to the good steamer Cincinnati, and sweeping up the river under a powerful head of steam.

[Continue reading Part 2 of Chapter 41 and Part 1 of chapter 42, here.]

Commentary by Beth Lueck

Associate Professor of Language and Literature at University of Wisconsin-Whitewater

            Uncle Tom’s Cabin is filled with separations and losses because of slavery:  husbands and wives separated, mothers and children torn from each other, families irretrievably broken.  As a mother herself, one who had lost a much loved baby, Charley, Harriet Beecher Stowe sympathized with the losses wrought by slavery.  “It was at his dying bed & at his grave,” she recalled, “that I learnt what a poor slave mother may feel when her child is torn away from her.”  She prayed that “such anguish” on her own part “might not be suffered in vain!”  Stowe was especially sensitive to slavery’s destruction of the family, and her novel offers one heartbreaking example after another of these separations.  In the early chapters, Eliza’s son, Harry, is sold, compelling her to run away in an effort to save him.  Uncle Tom, of course, is also sold; headed south, he doubts that he will ever see his wife or children again. 

The last chapters of the book, however, reverse this movement.  Although many of the characters will never see their loved ones again—most notably, Uncle Tom himself—others are reunited.  George Harris and his wife, Eliza, are already reunited, but George is also reunited with his sister, Emily, now Madame de Thoux.  Cassy, whose older children were sold and who killed her infant son rather than let him grow up to be sold,[1] is finally reunited with her lost daughter, Eliza, and introduced to her granddaughter.  In chapter 42 Stowe describes the tender reunion of the two families:  “the new-found family embraced each other, with a holy trust in Him who from such peril and dangers, and by such unknown ways, had brought them together.”  She underscores the truthfulness of such stories “when a system prevails which whirls families and scatters their members, as the wind whirls and scatters the leaves of autumn.  These shores of refuge [Canada], like the eternal shore, often unite again, in glad communion, hearts that for long years have mourned each other as lost.”  

          


[1]Stowe attests to the truthfulness of this in the last chapter, Concluding Remarks:  “There are those living who know the mothers whom this accursed traffic has driven to the murder of their children; and themselves seeking in death a shelter from woes more dreaded than death.”

[Continue reading the full text of  Beth Lueck’s commentary here.]

 


The Uncle Tom’s Cabin Phenomenon

March 20, 2012 marked the 160th anniversary of the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, Connecticut commemorated this anniversary with a 24-Hour Reading of Stowe’s groundbreaking novel. The event also included a screening of the 1902 silent film adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and a discussion led by Adena Spingarn, a doctoral student at Harvard University.

Please enjoy this piece written by Adena Spingarn as we commemorate this anniversary week!

At the end of 1852, less than a year after the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the New York Literary World described Stowe’s novel as “a phenomenon in the literary world, one of those phenomena which set at naught all previous experience and baffle all established and recognized principles.”[i] In the first year of its publication, Uncle Tom’s Cabin had sold a record-making 300,000 copies in the United States alone, the equivalent of close to 7 million copies in today’s market. (The number becomes even more impressive when one considers that each copy is estimated to have had 8 to 10 readers. [ii]) And these unprecedented domestic sales paled in comparison to the international figures: first-year sales reached close to one million between the United States and Britain, with more copies sold all over the world as translations came out.

From the beginning, the astonishing success of Uncle Tom’s Cabin mystified critics, who often posed some version of the question asked by Christian Parlor Magazine a few months after the novel’s publication: “What is in it to make it so wonderful?”[iii] But explaining the novel’s instant and enormous popularity requires a look at more than its text. The Uncle Tom’s Cabin phenomenon that made Uncle Tom a household name came out of a perfect storm of factors both within and outside of the novel. With almost preternatural timing, Uncle Tom entered a world that was singularly poised for the massive circulation of his image and a society that had just become ready for him.

With the recent passing of the Fugitive Slave Law (part of the Compromise of 1850), slavery had taken on an increasingly central role in American political life. The law required all Americans, even those living in states where slavery was illegal, to help return runaway slaves to their masters. United States marshals and deputy marshals who refused to do everything in their power to capture a fugitive slave would be fined one thousand dollars, and if a fugitive escaped under the marshal’s watch, he was liable for the slave’s full value. Any person who obstructed the arrest of a fugitive or attempted to help a fugitive in any way—even by providing food or shelter—was liable to a one thousand dollar fine and imprisonment for six months.[iv] Thus, Northerners who had been content to leave the slavery issue to the South were now forced, to their distress, to become an active part of it.

Stowe herself was indignant about the Fugitive Slave Law, writing to her sister that it made her feel “almost choked sometimes with pent up wrath that does no good.”[v] Shortly after its passage, when another sister wrote her a letter urging her to use her talent for writing to help the nation understand the injustice of slavery, Stowe realized that fiction could be a way for her to channel her righteous anger into something productive. Upon reading the letter in the parlor one evening, she stood up and declared to her children, “I will write something. I will if I live.”[vi]

At the same time that Americans were becoming more receptive to an anti-slavery message, new technologies promoted the uniquely rapid spread and wide embrace of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Cost-saving technological advancements in printing made books available to a much larger audience of readers than before. The steam-powered Adams Power Printing Press, patented in 1836, enabled much faster production of books, and therefore drastically reduced their cost. With the invention of stereotyping in 1811 and electrotyping in 1841, new editions of books no longer required the re-setting of type. Publishers could make permanent, relatively inexpensive metal plates and store them for subsequent editions. Other technologies that aided book production included two paper-making machines that came into widespread use in the 1830s: the belt-based Foudrinier (1799) and Thomas Gilpin’s cylinder (1816). By allowing the production of continuous rolls of paper in large widths, these machines offered a significant savings of time over sheet-by-sheet printing.[vii]

