In 1851-52 Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin appears. Her manuscript was first published serially in the Washington National Era, an antislavery paper, before appearing in book form in 1852. Today, in America, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is still one of the books in greatest demand at the counters of our Public Libraries. The narrator, as well as the characters, express the moral indignation that interracial, woman-centered abolitionist discourse made possible. This expression, however, is always in tension with gendered codes of middle-class respectability (Brown 102).
Although women succeed in claiming righteous anger as a female right by the outbreak of the Civil War, in the public imagination, and even in the consciousness of some activist women, it remained a “manly” right and a masculine expressive mode. Later tradition described the novel as an accident produced by an amateur, but in fact Stowe was a professional writer who had been publishing for more than a decade when Uncle Tom’s Cabin began its serial run in an abolitionist journal.
Republished in book form in 1852, it combined all the elements of fiction that American critics of the age were looking for: a diverse group of memorable characters, some hateful, some lovable; a tremendously exciting story; scenes of great pathos and scenes of humor; meticulous depiction of the customs, manners, and scenery of various regions in the country on a scale unequaled by any American work of fiction to that date.
In addition, the book defined writing in general, and the novel form in particular, as a kind of visionary and prophetic mode, thus making women authors equal to the highest literary tasks. And beyond this, it dealt with an inflammatory political issue in a highly partisan spirit. The vision of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is deeply religious; Stowe was the daughter of one of the age’s most famous (and one of the last) orthodox Calvinist preachers, Lyman Beecher, and all five of her brothers became ministers in their turn, including another generation’s most famous, Henry Ward Beecher.
The whole family was immersed in theological speculation; and Stowe came over time to reject the stern Old Testament God of wrath in favor of the New Testament God of love. Her opposition to slavery carries a particular theological charge, as she chronicles the defeat of charity by secular greed. We are to read Tom’s decision not to run away when he is sold downriver, and his eventual martyrdom standing up to Simon Legree, not as submission to the secular world, but as triumph over it.
As well as “Christian” in this broad sense, Stowe’s book is “matriarchal” in the particular values it espouses – emotive over rational, relational over individualistic – and the repeated crises at its core: the breakup of families and the separation of mothers and children form the repeated matter of its suspenseful efforts. It does not, however, parcel out its good and bad qualities according to gender: the book is full of good men, and in Marie St. Clair it creates a memorably vicious woman.
Moreover, beyond its Christian or proto-feminist protest, Uncle Tom’s Cabin mounts an attack on American capitalism, north and south: slavery is the ultimate expression of a culture dedicated to buying, selling, and accumulation. Stowe’s moving tale featured a loyal slave named Tom, an angelic young girl named Little Eva, and a wicked overseer named Simon Legree and included the melodramatic tale of the slave mother Eliza clutching her baby as she crossed an icy river, with dogs and slave catchers hot on her trail, literally leaping for her freedom.
Stowe argued that her fictional story was culled from real stories she had learned from fugitives making their way to freedom along the Underground Railroad. This authenticity as well as its sentimental tone made Stowe’s novel a bestseller, with sales of over a quarter million copies in less than a year. Uncle Tom’s Cabin depicted slavery’s most brutal aspects for thousands of readers innocent of the cruelties slavery might impose. The accessibility and alleged “eyewitness” quality the book projected fueled grassroots support for the flagging abolitionist movement during the 1850s.
Abraham Lincoln, when he met Stowe many years later, credited her with “starting the war. ” Certainly the white South harbored special venom for Stowe, banning her book and charging her with “crimes against the South. ” This work catapulted Stowe into literary celebrity, and she subsequently published A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1853) and another antislavery novel, Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (1856). In Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, two unforgettably evil black slave drivers named Sambo and Quimbo personified the axiom which held that “the slave is always a tyrant, if he can get a chance to be one.
” Trained in savagery and brutality by cotton planter Simon Legree, Sambo and Quimbo hated each other and in turn were feared and despised by the rest of the slaves. Ably illustrating Stowe’s contention that “brutal men are lower even than animals,” the demonic duo participated in orgies of drunken debauchery with their master, treated the slave women as sexual playthings, and gloated with “fiendish exultation” at the whippings that they meted out to errant field hands and house servants. In this manner, a northern reformist writer popularized the notion that black personality could be perverted or destroyed by white oppression.
According to Stowe, African-Americans could be “unman’d” and turned into “things” through the normal operation of the slave regime (Stowe 56). When the novel was put on stage, a hush fell on the audience at the National Theatre in New York as Eliza escaped from her pursuers and reached the northern side of the river (Brown 18). An observer who turned to look was astonished to see that the entire audience, from the gentlemen and ladies in the balconies to the roughshirted men in the galleries, was in tears (Duvall 65).
Stowe knew that if she could evoke this response on behalf of “property,” if she could bring her readers to see the heroism of a slave, she had begun a revolution in sentiment. Many things about this scene were tailored for her white audience: Eliza is so light-skinned she can pass for white. Like a true woman, Eliza runs away not because she desires freedom for herself, but to save her child. But the very ambiguity of her skin tone and Stowe’s inclusion of a black woman in the cult of true womanhood worked to break down the racial categories that contained moral feeling.
