Uncle Tom’s Shadow

Uncle Tom’s Shadow

The Annotated Uncle Tom’s Cabin explores one of the most influential novels in American history.


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.

If Robbins’s historical commentary is too cursory, Gates’s analysis of the book is blithe–and difficult to pin down. He often seems less admiring than amused. His introduction and annotations are peppered with witticisms, particularly at the expense of Uncle Tom’s friendship with Little Eva. “Tom and Little Eva ‘meet cute,’ as they say in Hollywood.” Or: “Tom leaves his home and almost immediately becomes involved with a young blonde.”

This flippancy undermines his introduction. Throughout Uncle Tom’s Cabin Stowe contrasts images of happy domesticity and images of broken slave families. In the sentimentalized portraits of the Victorian era, supreme happiness was embodied by the unity of father, mother and children. Slavery constantly threatened and too often severed this unity when slave wives, husbands and children were sold away and forcibly separated from one another. This strikes me as an accurate analysis. Gates wanders far afield by claiming that “the most important room in the novel is not the kitchen but the bedroom.” Rereading the novel as an adult, he is surprised by its “polymorphous sexual energy.”

Gates tries to interpret the novel on the basis of its sexual symbolism, but, frankly, I don’t think he has discovered anything so impressive or surprising–certainly nothing that will not already seem evident to the average adult reader. “Slavery,” he notes, “in part, was about unbridled, unregulated sex, always potentially available in the relation between master and slave.” Stowe intuited this, and so did her audience. Gates’s emphasis on sexual symbols seems like the amusement of a child who has been assigned Uncle Tom’s Cabin and, between the lines, discovered Mandingo.

Gates, in fact, seems less interested in Stowe’s literary accomplishment–or lack thereof–than in James Baldwin’s 1949 essay. “Everybody’s Protest Novel” remains an important piece of cultural analysis, although it perfunctorily dismisses Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Baldwin’s hostility to the novel has been shared by many twentieth-century black writers whose works make us appreciate the depth of the psychological scars of racial prejudice. Baldwin was unable to stomach the matriarchal zeal and (by today’s standards) condescending tone of Stowe’s case for black emancipation–really, her case for black humanity. Gates succinctly explains the reasoning by which Baldwin accuses Stowe, the ostensible abolitionist, of backhandedly rejecting the essence of freedom: “Tom, as a character, forebears impressively, but he does not create…. Forbearance, at least Tom’s sort…precludes selfhood, just as slavery sought to do. For Baldwin, this is Uncle Tom’s greatest crime.”

Baldwin’s “Everybody’s Protest Novel” is less a careful reading of Stowe’s work than a personal manifesto, a gesture toward self-liberation. Baldwin refuses to see a hint of irony in Uncle Tom’s Cabin. He begins his essay by scoffing at the pomposity of a statement Augustine St. Clare utters midway through: “The whole [black] race are pretty generally understood to be turned over to the devil, for our benefit, in this world, however it may turn out in another!” Yet it’s clear that Stowe wants readers to view this statement critically; it has a dual significance–both as a cryptic warning and as a trope that exposes Augustine’s hypocrisy as a slave owner. In a later essay Baldwin would reminisce that as a child he “read Uncle Tom’s Cabin compulsively…. I was trying to find out something, sensing something in the book of some immense import for me: which, however I knew I did not really understand.” This is revealing. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a novel that scarred Baldwin personally; it also fascinated him deeply. One wonders, moreover, if before writing “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” he had reread Uncle Tom’s Cabin as an adult.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is definitely not a children’s book. Rather, it is a novel that’s too often read too early, whether by critics like Gates who may later be too impressed by the novel’s transparent sexual content or by those who may, like Baldwin, be less than reliable in their historical and literary assessment of the novel because they cannot distance themselves from their own issues with race and identity.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin would not be memorable if it were the dainty book described in “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” so precious and shallow in its insistence that slavery is “perfectly horrible.” Forget the buffoonish stage adaptations. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is as violent as a Quentin Tarantino movie. A depressed slave mother jumps with her child into a river rather than return to bondage. George Shelby, the escaped slave, picks up a gun and shoots his pursuers. The novel is unflinching in its depiction of slave auctions, whippings and the arbitrarily cruel nature of master-slave relationships. It makes most contemporary treatments of the subject look relatively tepid.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is extremely politically astute. Gates concedes that Stowe’s familiarity with the international class and abolitionist debates of her time allowed her to “get inside another’s head and speak in ways that are simultaneously believable and horrible.” Her contrapuntal narrative shrewdly exposes slavery in a variety of aspects. As we journey through the travails of Eliza, George and Uncle Tom, we encounter slave owners who beat their slaves as well as the kind who “spoil” them–Stowe’s point being that in either case the relationship kills the slaves’ spirit and dignity.