Technological advancements outside of book production also promoted the wide circulation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Beginning in the 1830s and continuing until the Civil War, an enormous boom in the building of railways spread railroad tracks across the United States, connecting what had been regional publishing networks into a growing national print culture. Because the railroad network was clustered in the Northeast, publishers and authors could and did ignore the preferences of Southern readers in favor of Northern markets. Improved and cheaper domestic lighting and wider availability of eyeglasses also expanded the hours for reading and made it easier to sit down with a book.[viii]

Entering this growing national literary marketplace, Uncle Tom’s Cabin also benefited from the unusually canny and extensive promotional strategies of the novel’s first publisher, the small Boston firm John P. Jewett and Company. Boston’s leading publisher, Phillips, Sampson, and Co., had already rejected Stowe’s serialized novel, one partner holding that an anti-slavery novel serialized in an abolitionist journal “would not sell a thousand copies”—clearly a monumental misjudgment.[ix] But Jewett’s wife, who had started reading the serials of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the National Era, urged her husband to publish it, insisting that it would sell well. Before a third of the novel had been serialized, Jewett wrote to Stowe and secured a contract with her to print Uncle Tom’s Cabin, not yet knowing how long the novel would eventually become.

An unusually savvy marketer, Jewett both capitalized on existing publicity practices to promote Uncle Tom’s Cabin and developed effective new ones. With a prophetic understanding of the power of advertising, he ensured extensive coverage of Stowe’s novel before its publication by spending thousands of dollars sending advertisements and prepared notices about the novel to magazines and newspapers. Following the custom of the day, these publications would print Jewett’s notices as editorial matter, with little or no amendment, as a kind of compensation for purchasing advertising.[x] Though Jewett’s firm was small and had limited resources, he advertised as much as firms more than five times the size of his own, and he did so with greater acuity. While other publishers tended to advertise a different title in each issue of a journal, Jewett repeated a single advertisement in several issues, building interest over time.[xi]

But Jewett’s real innovation came once the novel was in print, in his sophisticated and ahead-of-his-time understanding that the choice to buy something was as much a social decision as a personal one. In paid advertisements and prepared notices, Jewett went beyond the usual advertising practice of informing consumers about the content and quality of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. More importantly, he stressed the novel’s immense success, going into detail not only about its record sales figures but also the complicated logistical demands of printing so many copies. By handling the novel’s success as itself “an unprecedented event, a publishing phenomenon,” Jewett’s promotional strategy built on its own success, using past sales to promote future ones.[xii]

One of Jewett’s reports, reprinted in The Liberator and The Independent, among others, announced that the publishing firm was having trouble meeting the high demand for Uncle Tom’s Cabin, despite keeping three papers mills and three Adams power presses running 24 hours every day of the week except Sunday. Within three weeks of the novel’s publication, 20,000 copies had sold.[xiii] By May, The Independent reported, 125 to 200 bookbinders were constantly at work binding 90,000 pounds of paper into 55 tons of bound volumes.[xiv] By June, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was in such high demand at New York’s Mercantile Library that the library purchased 45 copies, which remained in constant rotation among the city’s future merchants.[xv] A few copies of the novel even found their way across the country to California, where miners paid 25 cents to take their turn at reading it.[xvi] By reading about all of the excitement over Stowe’s novel, consumers were more likely to be swept up along with it. Jewett, the first publisher to so heavily emphasize these kinds of facts and figures, anticipated what has become common knowledge in contemporary publishing, where magazines and mass-market trade books often trumpet numbers on their covers (“10 Ways to Cut Calories,” People magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People,” The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People). Though splashing numbers on the covers of magazines often makes for a cluttered appearance, it is so effective in boosting newsstand sales that magazine publishers often embrace the tactic, while opting for a simpler version of the cover for the subscribers who have already purchased their copy in advance and therefore don’t need to be convinced. [xvii]

When sales of Uncle Tom’s Cabin began to level towards the end of 1852, Jewett responded by coming out with a cheaper “Edition for the Million,” which helped sell more copies of the novel after the upper end of the market had become saturated.[xviii] And with sales of that edition calming by the end of 1853, the following year Jewett published Stowe’s Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Although the Key was explicitly positioned as a defense of Stowe’s account of slavery, it also, and perhaps more importantly, kept Uncle Tom in the limelight.

Jewett also understood the potential of finding new forums through which to expand the reach of the novel beyond Stowe’s text. For further promotion, he hired the poet John Greenleaf Whittier to write a poem, “Little Eva: Uncle Tom’s Guardian Angel,” and then had the composer Manuel Emilio set Whittier’s lyrics to music.

But even outside of Jewett’s savvy publicity tactics, Uncle Tom’s Cabin seemed to spur its own promotion, to an astounding extent. Jewett’s effort at selling branded products—what has come to be called merchandising—ultimately constituted a small portion of the massive proliferation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin spin-offs produced without his or Stowe’s knowledge or consent. Indeed, within months of the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, J.S. Dwight’s prominent music journal grumbled that every music publisher had to make his own “Little Eva” song, with composers paying more attention to song titles than to the quality of the music: “all the minor composers are as busy on this theme, as if it were the one point of contact for the time being with the popular sympathies.”[xix] If not the only point of contact with the popular sympathies, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was certainly the most efficient means of accessing them. It provided a foundation of ready popularity, on which any other creator or manufacturer could build.

Perhaps most importantly, the novel’s fast-moving, multi-threaded plot, its archetypal characters, and its panoramic scope made it a uniquely rich source for adaptation and translation, suited to any genre and attractive to all audiences. Those interested in riding the wave of the novel’s popularity found that it offered a treasure trove of source material: romance and violence, comedy and tragedy, happy families and those torn apart, angels and demons, convention and radicalism. And these elements could be selectively plucked and re-imagined in a vast number of ways: moral theater for church groups, minstrel shows for audiences looking for a laugh, playing cards for children, porcelain figurines for display in parlors, fine paintings and sculptures for art collectors.

