More than a narrative imagining of the slavery experience in Pre-Civil War America, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a reflection of the historical context in which it was written. Using the conventions of literature, Harriet Beecher Stowe dramatized first-hand real accounts of escaped slaves and Europeans and Americans involved in slave trading. Her understanding of the African American experience found depth in her association with the Abolitionist movement and the philosophy of her Christian faith which viewed slavery as essentially evil.
To read the novel is to read the history of the antebellum period in America, a history written in the perspective of the oppressed. Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Antebellum America in the Eyes of the Slaves When Harriet Beecher Stowe first published Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a novel in 1852, it was received with unanticipated readership, making it the second bestseller next to the Bible during the nineteenth century.
Despite its exclusion from the Western literary canon as dictated by predominantly male critics (Mathiessen cited in Rosenthal, 2004), the impact it had on American society during a period of heated debates regarding the abolishment of the slavery system cannot be discredited. It reached such an influential status that in one of the famous anecdotes about Stowe, President Lincoln, upon meeting her, referred to her as the “the little woman who wrote the book that started this Great War. The slave trade began even before the writing of Uncle Tom’s Cabin as evidenced by the wholesale shipping of Africans to America during the Middle Passage (Bly, 1998).
The slavery system formed the economic backbone of the Southern regions of America where huge plantations owned privately by landlords demanded massive human labor (Randolph, 2004).
The slavery system was ingrained not only in the economic order of American society but also in the traditional values held by whites against blacks. This paper aims to examine how Stowe’s novel attempts to write history in the perspective of the slaves themselves during that volatile period in American society. The author will accomplish this goal by looking at the context in which the novel was written and the conventions of the novel used by Stowe to dramatize the history of the oppressed.
With the support of historical data and a reading of the novel, the author proposes that, in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe intertwines the elements of the story with issues of race, family, gender, and religion not only to depict life in Antebellum America but, essentially, to call for the an end to slavery. Stowe was part of the Abolitionist movement, an anti-slavery organization influential in America during the height of slavery. She published articles in abolitionist newspaper such as the National Era which also published the serialized version of Uncle Tom’s cabin (Rosenthal, 2004, 9).
As mentioned, the novel became a cultural phenomenon upon its publication, but it was soon relegated behind the likes of Walt Whitman and Herman Melville because of its sentimental and didactic style (Rosenthal, 2004, 9). However, Uncle Tom’s Cabin must be viewed and valued beyond its literary achievements because the novel was written in response to a critical situation in history. Rosenthal writes that the book is a “work of moral urgency” (2004, 2) It addresses the volatile situation that is threatening traditional American values.
The sense that the situation in Antebellum [or Pre-Civil War] America is volatile can be understood by the passing of two laws supporting slavery. In 1850, the Congress passed the Compromise of 1850 and the Fugitive Slave Law to avoid a political crisis (Rosenthal, 2004, 9). To restore the balance between pro- and anti-slavery, the Compromise of 1850 declares the newly acquired territory of California as a free state; however, in two other states, slavery was legalized.
Northeners protested against this because the legalizing of slavery threatened the growth of industries which are highly dependent on manual labor (Randolph, 2004, 6). Christians in the North also protested because of the Fugitive Slave Law which punished anyone who extended help of any form to an escaped slave. Among those who fervently protested these laws were the abolitionists. They showed protest mainly by publishing articles renouncing slavery. One of Stowe’s relatives encouraged her to write something that that “will make this whole nation feel what an accursed things slavery is” (Rosenthal, 2004, 13)
Stowe’s strong opinion against slavery may also be attributed to her Protestant beliefs. The novel is generally accepted by critics as a Christian novel not only because of Stowe’s explicit statements about Christianity as central to the novel (Stowe cited in Rosenthal, 2004, 24-25) but also because of episode in which it is dramatized. In a chapter called Little Evangelist, Eva, St. Claire, Ophelia and the adopted black child Topsy are seen in a conversation. Surprised at Ophelia’s failure to educate Topsy, St.