The effect of Uncle Tom’s Cabin on American literature was, to foreign observers striking. In a public meeting held in Stowe’s honor in Scotland, one of the testimonial speakers credited Stowe with having revolutionized the British view of American literature: We have long been accustomed to despise American literature – I mean as compared with our own. I have heard eminent litterateurs say, “Pshaw! the Americans have no national literature. ” It was thought that they lived entirely on plunder – the plunder of poor slaves, and of poor British authors.
Their own works, when they came among us, were treated either with contempt or with patronizing wonderyes, the “Sketch Book” was a very good book to be an American’s. Let us hear no more of the poverty of American brains, or the barrenness of American literature. Had it produced only Uncle Tom’s Cabin, it had evaded contempt just as certainly as Don Quixote, had there been no other product of the Spanish mind, would have rendered it forever illustrious (Duvall 45).
In a similar vein, Charles Kingsley (1852) called the book “a really healthy indigenous growth, autochthonous, & free from all that hapless second & third-hand Germanism, & Italianism, & all other unreal-isms which make me sigh over almost every American book I open. ” Kingsley quoted a critic who found Uncle Tom “the greatest novel ever written,” reminiscent “in a lower sphere” of Shakespeare “in that marvellous clearness of insight and outsight, which makes it seemingly impossible for her to see any one of her characters without shewing him or her at once as a distinct individual man or woman, different from all others.”
The British saw that the originality of the book sprang from Stowe’s grasp of the nationality of her material: an epic theme – republican ideals in conflict with a feudal institution – was enshrined in a narrative bristling with regional types. Stowe’s attribution of deeper feeling to African Americans “as a race” was consistent with what George Fredrickson has called “romantic racialism,” a blend of philanthropic and paternalistic attitudes (Wiegman 30).
One of the earliest formulators of this ideology was Alexander Kinmont, who, in his 1837-1838 lectures in Cincinnati, proclaimed the moral superiority of African Americans: “All the sweeter graces of the Christian religion appear almost too tropical and tender plants to grow in the Caucasian mind; they require a character of human nature which you can see in the rude lineaments of the Ethiopian. ” It is highly likely that Harriet Beecher Stowe, living in Cincinnati at the time Kinmont delivered his lectures, was exposed to his ideas. Such romantic racialism was widespread by 1851 (Duvall 98).
The complexity and contradiction of Stowe’s novel lie in her use of a common theory of racial difference to effect a revolution in sentiment about the institution of slavery. In foregrounding sentiment as the most crucial and revolutionary political capital, Uncle Tom’s Cabin significantly questions the popular equation in nineteenth-century discourses between blackness and inhumanity, allowing the slave a psychic reality that challenges paternalistic views of the peculiar institution as protection for those unable to survive the rigors and responsibilities of civic society (and civilization itself) (Berzon 45).
That the method for signifying the slave’s humanity is contingent on her tearful identification with the pain of enslavement, demonstrates, of course, the political limit embedded in the sentimental form (Stepto 65). For while Uncle Tom’s Cabin tries to forge a political alliance between slaves and white women by figuring subjectivities irreducible to the determinations of bodies in modernity, the transformatory hope attached to the analogizing function fractures under the inescapable priority accorded to white racial being.
The political asymmetries attending the differences between the slave’s humanity and the white woman’s social subjectivity – and the novel’s attempt to both signify and rectify these disproportions – demonstrates at one level the very problem of the political in both nineteenth and twentieth-century American life. Take, for instance, the novel’s central figure, Uncle Tom.
On one hand, Stowe depicts him in language that evokes a kind of noble masculine corporeality, as “a large, broad-chested, powerfully-made man,” but immediately she undercuts such characterization by alleviating its potentially threatening edge, referring instead to his “humble simplicity” and to a face of “grave and steady good sense, united with much kindliness and benevolence”. Interiority and exteriority are in this way conflicted, as Stowe seeks for Uncle Tom the characteristics of femininity that the corporeal delineations of a black masculinity might otherwise deny.
In this she claims for him a “gentle, domestic heart”, marking his interiority within the discourse of the sentimental feminine that the novel most strenuously avow (Ammons 140). As Leslie Fiedler has aptly described him, Uncle Tom is a suffering heroine, masked by blackface and drag. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, George Harris makes several statements comparing his own struggle for freedom with that of the nation’s founders. Uncle Tom’s Cabin had a huge following and sold over 300,000 copies in this country during the first year after it was published in book form by J. P. Jewett in 1852.
Once dismissed as a sentimental novel of domestic fiction, contemporary critics universally agree that Uncle Tom’s Cabin, despite defects, remains an enduring and powerful literary creation, a symbol of its age. For Stowe, the political necessity lies precisely here: in finding a means both for Anglo-Americans to identify with a political project that challenges their own interests and for white women in particular to translate their racial privileges into a form or method for the slave’s freedom.