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American Passages: A Literary SurveyUnit IndexAmerican Passages Home
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3. Utopian Promise   

7. Slavery and

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Activities: Author Activities

Harriet Beecher Stowe - Teaching Tips

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  • For most of the twentieth century, Uncle Tom's Cabin was not considered an American literary classic. Because it is openly sentimental (that is, designed to appeal to the emotions) and lacks the formal complexity that is usually associated with literary merit, critics largely dismissed the novel as "propaganda" or "melodrama." But reassessment from feminist scholars like Jane Tompkins and Gillian Brown has changed the novel's place in the American canon. For this reason, Uncle Tom's Cabin is a great starting point for a discussion of literary values and the way the texts we read in college classes are selected and evaluated. Ask students to consider what constitutes a "classic" or a "masterpiece." What values underwrite these aesthetic judgments? How and why have our standards for the canon changed over time?

  • Many of Stowe's characters have taken on a life of their own in the American popular imagination. Ask students what springs to mind when they think of "Uncle Tom," "Simon Legree," "Little Eva," and "Poor Eliza." As a class, you can interrogate the racial and gender stereotypes conjured up by these familiar characters. Ask students to consider why these characters have found such a prominent place in American culture and how ideas about them have changed over time. You might show them the "Uncle Tom's Cabin ballet" scene in The King and I or some of the mass-produced trinkets and commodities emblazoned with "Uncle Tom's Cabin" images.

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