Claire reminds Ophelia of what little Eva told him that “if [they] want to give sight to the blind, [they] must be willing to do as Christ did,–call them… and put [their] hands on them” (Stowe, 1853, 315). Stowe’s Christian beliefs taught her to view slavery as a moral problem. In the preface of A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, she argues that slavery is not servitude but “evil, and only evil, and that continually” (Stowe cited in Rosenthal, 2004, 24). Furthermore, she admonishes Christians the world over to forge their prayers and salvage Christendom from the evil of slavery.
To Stowe, it is through the Christians that America may be redeemed. Apart from her religion, Stowe draws her understanding of slavery from her association with Abolitionists and the first-hand accounts of slaves which she read (Rosenthal, 2004, 10). In defense of the novel against critics who accuse her of deceptive portrayal of slavery, she wrote Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In it, she mentions that the character of Uncle Tom was based on an actual escaped slave named Josiah Henson, a clergyman who escaped to Canada and eventually wrote a memoir about his experience with slavery.
Real accounts of slavery abuse and resistance informed Stowe before the writing of the novel. Antonio Bly (1998) enumerates in his essay the different modes and methods of slave resistance during the period of 1720 to 1840 when prevalent shipping of slaves took thousand of innocent lives. Captains and ship crew members recorded in their journal different instances of resistance. Bly (1998, 180) categorizes slave resistance as either subtle or band. In subtle resistance, slaves commit suicide in an attempt to escape the inhumane life in the slave ship.
Africans chained to the ship like animals would refuse to eat, hang themselves, or mutilate their bodies with their own bare hands in desperate attempt to save their lives (Bly, 1998, 181). For a slave, they have only two choices for survival: a life of servitude or death. Stowe dramatizes in Uncle Tom’s Cabin the difficult choices African-American slaves make in order to survive. Stowe tells the story of Cassy, the slave woman whom Uncle Tom met in Simon Legrees’ plantation. Cassy killed her third son because she feared that she would be seeing another of her children sold to slavery.
The slavery experience transforms the meaning of death in that it is no longer the end, but the beginning—a way to return back home and not leave it (Bly, 1998, 182). Stowe had a profound understanding of sacrifice and death being a devout Christian. Death and separation are two themes present in the novel, such as Eliza’s escape and Little Eva’s demise, but as with Christ’s crucifixion, their deaths brought salvation to all they have known. The novel’s triumphant end tells the reunification of Eliza’s family in Liberia, a victory that was paid by a series of painful experiences.
Stowe had internalized the pain and suffering of the slaves that the issue of slavery became almost personal to her. At the death of her son because of cholera, she said: “It was at his [her son] grave…that I learnt how a poor slave mother may feel when her child torn away from her” (Rosenthal, 2004, 8). Women had a key role in the abolition of slavery as Stowe depicted in the novel. The scene where Eliza crosses an icy river with her baby in her arms to escape her master has been described as the single, most poignant episode in the novel which had the power to awaken “neutral Americans to embrace the cause of abolition” (Turner, 2007).
The education and reformation of an adopted slave girl named Topsy was entrusted to the hands of Ophelia; it was Eva’s love however which brought real change in the life of the slave girl (O’Loughlin, 2000, 573). Clearly, the role of women in the novel reflects Stowe’s conviction about the place of women in society. It was Stowe’s sister, Catherine Beecher, who influenced Stowe’s view on the relationship of women and slavery. Catherine Beecher writes in A Treatise on Domestic Economy that women secure the nation’s future through their role as moral educators (Beecher cited in Rosenthal, 2004, 16).
O’Loughlin (2000) explains how women can help abolish slavery through the story of Topsy’s reformation narrated in chapter 20 of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Topsy is a young slave girl St. Claire bought and entrusted to Ophelia for the girls’ educational needs. After rigorous supervision by Ophelia, Topsy continued her mischievous behavior. When Little Eva, the ideal character of Christian sympathy, expressed love to Topsy, the slave girl showed minute improvements in her behavior. O’Loughlin (2000, 573) points out that Topsy was more of a “caricature than a character” because of her lack of personal narrative.