With the spread of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, people from every walk of life and from all over the world wept in sympathy for the cruel plight of black slaves, from the working class Frenchman who bought his bread at an Uncle Tom bakeshop to British royalty like the Earl of Shaftesbury, who announced himself a fan. George Sand’s breathless review of the novel proclaimed, “This book is in all hands and in all journals. It has, and will have, editions in every form; people devour it, they cover it with tears. It is no longer permissible to those who can read not to have read it.”[xx] Uncle Tom’s Cabin became not only the best-selling book of the nineteenth century after the Bible, but also the first great American success in the international cultural marketplace. The novel’s centrality to the coming of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery was suggested by none other than Abraham Lincoln, who was rumored to have said, upon meeting Stowe, “So this is the little lady who wrote the book that started this great war.”[xxi]

But the novel’s political impact reached far beyond the issue of slavery, to the very humanity of African-Americans. Although others had argued for the equality of the races, most notably Frederick Douglass, who presented himself as a prime example of black achievement, Uncle Tom was the first black hero in American literature to capture the minds and hearts of a large audience. George Eliot, for one, wrote that Stowe had “invented the Negro novel,” meaning not that Stowe was the first novelist to include black characters, but rather that she was the first one to take them seriously as human beings.[xxii] Uncle Tom, in his colossal popularity, launched the first major national conversation about the humanity of African-Americans. 

The immense cultural power of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was immediately obvious not only to abolitionists, but also to pro-slavery Americans, who worried that the novel, with its instant popularity and sympathetic readership, would help bring on the abolition of slavery. To counter Stowe’s attacks, advocates of slavery responded with their own ideological breed of fiction. “In order to meet the fallacies of this abolition tale, it would be well if the friends of the Union would array fiction against fiction,” reasoned the New York Mirror. “Meet the disunionists with their own chosen weapon, and they are foiled.”[xxiii] Within a few months of the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a Southern writer came out with Life at the South: Uncle Tom’s Cabin As It Is in order to set the slavery record straight. Several more anti-Tom texts followed; The Independent counted eight within six months, noting that Stowe’s novel seemed to have produced a whole new school of literature from both sides of the slavery debate.[xxiv] Before Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Southern plantation novels had concentrated on the lives of the white planters, with blacks appearing only in bit parts. But Stowe’s novel brought them front and center, and lastingly so.[xxv] With the popularity of her novel, Stowe had set up a cultural battleground upon which the nature of both the institution of slavery and of African-Americans would be hotly contested for many years to come.


[i]  “The Uncle Tom Epidemic,” The Literary World (New York), Dec. 4, 1852, 355.

[ii] André Schiffrin, The Business of Books (London: Verso, 2001), 8.

[iii] “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Christian Parlor Magazine, May 1, 1852.

[iv] For more on the enactment and enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act, see Stanley Campbell, The Slave Catchers: Enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, 1850-1860 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968).

[v] Joan D. Hedrick, Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 204.

[vi] Ibid 207.

[vii] Ronald J. Zboray, A Fictive People: Antebellum Economic Development and the American Reading Public (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993).

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Claire Parfait, The Publishing History of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, 1852-2002 (Hampshire, England: Ashgate, 2007), 34.

[x] In the insider’s world of mid-nineteenth-century American publishing, magazines and newspapers usually gave positive notices to publishers and authors who had influence, paid for advertisements, or sent handsome review copies. Those who did not were punished with negative reviews or total silence. See William Charvat, “James T. Fields and the Beginnings of Book Promotion, 1840-1855.” The Profession of Authorship in America, 1800-1870: The Papers of William Charvat, ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1968).

[xi] Parfait, The Publishing History of Uncle Tom’s Cabin.

[xii] Ibid, 53.

[xiii] “Extraordinary Demand for ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’” The Liberator (Boston), April 9, 1852.

[xiv] “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” The Independent (New York), May 13, 1852.

[xv] “Literary,” The Independent (New York), June 10, 1852.

[xvi] “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” The National Anti-Slavery Standard. August 19, 1852.

[xvii] See Katharine Q. Seelye, “Lurid Numbers on Glossy Pages! (Magazines Exploit What Sells),” The New York Times, February 10, 2006.

[xviii] Parfait, 80.

[xix] “Eva’s Parting,” Dwight’s Journal of Music, July 31, 1852.

[xx] George Sand, “Review of Uncle Tom’s Cabin,La Presse, Dec. 17, 1852.

[xxi] This anecdote is often repeated, but possibly apocryphal, as there was no report of such an exchange until much later, in Charles Edward Stowe’s 1889 biography, A Life of Harriet Beecher Stowe.

[xxii] George Eliot, “Review of Dred,” The Westminister Review 10 (October 1856): 571-73.

[xxiii] Reprinted in The Liberator, June 11, 1852.

[xxiv] “Uncle Tom Literature,” The Independent, Sept. 30, 1852.

[xxv] William Taylor, Cavalier and Yankee: The Old South and the American National Character (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1979).

 


March 11, 1852

Transcription of Chapter 38 and Part 1 of Chapter 39

Chapter XXXVIII.

“The way of the wicked is as darkness; he knoweth not at what he stumbleth.”

