Uncle Tom's Shadow
As Borges observed, it is not the order in which books are written that most influences us; it is the order in which we read them. Case in point: Uncle Tom's Cabin. Today, Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel is read--when it is read at all--as an assignment in middle or high school. We are introduced to it as part of an elementary-level education. What is more, many people who have never read the book believe they have a fair idea of its contents. They know it is a tract attacking the great American injustice: slavery. The book they imagine is polemical, high-toned, shrill and simplistic. (For many potential readers the very title is off-putting; Uncle Tom's own name has become a slur.) If we're willing to grant the book any virtues, they're the kind we believe--or used to believe--instill moral rectitude in the young and naïve.
Much more than Twain's Huckleberry Finn, Poe's fiction and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's Sherlock Holmes stories, Uncle Tom's Cabin remains frozen in the past, a blurry childhood memory. Many adults will have the experience of weighing their youthful impressions of Twain, Poe and Conan Doyle against their mature understanding. Not so with the tale of Uncle Tom, Eliza, Little Eva, Topsy and Simon Legree. Uncle Tom's Cabin is a moralizing tale, the kind of material adults blithely leave behind and rarely revisit.
Yet before Uncle Tom's Cabin was dispensed with as a children's tale, it was a social phenomenon and, arguably, the most influential novel in American history. Published in 1852, Stowe's antislavery novel galvanized public opinion on a question that would become the major irritant behind the Civil War, which erupted less than a decade later. It sold more copies than any other book in American history (except, of course, the Bible). It was acclaimed by Northern abolitionists; it inspired denunciatory Southern anti-Uncle Tom's Cabin novels that, preposterously, presented slavery as a benign institution. Almost like a religious text, the novel has proved peculiarly susceptible to distortion and misappropriation. For generations after the Civil War, the story's success as a novel was outstripped by the popularity of theatrical adaptations, musicals and, at worst, minstrel shows, which departed drastically from Stowe's intentions. In fact, there were "Tom shows" in the late 1800s and early 1900s that completely excised the story's antislavery message. Throughout the early 1900s, the familiar characters were cheapened by overuse in product advertisements.
By the 1940s, when the book's popularity waned, its time had come to die of overexposure. Yet Uncle Tom's Cabin still casts a shadow. It is a piece of Americana; it is inseparable from the legacy of slavery and racism. To an extent, we are embarrassed by the novel, its subject matter (slavery, which our sophisticated minds are embarrassed to be reminded of) and its obvious artistic flaws--melodrama and sentimentality. The book's reputation has also been undermined by a widespread confusion with some of the offensive theatrical adaptations. The perception lingers that Uncle Tom's Cabin is a blend of children's fable and propaganda; it cannot be more. This is roughly the argument that James Baldwin makes in his famous 1949 essay "Everybody's Protest Novel." For Baldwin, then a young, ambitious writer who was himself no stranger to polemic, Uncle Tom's Cabin was the worst kind of exhortatory narrative. Looking at history backward, Baldwin was less impressed by the power with which Stowe decried slavery than he was dismayed by the limitations of her views on race, the human condition and the meaning of freedom.
Yet there is also Edmund Wilson's opinion. It may surprise readers to learn that little more than a decade after Baldwin delivered his scathing indictment, the renowned literary critic insisted that, at its core, Uncle Tom's Cabin possessed real literary value, even if the nature of its literary accomplishment was difficult to put a finger on. "To expose oneself in maturity to Uncle Tom's Cabin may...prove a startling experience," Wilson wrote in 1962. "It is a much more impressive work than one has ever been allowed to suspect." Note the wording: a much more impressive work than one has ever been allowed to suspect. The phrasing hints at the motives behind the urge to parody, trivialize and distort Uncle Tom's Cabin.
Is Uncle Tom's Cabin, as Baldwin wrote, just "a very bad novel," a repository of stereotypes that have stayed with us ever since? Or is the majority opinion correct that the novel is a light read that deserves respect for its abolitionist message but little else? Or could it be, as Wilson believed, that history has stunted our ability to read this novel without blinders and reinforced resistance to its flashes of brilliance, its power and its relevance? And given the wide disparity of opinions that have gathered around it, how can we hope to appreciate the real Uncle Tom's Cabin?
Let me offer, first, a refresher course for my readers' blurred childhood memories. Harriet Beecher Stowe--a very religious woman living in a very religious age--wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin in an eruption of indignation over the passage of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which legally mandated the return of escaped slaves to their Southern owners. Stowe was at the time living with her husband and children in Maine. Her novel tells two stories. Its contrapuntal narrative goes as follows: Arthur and Emily Shelby are forced by financial considerations to sell two of their slaves. Emily's light-skinned house slave, Eliza, overhears the plan and flees with her young son and her husband, George. They survive various, often violent travails and escape to freedom in Canada. Meanwhile, the faithful and pious field slave Uncle Tom accepts his fate and is sold by the Shelbys to the St. Clares of New Orleans: Augustine St. Clare; his wife, Marie; and their small daughter, the angelic Little Eva. Augustine also purchases a strange, mischievous slave child, Topsy. Uncle Tom becomes an integral part of the St. Clare family; his unassuming piety converts both Eva and Augustine (but not the coldhearted Marie) to abolitionism, but his two new allies die tragically. The widowed Marie St. Clare sells Tom to the ruthless Simon Legree. Uncle Tom's fate is pretty much sealed.
Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Hollis Robbins's newly annotated Uncle Tom's Cabin will provide readers--mature, adult readers--with an opportunity to put aside their prejudices about the book. If the plot as summarized above reads like a soap opera, consider, too, that today "To be or not to be" reads like cliché. How will Uncle Tom's Cabin impress twenty-first-century, post-civil-rights-era audiences, if we are finally ready to give the novel a fair hearing?
Gates and Robbins's new edition is handsomely illustrated with book cover and poster representations--both refined and stereotypical--of Little Eva, Topsy, Augustine's spinsterish cousin Miss Ophelia and the pious Uncle Tom. For all that, however, The Annotated Uncle Tom's Cabin is somewhat less authoritative than it purports to be.
Robbins provides an adequate history of the composition of the novel. Neither she nor Gates, however, provides extensive commentary on the stage play adaptations, a fascinating history explored in depth by Thomas Gossett in Uncle Tom's Cabin and American Culture. It is astonishing and disturbing to consider how this text, while admittedly melodramatic, was tweaked to play as a stock comedy. Reconstruction-era audiences took their revenge on Stowe's novel while the country reneged on potential civil rights gains for the freed slaves. Instead of an opportunity to reflect on the rights of men, and on the abuse of those rights, Uncle Tom's Cabin became a campy exercise in the exorcism and cleansing of white guilt. By reproducing dozens of period posters and illustrations, The Annotated Uncle Tom's Cabin hints at this history. But it fails to provide a more in-depth analysis of the curious relationship between Uncle Tom's Cabin and Reconstruction, potentially depriving readers of an adequate historical context--the very tools they will need to disentangle the book they've heard about from the book itself.