When asked who her parents were, Topsy says that she might just have grown without a family. This depicts how slaves lost their individuality after repeatedly being treated as commodities. Little Eva’s affection for the slave girl turned Topsy into an individual (O’Loughlin, 2000, 573). Women are not only moral and charitable educators, but are also keepers of the family institution. It is the woman whose education secures the future of an entire family (Beecher). In the novel, Stowe believes the family unit to be inviolable (Tompkins, 1985).
The plot of the novel reveals traditional family values—from the beginning when Eliza, in her desire to keep her family together, runs away to keep her family together, to the education of Topsy in the household of St. Claire, to the father-like rescue of Little Eva by Uncle Tom, and finally, to the eventual reunification of Eliza to her children, bringing the lives of the character in its rightful balance. As mentioned, Stowe depicts the value of family in terms morals formation.
Stowe believes that the family unit is at the “center of power of American life,” and, consequently, she puts absolute hope on Christian love and the family as key not just in the abolition of slavery, but the reformation of society as well (Tompkins, 1985, 146). Because of the selling of children and movement of slaves from one plantation to another regardless of their familial ties, families were torn apart (Sadler). This situation threatened the center of power that is why, for Stowe, slavery should be abolished.
Critics view Stowe’s emphasis on the family as the reason for the domestic quality of her novel. As such, the revolutionary influence of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is put into question because it is conservative—that is, it calls upon people to go back to an old way of life, in which family dominates, rather than inciting collective action to effect socio-economic changes (Tompkins, 1985, 145). However, Tompkins (1985) argues that Stowe does not discredit the benefit of concrete measures such legislative reforms. As seen in the novel, the changes occurred because of the individual moral choices of the characters.
In the novel, Stowe communicates that without moral transformation, concrete measure would be futile because the corrupt condition of man’s moral would breed the same old problems (Tompkins, 1985, 134). Another critique against the novel is its sentimentality. The shifting values in criticism marginalized and excluded Stowe’s work along with other novels written by women. Sentimentalism, didacticism and domestic fiction were denigrated, regardless of their political and historical significance. However, Stowe believed that feelings are compelling to incite collective action against slavery.
Stowe at the beginning of the novel stated her objectives: “to awaken the sympathy and feeling for the African race, as they exist among us” (Stowe cited in Rosenthal, 2004, 25). O’Loughlin (2000, 575) further adds that in the novel women and blacks share not only the experience of having “earthly powerlessness” but also the profound capacity for love which hints at their “heavenly power and revolutionary potential. ” Stowe crafted dramatic episodes, such as the death of Little Eva and the lynching of Uncle Tom, not to captivate popular interest, but to stir up their sentiments towards the ills of slavery (Tompkins, 1985, 131).
Clearly, Stowe’s vision in writing the novel was anchored on her undeniable reality. One poignant event in her life gives light to what influence and eventually compelled her to write the novel. Her son, Charles Stowe, relates the vision she had of a black slave being beaten to death, a vision compelling enough to encourage Stowe to write (Rosenthal, 2004, 148). His son relates: Suddenly, like the unrolling of a picture, the scene of the death of Uncle Tom passed before her mind. So strongly was she affected that it was with difficulty she could keep from weeping aloud.
Immediately on returning home she took pen and paper and wrote out the vision which has been as it were blown into her mind as by the rushing of a mighty wind (Rosenthal, 2004, 148). Stowe was a woman who saw the world as it was. She wrote the novel with a context in mind, a social reality in which man blatantly desecrates the liberty of another man. Her understanding of slavery through the prism of her Christian faith and the exposure she had with the abolitionist led to her creation of a work that depicts the Negro experience from below.
It was a narrative imagining that stirred sentiment because it struck familiar chords to all kinds of men. The events that ensued after the publication of the book can attest to the historical impact it had on American society. Though in the sidelines of the literary canon, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a testament that literature has the power to mirror society and effect change in it. As modern readers peruse through the novel, history will be explained and seen through the perspective of those who suffered from it. It is through this vicarious experience that society prevents the ills of the past perpetuate in the present.