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.
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. An anti-slavery token bearing the inscription “Am I Not A Man and a
Brother” (or “Am I Not a Woman and A Sister”) had come from England at the end of the 18th century. There it had been perceived as a gesture of entreaty, appealing to the noblesse oblige of the powerful. (Fig. 2) To American anti-slavery pioneers, many of them Christian evangelicals as was Stowe, the pose spoke of supplication to a higher power. Billings well knew this symbolism, having placed a similar kneeling figure before Christ on a revised masthead design he made for William Lloyd Garrison’s The Liberator in 1850. (Fig. 3) It is not known if Stowe even knew Billings or played any part in his selection to illustrate her book. But, judging by his work on this premier anti-slavery newspaper, he was effective at using Christian visual means to frame an anti-slavery message.
The theme of Christian redemption and salvation intensifies in chapter 37. Taunted by Simon Legree who boasts, “You see the Lord aint going to help you; if he had been, he wouldn’t have let me get you. This yer religion is all a mess of lying trumpery.” Yet Tom does not falter. Wounded from beatings and nearly broken in spirit, Tom, like the Biblical Job, still summons his Lord, vowing, “The Lord may help me or not help; but I’ll hold to him, and believe him to the last.”
Making a sympathetic, Christian figure out of Cassy, sexual concubine of vile slave master Legree, was much more of a challenge. Unlike the other slave women in the novel, the Cassy scribed by Stowe, and drafted by Billings, had no corollary in anti-slavery iconography of imperiled mothers or prayerful supplicants. She was after all a fallen woman, descended from a life of privilege and love into abject sexual slavery, guilty of unspeakable sins.
Billings’ illustration of “Cassy ministering to Uncle Tom after his whipping” accompanies an earlier chapter, but still relates to this March 4, 1852 entry, wherein the haggard woman, “stung to madness and despair by the crushing agonies of a life,” returns to Tom’s cabin late one night. (Fig. 4) This time she brings news that Legree has imbibed sufficient brandy to be rendered helpless. With Tom’s help, she proposes an axe can be wielded to release them all from misery. Tom pleads with her to “turn to the dear Lord Jesus.” She is at first unconvinced, but gradually a spark of hope flashes within her.
To picture Cassy, Billings again relied on Christian iconography. Is this not the incarnation of a Mary Magdalene? (Fig. 5) In European fine art the harlot turned disciple was often shown in candlelight, with hair hanging down, sometimes disheveled, reflecting back over her life. As in traditional representations of the Magdalene, Billings’ Cassy is seen in candlelight. Perhaps she too is repentant before her spiritual reawakening.
That same year Billings was contracted a second time by publisher Jewett to create over one hundred more prints for a gift book version of the novel. He reprised Cassy as a candlelit Magdalene and gave her a place of honor above the chapter titled “The Quadroon’s Story.” (Fig. 6) Billings’ prints chronicling the last days of Tom’s life unfold in a visual narrative that might aptly be termed “the passion of Uncle Tom.”
The Christian slave is persecuted, condemned, and ultimately tied to a cross-like whipping post where he dies, welcomed to the hereafter by the presence of Christ standing by. Tom’s crisis of conscience and epiphany occurs in the book chapter titled “The Victory.” (Fig. 7) Tom had indeed achieved freedom, but not in the bodily sense of escaping slavery. “[A] vision rose before him of one crowned with thorns, buffeted and
bleeding….” Here was consummation of the themes Stowe held most dear. Cassy was spiritually saved and Tom triumphed by attaining heaven. In salvation and redemption, a “victory” is tallied.