The garret of the house that Legree occupied, like most other garrets, was a great, desolate space, dusty, hung with cobwebs, and littered with cast-off lumber. The opulent family that had inhabited the house in the days of its splendor had imported a great deal of splendid furniture, some of which they had taken away with them, while some remained standing desolately in mouldering, unoccupied rooms, or stored away in this place. One or two immense packing-boxes, in which this furniture was brought, stood against the sides of the garret. There was a small window there, which let in through its dingy, dusty panes, a scanty, uncertain light on the tall, high-backed chairs and dusty tables that had once seen better days. Altogether, it was a weird and ghostly place; but ghostly as it was, it wanted not in legends among the superstitious negroes, to increase its terrors. Some few years before, a negro woman who had incurred Legree’s displeasure was confined there for several weeks. What passed there, we do not say; the negroes used to whisper darkly to each other; but it was known that the body of the unfortunate creature was one day taken down from there, and buried; and after that it was said that oaths and cursings, and the sound of violent blows, used to ring through that old garret, and mingled with wailings and groans of despair. Once, when Legree chanced to overhear something of this kind, he flew into a violent passion, and swore that the next one that told stories about that garret should have an opportunity of knowing what was there, for he would chain them up there for a week. This hint was enough to repress talking, though of course it did not disturb the credit of the story in the least.

[Continue reading the full text of chapter 38 and first part of 39, here.]

Commentary by Denise Kohn

 Assistant Professor of English at Baldwin-Wallace College

In Chapter 38, Stowe returns to the harrowing plot of Tom and Cassy on Legree’s plantation, which she had briefly interrupted in Chapter 37 with the story of George and Eliza’s final passage on the Underground Railroad to Canada. While the freedom of the Harris family provides readers with much-needed catharsis, the juxtaposition of their happiness in Canada to the horror of slavery in Louisiana heightens the nightmarish world of Legree’s plantation. Stowe further underscores the contrast between the fates of George and Tom through the chapter titles. While Chapter 37 is titled “Liberty,” Stowe titles Chapter 38, “Victory,” to suggest that the ultimate freedom is the victory of the Christian afterlife. Stowe employs juxtaposition again in Chapter 39, “Stratagem,” the other chapter in this week’s installment, which details Cassy’s daring plan to run away. While Stowe celebrates Tom’s heroic faith, which allows him to triumph over Legree, she situates his story of Christian suffering within the context of the Harris family’s successful escape and Cassy’s bold wit and cool bravery.

In the title and epigraph to Chapter 38, Stowe references 1 Corinthians 15:56-57: “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin; and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.” In the largest sense, Tom’s victory, then, is the victory of Christian salvation over death and hell. Tom’s victory, however, is multi-faceted. In Chapter 38, his faith gives him a personal victory over his psychological despair and the physical brutality of slavery on Legree’s plantation.  Deprived of even the most basic food and sleep, Tom no longer has time or strength to read the Bible and begins to wonder if  “God had forgotten him.” Here, as elsewhere in the novel, Stowe shows how slavery affects even the strongest and most devout—for if Tom can lose sight of his faith, how can anyone, especially women like Cassy who have been subjected to years of drunken sexual abuse, be expected to sustain belief?  Yet when Legree tries to tempt Tom with the promise of an easier life and tells him to “hold to me,” in other words to serve and believe in Legree’s power rather than God, Tom bravely refuses.

[Continue reading the full text of  Denise Kohn’s commentary here.]

How did Stowe connect this chapter to real-life stories? Find out here!

Check out the top news stories, this week in 1852, here!


March 4, 1852

Transcription of Chapters 36 and 37

Chapter XXXVI.

“No matter with what solemnities he may have been devoted on the altar of slavery, the moment he touches the sacred soil of Britain, the altar and the god sink together in the dust, and he stands redeemed, regenerated, and disenthralled, by the irresistible genius of Universal Emancipation.

A while we must leave Tom in the hands of his captors, while we turn to pursue the fortunes of George and his wife, whom we left in friendly hands in a farm-house on the road-side.

Tom Loker we left groaning and tousling in a most immaculately clean Quaker bed, under the motherly supervision of Aunt Dorcas, who found him to the full as tractable a patient as a sick bison.

Imagine a tall, dignified woman, whose clear muslin cap shades waves of silvery hair, parted on a broad, clear forehead, which overarches thoughtful gray eyes—a snowy handkerchief of lisse crape is folded neatly across her bosom, her glossy brown silk dress rustles peacefully as she glides up and down the chamber.

“The devil!” says Tom Loker, giving a great throw to the bedclothes.

“I must request thee, Thomas, not to use such language,” says Aunt Dorcas, as she quietly re-arranges the bed.

“Well, I won’t, granny, if I can help it,” says Tom; “but it’s enough to make a fellow swear—so cursedly hot.”

Dorcas removed a comforter from the bed, straightened the clothes again, and tucked them in, till Tom looked something like a chrysalis, remarking as she did so:

“I wish, friend, thee would leave off cursing, and think upon thy ways.”

“What the devil should I think of them for?” says Tom. “Last thing ever I want to think of. Oh, dear me!” and Tom flounced over, untucking and deranging everything, in a manner perfectly frightful to behold.

“That fellow and gal are here, I spose,” said he, sullenly.

“They are so,” said Dorcas.

[Continue reading the full text of chapters 36 and 37, here.]

Commentary by Jo-Ann Morgan

Associate Professor in the Department of African American Studies and the Department of Art at Western Illinois University

Harriet Beecher Stowe was at the height of Christian persuasion with the March 4, 1852 installment of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” for The National Era. Later, when pictures were added, they too sounded inspirational tones.

True to Stowe’s evangelical intent, chapters 36 and 37 rejoice at pinnacle moments in the lives of several of her main characters. Eliza, with husband George and son Harry, breathe the sanctified air of freedom as they reach Canada at last. Meanwhile, down in Louisiana, Uncle Tom suffers through his darkest hour of southern bondage, wrestling with his strength of faith as he struggles to awaken the best in a desperate slave woman named Cassy.

