Chapter 19: Comment by David Reynolds

This chapter introduces us to one of the most memorable characters in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Topsy, who exemplifies Stowe’s strategy of redirecting images from a popular entertainment form of her day, the minstrel show, toward a protest against slavery.  Minstrel performers were whites who smeared their faces with burnt cork and spoke in an exaggerated version of what was considered the dialect of the “plantation darkey” (Jim Crow) or the “northern dandy negro” (Zip Coon).    Earlier in the novel, Stowe had described Eliza Harris’s young son, Harry, who is called by his master “Jim Crow,” cutting capers and singing a humorous song.  But behind the apparent fun are pathos and imminent tragedy.  The comic performer is not a white man in blackface but an enslaved child whose innocence makes his prospect of being sold away from his mother truly alarming.

Topsy also illustrates Stowe directing minstrel devices toward an exposure of the cruelties of slavery.  At first glance, Topsy seems to have walked straight off the minstrel stage into the novel.   St. Clare presents her as “rather a funny specimen in the Jim Crow line.”  At his command, she does a weird dance that involves contortions, spinning, clapping, and making guttural sounds. Topsy becomes noted in the household for “every species of drollery, grimace, and mimicry,–for dancing, tumbling, climbing, singing, whistling, imitating every sound that hit her fancy.”  Her behavior recalls the antics that Thomas Dartmouth Rice (the original “Jim Crow” of the minstrel stage) had introduced in the 1830s with his trademark bizarre dance step, later developed by popular minstrel troupes who gyrated, made funny faces, and sang nonsense songs, driving their white audiences wild with hilarity.  It’s understandable that when the Topsy character was later developed in Tom shows, minstrel acts, and films, she became a stock figure of wild silliness, the ancestor of slapstick comedians.

In the novel, she possesses minstrel-like qualities along with far richer qualities.  Her rebellious naughtiness typifies minstrelsy, as does the racial stereotyping associated with her ignorance.  But within Stowe’s apparently amusing depiction of Topsy are powerful messages about slavery, religion, and racial prejudice. Topsy is a vehicle for Stowe’s idea that enslaved blacks, even when they were thoroughly dehumanized, are capable of profound human feeling that can obliterate racial barriers.  When Topsy announces that she “never was born” but “just grow’d,” we laugh, but on another level we feel the same kind of pity that we feel for Frederick Douglass, who reports in his Narrative that as a child he, like many other enslaved blacks, was barred from knowing basic facts such as his birthday or the identity of his father.  Our pity grows when Topsy courts punishment by stealing small household items. She expects to be whipped. “I spects it’s good for me,” she says.  She jokes about Ophelia’s feeble lashings, which she says “‘wouldn’t kill a skeeter,’” and adds, “‘Oughter see how old Mas’r made the flesh fly; old Mas’r know’d how!’” This is comical but at the same time appalling.  Repeated torture has inured this child to the horror of the slaveholder’s whip.

Topsy’s brash wickedness comes not only from years of degradation as a slave but also from the Calvinistic instruction she receives from Ophelia.  Announcing, “‘I’se so wicked!,’” Topsy gives a mini-sermon in which she declares that all people, white or black are also sinners. “Miss Feely says so,” she declares. “I’s so awful wicked there can’t nobody do nothin’ for me.”  Through Topsy’s assertion, Stowe makes a stab at Calvinism, aimed at its doctrine of total depravity.  Calvinists claimed that it was a religious duty to confront one’s inborn evil tendencies. Jonathan Edwards, for example, said he was overwhelmed by his “sinfulness and vileness,” which seemed like “an infinite deluge, or infinite mountains overhead.”  When Topsy declares that she’s the “wickedest critter in the world,” she’s repeating what she learned from Ophelia, whose religious orthodoxy the novel mocks.

Topsy facilitates not only Stowe’s satire on Calvinism but also her trenchant commentary on racism.  Topsy’s teacher, Ophelia, is a vivid instance of the ironic fact that that racial prejudice was commonplace even among antislavery Northerners.  In discussing Ophelia’s character in The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe explained that “although slavery has been abolished in the New England states, it has left behind the most baneful feature of the system –…the prejudice of caste and color.”  This phenomenon was noted by many contemporary observers, including William Lloyd Garrison, who declared, “The prejudices of the North are stronger than those of the South,” and Tocqueville, who observed, “Race prejudice seems stronger in those states that have abolished slavery than in those where it still exists, and nowhere is it more intolerant than in those states where slavery was never known.”

Ophelia is from Vermont, which in 1777 had become the first state whose constitution abolished adult slavery; in a number of plays based on Stowe’s novel, her name was Aunty Vermont.  Despite her association with this historically antislavery state, Ophelia is in fact disgusted by the enslaved blacks with whom she supposedly sympathizes.  When she expresses repugnance for the ragged, wild-looking Topsy, St. Clare says that Ophelia typifies Northerners who send missionaries to convert heathens with whom they would have nothing to do with personally, regarding them as “dirty and disagreeable.”    Indeed, even after devoting herself to educating and training Topsy, Ophelia says she cannot bear to touch the girl and confesses, “I’ve always had a prejudice against negroes.”