Contemporary readers (white Southerners in particular) may be surprised that Uncle Tom’s Cabin is not exclusively an attack on Southern society. Stowe was not oblivious to the racism of polite Northern society. Augustine St. Clare, the guilty Southern slave owner, convinces Miss Ophelia, who is visiting from New England, of the truth of his words: “You would not have them abused; but you don’t want to have anything to do with them yourselves.”

Nor is Uncle Tom an “Uncle Tom.” He is a Christ symbol. This pivotal character needs to be understood both in the context of religious nineteenth-century America and Stowe’s contrapuntal narrative. In the midst of this very violent book, the religious Uncle Tom is the calm at the eye of the storm: patient, tolerant, unwilling to use violence himself even when–a point conveniently overlooked–he approves of other slaves’ decision to stage overt revolt. Uncle Tom encourages George and Eliza to flee. Knowing no other way of life, he chooses to resist the slave system by small acts of kindness and moral persuasion. The vast majority of American slaves would never flee their plantations. Stowe is contrasting two forms of resistance (which in many ways parallel the philosophical differences between Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X): the Bible and the gun.

Yet Uncle Tom’s Cabin has merits beyond that of a skillful piece of critical sociology. The real force of the book lies in its images. Many of Stowe’s intellectualizations are easy to mock. Like most nineteenth-century writers–including white abolitionists–she habitually assigns her black characters “natural” abilities. She has no understanding that collective generalizations, however “positive,” can be derogatory. Yet her images–her visualizations–are more complex than her intellectualizations.

There is a reason Uncle Tom’s Cabin has fascinated illustrators. Stowe’s abilities as an image-maker are priceless. This is also why in memory the novel easily fragments into isolated scenes: Eliza crossing the river of ice, Topsy’s pranks, Uncle Tom’s death.

Note the clever pairings of black and white imagery throughout Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Many artists have been fascinated, in particular, by the friendship of the angelic Little Eva and her black mirror image, Topsy. Images like these–with their profound ambiguity–insinuate that blackness and whiteness are, in some sense that Stowe cannot quite grasp intellectually, dependent on each other. It may strike contemporary readers (it certainly struck me) that in her limited, faltering way Stowe hinted at what today we call the concept of race as a social construct.

Uncle Tom is also a remarkable image. He is the most overtly symbolic character in the novel–so much so that Stowe can never quite capture his physical reality. He is a kind of superman. Or, rather, a super-Christian. Stowe has overburdened Uncle Tom symbolically, but by the end of the novel her intentions are clear. Uncle Tom dies–Simon Legree whips him to death–for refusing to inform on the whereabouts of two escaped slaves. Uncle Tom is Stowe’s black Christ.

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s strength and weakness was that she wrote in broad strokes. Her universe consisted of representative characters who embodied the attitudes, politics and poetry of daily life in antebellum America. Because her archetypal images simultaneously fascinated and unnerved her audience–that is, because they struck home–the book became a staple of popular culture, and her archetypes were debased into stereotypes: the Good Slave, the Tragic Mulatto, the Cruel Slavemaster. Uncle Tom’s Cabin is deeply flawed, but it transcends these caricatures. While its intellectual content creaks, its images continue to haunt.

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