Of the full-page illustrations Hammatt Billings’ created for the original 1852 John P. Jewett published book version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, touted in advertisements as “six elegant designs,” those related to events of serial chapters 36 and 37 most emphasize themes of salvation and redemption. Billings had relied on Christian iconography earlier in the book. In his print captioned “Eliza comes to tell Uncle Tom that he is sold, and that she is running away to save her child,” the young mother cradles her son in a manner recalling a Madonna and child of Renaissance paintings. An un-inked area of bare page surrounding the slave’s head in his drawing of “Little Eva and Uncle Tom in the Arbor” may seem predictive of a halo for the eventual martyr he will become.

For Eliza and George’s triumphant liberation, consummated at the end of chapter 36, Stowe relies on a convention of American literature dating at least from pre-republic years. Puritan Mary Rowlandson, released from Indian captivity in 1682, had fallen to her knees in gratitude. “Thus hath the Lord brought me and mine out of that horrible pit, and hath set us in the midst of tender-hearted and compassionate Christians,” she wrote. Thanking the almighty for deliverance, bodily and otherwise, was requisite for the Harris family too. After fleeing slaveholder captivity, “the new-made freeman and his wife knelt down, and, with their wondering child in their arms, returned their solemn thanks to God,” exalted Stowe.

Fig. 1: Hammatt Billings engraving, “The fugitives safe in a free land”, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Boston: John P. Jewett, 1852) 238

Billings’ image of “The fugitives safe in a free land” is also heir to Christian expressive traditions. (Fig. 1) European fine art was rich with prayerful supplicants. In American anti-slavery imagery of the early nineteenth century, the kneeling slave, hands raised in prayer, eyes heavenward had become emblematic of the movement.

[Continue reading the full text of  Jo-Ann Morgan’s commentary here.]

How did Stowe connect this chapter to real-life stories? Find out here!

Check out the top news stories, this week in 1852, here!


February 26, 1852

Transcription of Chapter 35

Chapter XXXV.

“Which long for death, but it fleeth from them.”

Cassy entered the room, and found Emmeline sitting, pale with fear, in the farthest corner of it. As she came in, the girl started nervously up, but, on seeing who it was, rushed forward, and catching her arm, said:

“Oh, Cassy, is it you? I’m so glad you’ve come. I was afraid it was ——. Oh, you don’t know what a horrid noise there has been down stairs, all this evening!”

“I ought to know,” said Cassy, drily, “I’ve heard it often enough.”

“Oh, Cassy, do tell me, couldn’t we get away from this place? I don’t care where—into the swamps—among the snakes—anywhere. Couldn’t we get somewhere, away from here?”

“Nowhere but into our graves!” said Cassy.

“Did you ever try?”

“I’ve seen enough of trying; and what comes of it?” said Cassy.

“I’d be willing to live in the swamps, and gnaw the bark from trees. I aint afraid even of snakes. I’d rather have one near me than—him,” said Emmeline, eagerly.

“There have been a good many here of your opinion,” said Cassy. “But you couldn’t stay in the swamps; you’d be tracked by the dogs, and brought back, and then”——

“What would he do?” said the girl, looking with breathless interest in her face.

[Continue reading the full text of chapter 35, here.]

Commentary by Les Harrison

 Associate Professor at Virginia Commonwealth University

While this installment of Uncle Tom’s Cabin does little to advance the plot of the novel, it contains three actions central to the amplification of Stowe’s themes of motherhood and the world to come. The first of these is Cassy’s conversation with Emmeline. Reprising her role as an atheistic tempter from her conversations with Tom in chapter 33, “The Quadroon’s Story,” Cassy’s counsels Emmeline to turn to alcohol in order to cope with the brutality of slavery.

For Stowe, Cassy’s gravest error is embodied in her impassioned exclamation to Emmeline at the start of the chapter: “What use is it for mothers to say anything? You are all to be bought and paid for, and your souls belong to whoever gets you. That’s the way it goes.” Here, Cassy inverts Tom’s famous declaration in chapter 32, “Cassy,” and present in nearly every single dramatic and cinematic adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin: “No! no! no! my soul an’t yours, Mas’r!  You have n’t bought it,–ye can’t buy it!  It ‘s been bought and paid for, by one that is able to keep it.” So anxious is Stowe to emphasize this contrast between Tom and Cassy’s understanding of the extent of their bondage that she has Tom repeat a similar version of this line near the close of the current installment: “I ‘ll give ye all the work of my hands, all my time, all my strength; but my soul I won’t give up to mortal man.”

Cassy’s conversation with Emmeline is book-ended by Tom’s confrontation with Legree in which he again defies his owner’s request to replace his Christian values with the debased values of a slaveholder.  The scene opens with Tom’s almost rapturous anticipation of his death, his heart literally “throbb[ing] with joy” at his vision of the world to come.  And time and time again in his conversation with Legree, Tom finds solace in the transitory nature of his sufferings when compared with “all ETERNITY to come after.”

The third major element of the chapter bracketed by these two conversations is Legree’s nightmare vision of his dead mother.  This seemingly minor detail became a key scene in the H. J. Conway adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin staged at P.T. Barnum’s American Museum in 1853.  In addition to featuring an Uncle Tom who survives his trials on the Legree plantation to settle “down east,” the Conway version has Eliza Harris (who replaces Emmeline in the Legree section) and Cassy staging this dream sequence to bring about Legree’s death:

Legree. A witch thing. (Takes it uneasily. Cassy watches his every movement eagerly. He opens the paper, the silver dollar falls with the ribbon on the stage, but the ringlet of hair turns round his finger (Eva’s)

Legree with piercing shriek, echoed by Cassy, she in exultation.

Legree. Take it off, tear it from me, burn it up, it up! Where did it come from?

Cassy. (claps her hands loudly and shrieks) There! From your murdered mother—see!

Points to C[enter] window of house over verandah which suddenly becomes illuminated with white fire and shows Eliza with a long white dress, bosom bloody, and a white veil, points to Legree with her left hand and to heaven with her R[ight] H[and].