Stowe also uses Topsy’s presence in this chapter to make note of another ironic element of slavery: a better-than-thou feeling amidst some enslaved blacks.  Stowe was hardly alone among authors of her day who noted this aspect of slavery.  The ex-slave William Wells Brown in his novel Clotel (1854) described a pecking order among several enslaved characters, who regard each other with mutual smugness.  Stowe describes a similar attitude among St. Clare’s slaves.  Rosa and Jane regard the disheveled Topsy with “supreme disgust,” calling her a “low nigger” and expressing wonder that St. Clare would purchase such a creature.

The people who express loathing or racism toward Topsy get their comeuppance.  Although Topsy is ignorant and outspokenly “wicked,” she is also acute and self-reliant.  She quiets hostile people like Rosa and Jane by causing them to have household accidents and cleverly framing them in petty thefts.  Toward the end of the chapter, we see her generous side when she distributes small gifts.  Stowe tells us, “To do her justice, [she] was good-natured and liberal, and only spiteful in self-defence.”

Above all, Topsy provides Stowe the opportunity for showing the power of love to dissolve barriers between the races.  Here Eva St. Clare, the “evangelist” of the novel, takes center stage in Topsy’s drama.  When Topsy and Eva first meet, they seem “representatives of the two extremes of society…The Saxon, born of ages of cultivation, command, education, physical and moral eminence; the Afric, born of ages of oppression, ignorance, toil, and vice!”  .  Passages like this, which appear occasionally in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, to some degree reflect the ethnological theories of the day, which distinguished the Caucasian from other races.  But Stowe’s statements on the issue are hardly as strident as those of other antislavery people, such as the scientist Louis Agassiz, who compared the black person’s brain to that of an unborn white infant, or Lincoln, who said that “essential differences” between the races would prevent them from living together in America, or even the great democrat Walt Whitman, who once parroted the popular theory of racial extinction by predicting that “the nigger, like the Injun, will be eliminated: it is the law of races.”

Stowe did not share such views. In her account of Eva and Topsy, she indicates that racial distinctions are largely the result of exterior circumstances.  The contrasting qualities of the two girls are said to be “born of ages” of the conditions, good and bad, into which they are born.

Moreover, Stowe shows that racial barriers can be conquered by human affection.  From the start, Eva rejects the harsh, hateful treatment that others exhibit toward Topsy.  She reaches out in friendship to the wretched girl.  Understandably, Topsy, who has never received such kind treatment, at first manifests cynicism and suspicion. But Eva’s influence causes Topsy’s innate goodness to emerge. By the end of the chapter, we are prepared for the later scene in which the dying Eva’s declaration of love to Topsy brings about in the latter’s tearful embrace of the virtue and decency that Eva herself stands for.

Today, Topsy’s “conversion” Topsy can seem mawkish or racist, since the black girl is drawn into the values of the dominant white society.  But for Stowe’s time, this instance of a “heathen” black person crossing over into white cultural domains made a radical statement, as did the last-minute conversions of the enslaved Sambo and Quimbo later in the novel.  One of the chief criticisms made by Stowe’s proslavery reviewers was that she had an unnatural affection and respect for blacks.  Indeed, Stowe believed that blacks were educable and fully capable of embracing religion.

Although Stowe makes her point about black education and improvement, Topsy was destined to remain in the popular mind a figure of energy and impishness.  When she was later adapted in plays, skits, vaudeville routines, and films, she was mainly important as a spunky presence notable for her defiance of convention. In the popular George Aiken play Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which ran in countless theaters from the 1850s through much of the twentieth century, Topsy was a figure of madcap fun, flaunting her wickedness and spouting nonsense lines like “Ching a ring a ring ricked” and “Ching a ring a smash goes the breakdown.”  In Catherine Chisholm Cushing’s play Topsy and Eva, which became a popular vaudeville act starring the San Francisco sisters Vivian and Rosetta Duncan and was made into a feature film by United Artists (1927), Topsy is self-reliant, always flexing her muscles and ready to defend herself, as when she fights Simon Legree tooth and nail—quite literally, for she scratches him, bites him, trips him, butts him like a goat, leaps on his back, and shoves him over a snowbank into an icy river. Judy Garland, a year before her star-making turn in The Wizard of Oz, appeared in blackface as Topsy in Everybody Sing (1938), in which she delivered a wonderfully soulful medley of “Swing Low Sweet Chariot” and “Dixie” in a jazzy blend that prefigures rhythm and blues.  In Robert Alexander’s play I Ain’t Yo’ Uncle: The New Jack Revisionist Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1992), Topsy is a street-wise urban girl who chants to a rap beat, “I’m Topsy Turvy, I’m wicked, I’m black.”  Toughness, hilarity, sexiness, black pride—these are some of the qualities Topsy embodied in her long history as a pop-culture icon.

Chapter and Commentary Table of Contents


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