Legree. Ha! (wild scream) Hide me! Snatch this from me. (struggling) Drag it off, it turns tight round my hand, my arm, my neck! Now tighter, tighter still. (with effort) Help! I choke! Ha! What hand is this? It grasps my throat, it drags me to that yawning abyss. (struggling as if dragged) Now, now! Dark hands stretch forth around me! They clasp me, they shout, they shriek! They laugh, the demons laugh! They drag me, the demons drag me! Down, down! (falls) I choke, choke! I, I, choke!

Dies struggling. Sambo drags him off R.1.E. Cassy flies into house C.[1]

Here, Conway unites the two themes of this installment in one dramatic tableau. In the role of Legree’s mother Eliza’s job is not to condemn or even to berate her wayward son, but merely, like Tom and, through him, Stowe herself, to point to heaven and the world to come.

1.  “Conway’s Uncle Tom, Act V.” Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture. Ed. Stephen Railton: http://utc.iath.virginia.edu/onstage/scripts/osplhcaVIt.html

How did Stowe connect this chapter to real-life stories? Find out here!

Check out the top news stories, this week in 1852, here!


February 19, 1852

Transcription of Chapter 34

Chapter XXXIV.

“And slight, withal, may be the things that bring
Back on the heart a weight it fain would fling
Aside forever; it may be a sound,
A flower, the wind, the ocean, which shall wound,
Striking the electric chain wherewith we’re darkly bound.
Childe Harold’s Pil., Canto iv.

The sitting room of Legree’s establishment was a large, long room, with a wide, ample fire-place. It had once been hung with a showy and expensive paper, which now hung mouldering, torn, and discolored, from the damp walls. The place had that peculiar, sickening, unwholesome smell, compounded of mingled damp, dirt, and decay, which one often notices in close old houses. The wall-paper was defaced in spots, by slops of beer or wine, garnished with chalk memorandums and long sums footed up, as if somebody had been practicing arithmetic there. In the open fire-place stood a brazier, full of burning charcoal, for the weather was not cold, yet the evenings always seemed damp and chilly in that great room; and Legree, moreover, wanted a place to light his cigars, and heat his water for punch. The ruddy glare of the charcoal displayed the confused and unpromising aspect of the room. Saddles, bridles, several sorts of harness, riding whips, overcoats and various other articles of clothing, were scattered up and down the room in confused variety, and the dogs of whom we have before spoken had encamped themselves among them, to suit their own taste and convenience.

Legree was just mixing himself a tumbler of punch, pouring his hot water from a cracked and broken-nosed pitcher, grumbling as he did so—

“Plague on that Sambo, to kick up this yer row between me and the new hands! The fellow won’t be fit to work for a week, now, right in the press of the season!”

“Yes, just like you,” said a voice behind his chair. It was the woman Cassy, who had stolen upon his soliloquy.

“Hah! you she devil, you’ve come back, have you?”

[Continue reading the full text of chapter 34, here.]

Commentary by Patricia Hill

 Professor of History at Wesleyan University

Today’s installment, with its Byronian epigraph, offers a fascinating account of the power of memories associated with material objects.  Stowe uses Legree’s horror at seeing the ringlet of Eva’s hair to segue into Legree’s personal history. Uncle Tom had kept the ringlet, along with the dollar George gave him on parting, in a paper suspended by a black cord around his neck. Sambo, who calls it a “witch thing,” informs Legree that such items were acquired to ward off the pain of beatings such as the one Tom had just endured.  Stowe was aware, as she makes clear in her Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, that African religious culture included a belief in spells, “fetish and obi,” and “the evil eye.” In the Key she suggests that this reflects a “peculiarity of constitution” in the African race. But the reader knows, of course, that Sambo is wrong is assuming that Tom kept these objects about his person as anything other than cherished mementoes of people he loved. And Legree’s reaction reveals a susceptibility to belief in witchcraft that is not racially delimited. In this passage from the novel, Stowe offers a psychological rather than a racial explanation for the ringlet’s powerful effect on Legree. She also sets the stage for Cassy’s successful strategy of haunting Legree.

We learn that Legree’s pedigree is divided; born inNew Englandto a devout Christian mother and an abusive father, Legree rejects the better element in his nature inherited from his mother in favor of his father’s legacy of brutality. In contrast to a common trope in sentimental fiction where sainted mothers’ dying prayers and disembodied spirits guard sons against vice, Legree strikes his mother senseless and burns the lock of hair sent with a message of love and forgiveness when she dies. Stowe tells us that Legree was haunted thereafter by dreams of his mother despite his most strenuous efforts to erase her memory. Stowe uses this to make a rather abstruse theological argument about how a God of love and a God of wrath can coexist in the same divine being. She posits a “necromancy of evil” that turns an emblem of perfect love into an instrument of torment. Both the mother’s lock and Eva’s ringlet are mementoes of such perfect love, of the Christ who inhabited them both. The persistence of memory—especially dark memories–and the inability to forget at will are triggered by the fetish object as the Byronian epigraph suggests. Legree attempts to bury these memories, initially in his plan to gratify his lust with Emmeline and then, when the hymn she is singing about the judgment day triggers another image of his mother, by calling Sambo and Quimbo to join him in drunken carousing.

The picture Stowe paints by detailing Legree’s history is of a man who has chosen evil and who willfully does evil. His character allows Cassy to contemplate murder.  Her rumination on whether it would be “a sin to rid the world of such a wretch” prepares the reader to accept Cassy’s efforts to do just that. Stowe is not quite endorsing murder but she has already presented Cassy’s killing of her infant as understandable, even as an expression of maternal love in the distorting context of slavery. What slavery has done to Cassy is also a central concern in today’s installment. It has clearly hardened her, but it has not reduced her power.  Stowe’s description of her as a “strong, impassioned woman” who can maintain influence over “even the most brutal man” explains her ability to manipulate Legree.  Cassy stands up to Legree; she criticizes him with impunity because he is afraid of her. Stowe tells us that he fears her because the “hideous yoke” of slavery had made her liable to fits of raving insanity. It is this element of slave-induced insanity that seems to give Cassy permission to contravene the moral code that Stowe would ordinarily insist upon in a sympathetic character. What this passage also reveals is Cassy’s pride and her cleverness. Cassy sees in Legree’s reaction to the ringlet a superstitious weakness that makes him vulnerable.  She will find a way to exploit that weakness in a way that this passage foreshadows.

[Continue reading the full text of  Patricia Hill’s commentary here.]

How did Stowe connect this chapter to real-life stories? Find out here!

Check out the top news stories, this week in 1852, here!


February 12, 1852

Transcription of Chapter 32, Part 2 and Chapter 33

Chapter XXXII—Continued.

Slowly the weary, dispirited creatures wound their way into the room, and one by one, with crouching reluctance, presented their baskets to be weighed. As each was weighed, Legree noted on a slate, on the side of which was pasted a list of names, the amount. Tom’s basket was weighed and approved; but he hesitated and lingered to see the success of the poor woman he had befriended. Tottering with weakness, she came forward and delivered her basket. It was of full weight, as Legree well perceived; but affecting anger, he said:

“What, you lazy beast, short again! Stand aside; you’ll catch it this time.”

The woman gave a groan of utter despair, and sat down on a board.

The person who had been called Misse Cassy now came forward, and with a haughty, negligent air, delivered her basket. As she delivered it, Legree looked in her eyes with a sneering yet inquiring glance. She fixed her black eyes steadily on him, her lips moved slightly, and she said something in French—what it was, no one knew; but Legree’s face became for a moment perfectly demoniac as she spoke, and he half raised his hand, as if to strike—a gesture which she regarded with fierce disdain, as she turned and walked away.

“And now,” said Legree, “come here, you Tom; ye see I telled ye I didn’t buy you jest for the common work; I mean to promote ye, and make a driver of ye; and to-night yer begin to get yer hand in. So now yer jest take this yer woman and flog her. You’ve seen enough to know how”——

“I beg mass’rs pardon,” said Tom; “hope mass’r won’t set me at that; it’s what I aint used to, never did do, and know I couldn’t do any way.”

“You’ll learn a pretty smart chance of things ye never did know, before I’ve done with ye,” said Legree, taking up a cowhide that lay near, and striking Tom a heavy blow across the cheek, and following up the infliction by a shower of blows.

“There!” he said, as he stopped to rest. “Now will yer tell me yer can’t do it?”

[Continue reading the full text of chapter 32 and Chapter 33 here.]

Commentary by Robert Levine

 Professor of English at the University of Maryland

Jane Tompkins has influentially argued that the Quaker woman Rachel Halliday is “God in human form,” and that “The Quaker Settlement,” Chapter XIII of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, provides a utopian, millenarian vision of women’s ability to reform the nation through the power of matriarchy located in the kitchen. Women’s power, in Tompkins’s formulation, is sentimental power—the power of feeling—and it has the potential to do significant “culture work.”[1]

In that context, what are we to make of bitter, violent Cassy, who tells Tom, even as she nurses him, that she has lost her faith in God and has committed infanticide—a crime, she states, that was no crime at all, but instead a liberation of her baby son from slavery. Anticipating the historical Margaret Garner, who killed her baby daughter in 1856, Cassy had experienced enough of the horrors of slavery to feel justified in her action, even as she suggests that it was the loss of her religion that allowed her to act as she did. Tom’s steadfast Christianity to some extent keeps him from acting in violently rebellious ways, though as we see in the continuation of Chapter XXXII, it does not keep him from being rebellious. Hardly the acquiescent “Uncle Tom” of twentieth-century caricatures, Tom, in the spirit of Christ, calmly but firmly tells the demonic Legree that he refuses to flog an elderly slave woman. Thus we have what can seem to be a paradox: that Tom is termed “unresisting” in the final sentence of that chapter even as he resists. In her depiction of the unresisting resistant Tom, Stowe addresses the paradoxical nature of Christ Himself, whom she similarly depicts in her 1853 poem “Caste and Christ” as simultaneously peaceful and militant. Though Tom ultimately refuses Cassy’s entreaties to assist her with a violent escape from Legree’s plantation, the linking of Tom and Cassy points to their similarities, both as rebels and Christians.

As Cassy nurses Tom in Chapter XXXIII, Tom attempts to convert her to his Christian vision. But were she to “convert” at that moment, she would not have been able to escape with Emmeline and wreak havoc on the plantation. Stowe needs to keep her empowered by keeping her a doubter. The dialogue then becomes more a monologue as Cassy tells her life history, which recapitulates some of the earlier stories of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Like Mr. Shelby, her lover and the father of her children went into debt, which makes Cassy vulnerable in the way of Uncle Tom, as she is eventually sold to Legree. Prior to that, however, we see how black women are vulnerable in ways that black men are not: She is purchased by her lover’s cousin, who basically wins her as part of a gambling debt and then sells off her children and makes her into his sexual slave. As she puts it, “he made me as submissive as he desired.” She snaps mentally when he keeps her from her children (or becomes enraged in the way of a sane person who hates to see her children suffer), and attempts to kill him with a bowie knife. Nowhere in the novel is there any suggestion that Stowe condemns her for that; and there is little sense that she condemns Cassy’s subsequent decision to kill the baby son that she eventually has with the kindly Captain Stuart.

Cassy will eventually rediscover her Christianity; and there is every indication by the end of the novel that Stowe envisions her as saved. In other words, the Victorian Harriet Beecher Stowe presents a woman who is multiply raped (the clear implication of what happens after the cousin of the beloved white father takes “possession” of Cassy) and the acknowledged killer of one of her children, who nonetheless by the novel’s end lives happily ever after in salvific grace. What I want to suggest here is that Stowe, by making Cassy irreligious at the start, gives her the latitude to act out her rage against the patriarchal institution, and patriarchy itself (as embodied by Legree) in ways that point to the existence of other forms of female power capable of doing cultural work. Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar famously identified the figure of the rebellious “madwoman” haunting the Victorian novel (see their seminal The Madwoman in the Attic: The Woman Writer and the Nineteenth-Century Literary Imagination [1979]), and the rebellious Cassy, who eventually plots her escape with the enslaved Emmeline from a second-story attic-like room, fits the bill of the “dark” woman who can be read in dualistic relationship to the more conventional Rachel Halliday.


[1] Jane Tompkins, The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 142.

[Continue reading the full text of  Robert Levine’s commentary here.]

How did Stowe connect this chapter to real-life stories? Find out here!

Check out the top news stories, this week in 1852, here!


February 5, 1852

Transcription of Chapter 31, Part 2 and Chapter 32, Part 1

Chapter XXXI—Continued.

It was late in the evening when the weary occupants of the shanties came flocking home—men and women in soiled and tattered garments, surly and uncomfortable, and in no mood to look pleasantly on new-comers. The small village was alive with no inviting sounds; hoarse guttural voices contending at the hand-mills where their morsel of hard corn was yet to be ground into meal, to fit it for the cake that was to constitute their only supper. From the earliest dawn of the day they had been in the fields, pressed to work under the driving lash of the overseers, for it was now in the very heat and hurry of the season, and no means was left untried to press every one up to the top of their capabilities. “True,” says the negligent lounger, “Picking cotton isn’t hard work.” Isn’t it? And it isn’t much inconvenience, either, to have one drop of water fall on your head, yet the worst torture of the inquisition is produced by drop after drop, drop after drop, falling moment after moment, with monotonous succession, on the same spot; and work in itself not hard becomes so by being pressed hour after hour with unvarying, unrelenting sameness, with not even the consciousness of free will to take from its tediousness. Tom looked in vain among the gang, as they poured along, for companionable faces. He saw only sullen, scowling, imbruted men, and feeble, discouraged women, or women that were not women—the strong pushing away the weak—the gross, unrestricted animal selfishness of human beings, of whom nothing good was expected and desired, and who, treated in every way like brutes, had sunk as nearly to their level as it was possible for human beings to do. To a late hour in the night, the sound of the grinding was protracted, for the mills were few in number compared with the grinders, and the weary and feeble ones were driven back by the strong, and came on last in their turn.

[Continue reading the full text of chapter 31, Part 2, and Chapter 32, Part 1, here.]

Commentary by Susan M. Ryan

 Associate Professor and vice chair of English at the University of Louisville

In this installment of Stowe’s novel, Tom has arrived at the Legree plantation, dispirited and physically exhausted. It’s the end of a typically long workday, which timing allows Tom to witness the ways in which overwork and abuse have affected Legree’s slaves, the “sullen, scowling, imbruted men and feeble, discouraged women” trudging in from the fields to grind their meager share of corn. As a means of underscoring the slaves’ degradation, Stowe’s narrator emphasizes the plantation’s systematic destruction of domesticity—readers have already learned from the previous week’s offering that Tom is disappointed to find that his new master will not even provide him with the refuge of a neat, quiet little cabin—instead, he’s assigned to a filthy shack, where he’ll sleep on a dirt floor among similarly arranged strangers. Stowe further emphasizes the disintegration of home life in her description of the evening meal—instead of preparing and sharing food as families, Legree’s slaves subsist as competitive, atomized beings, hostile toward one another by habit and necessity. Hardship has isolated them, left them bereft of affiliation. Here Tom’s habitual, constitutional benevolence intrudes: he grinds corn and revives the cooking fire on behalf of two weary women, (re)awakening in them a “womanly kindness” that leads them to make his dinner while he reads aloud from the bible.

Tom’s first night at the Legree plantation sets the stage for spiritual trials to come. He’s already struggling with despair; Stowe describes him as sitting “alone, by the smouldering fire, that flickered up redly in his face,” suggesting that the hellish qualities of the world Legree and slavery have created might engulf even Tom. But this “disconsolate” figure, as Stowe describes him, is not in fact beyond spiritual comfort—that night he dreams of (or is visited by?) Eva, whose “deep eyes” exude “rays of warmth and comfort” that go directly to Tom’s heart. The pattern thus established, of despair and spiritual renewal, will be repeated with increasing intensity across the narrative’s next several installments.

The following chapter, the action of which takes place a few weeks later, introduces the desolate and embittered—but still powerful—figure of Cassy, whom readers have previously encountered only via a glimpse of her “wild” face and her unidentified voice from within Legree’s house. It becomes clear by the end of the installment that Legree is setting a trap for Tom, in which the latter will be forced either to beat another slave or be beaten himself.  But the pseudo-cliffhanger with which the segment ends carries no real suspense. Tom’s Christ-like forbearance and penchant for self-sacrifice are so well established by this point in the narrative that the reader cannot imagine his failing Legree’s diabolical moral test.  Tom’s trajectory, in other words, entails no more uncertainty than do scriptural accounts of Christ’s passion. The point is not what ultimately happens to Tom—that most readers steeped in the New Testament could readily guess—but rather the ways in which his gentle resistance and brutal murder allow Stowe to emphasize the cruelties of slavery and the redemptive power of Christian faith.

[Continue reading the full text of  Susan M. Ryan’s commentary here.]

How did Stowe connect this chapter to real-life stories? Find out here!

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