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American Passages: A Literary Survey

Slavery and Freedom Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896)

[1328] A. S. Seer, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1879), courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-13513].

Harriet Beecher Stowe was born into a large New England religious family. Her father, Lyman Beecher, was a prominent Evangelical Calvinist minister, and her brother, Henry Ward Beecher, followed in their father’s footsteps to become one of the best-known preachers in the country. Stowe’s oldest sister, Catharine Beecher, ran a succession of girls’ schools and gained national recognition for her theories of education, health, and domestic economy. When the family moved west to Cincinnati in 1832, the Beecher sisters founded a new religious school for young women. Because Ohio was a border state between North and South, Stowe met fugitive slaves and encountered fierce debates over slavery while she lived there, ultimately leading her to adopt the abolitionist cause.

In 1836, Harriet Beecher married Calvin Stowe, a widower and professor of biblical studies at a seminary in Cincinnati. She soon found herself overwhelmed by domestic concerns, raising seven children and managing a large household on a professor’s small salary. To supplement the family’s finances, Stowe published stories and sketches in magazines. In 1850, the Stowes moved back to New England when Calvin Stowe accepted a teaching job first in Maine and later in Massachusetts. Stowe’s commitment to the abolitionist cause remained fierce, and, spurred by her outrage at the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act, she resolved to “write something that will make the whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is.” Uncle Tom’s Cabin appeared in 1851 in serial form in the weekly anti-slavery journal The National Era. It was published as a book the following year.

Although Stowe had set out to “make the whole nation feel” the horrors and injustice of slavery, she could not have anticipated the enormous and unprecedented impact her novel would have on the national psyche. Uncle Tom’s Cabin sold over 350,000 copies in its first year of publication, and only the Bible sold more copies in the United States during the nineteenth century. The novel appealed to a wide audience by drawing upon mainstream religious and cultural beliefs: Stowe mobilized evangelical doctrine and the ideal of domesticity to argue that slavery was both unchristian and destructive to family life. Above all, Stowe intended to convince the nation that slavery was a sin that harmed both slaves and the souls of slave owners. By treating human beings as property that could be bought and sold, slavery separated husbands and wives and parents and children, thus standing in opposition to both familial and Christian love. Using sentimental rhetoric and melodramatic situations, and writing in clear, accessible language, Stowe appealed to her culture’s investment in the sacredness of home, family, and Christian salvation. The strategy was effective; when she visited the White House in 1862, President Lincoln is said to have remarked, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this big war.”

Whether or not Uncle Tom’s Cabin was responsible for the Civil War, there is no denying that it brought slavery to the forefront of American consciousness. The novel has caused controversy since its publication, when southerners attempted to ban it and some northerners viewed it as inflammatory. In the twentieth century, the literary establishment has criticized Uncle Tom’s Cabin for its unsophisticated sentimentality and emotionalism, its reliance on offensive racial stereotypes, its reinforcement of traditional gender roles, and its colonialist project of forming a separate state for free blacks in Africa. However out of touch the book is with contemporary values, Stowe’s unparalleled ability to move readers–and effect social change–remains a testament to the power and importance of her first novel.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin not only made Stowe famous, but also brought her enough wealth to free her from economic and domestic cares. She continued writing through the nineteenth century, producing many more novels and serving as an influential spokesperson on national affairs, literature, spirituality, and domestic practices.

Teaching Tips

  • 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.

Author Questions

  1. Comprehension: How does Stowe use racial and gender stereotypes in her characterization of Uncle Tom, Topsy, Little Eva, Eliza, George, and Simon Legree? Do any of these characters challenge common stereotypes? How?
  2. Comprehension: Sometimes Stowe as the narrator of Uncle Tom’s Cabin will address her audience directly as “you” and “dear reader.” What is the effect of these direct appeals from the writer to the reader? Why do you think Stowe uses this technique?
  3. Context: Compare Stowe’s portraits of black women’s sufferings in slavery (Eliza, Cassy, Emmeline) with Jacobs’s account of her real-life experiences. How does Jacobs’s narrative draw on some of the same sentimental conventions Stowe uses in her novel? How is Jacobs’s story different?
  4. Context: Stowe closes her novel by urging that all her readers involve themselves in the struggle against slavery: “There is one thing that every individual can do–they can see to it that they feel right. An atmosphere of sympathetic influence encircles every human being; and the man or woman who feels strongly… is a constant benefactor to the human race.” What do you think Stowe means by “feeling right”? What kind of audience is she appealing to? Do you think her strategy is effective?
  5. Exploration: Uncle Tom’s Cabin achieves powerful results by allying a discourse of domesticity and sentimentality with a call for social reform. How does Stowe’s formula influence later American literature? Can you think of other novels that adopt similar strategies?
  6. Exploration: One of the most famous covers of an edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin reworks Edward Hicks’s famous painting A Peaceable Kingdom. Examine both the original painting and the Uncle Tom’s Cabin version. How does the painting for the cover of Uncle Tom’s Cabin revise the original image? What aspects of A Peaceable Kingdom would have made it an appealing image to the creator of the Uncle Tom’s Cabin cover?

Selected Archive Items

[1328] A. S. Seer, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1879),
courtesy of the Library of Congress [LC-USZ62-13513].
Situated squarely within the sentimental tradition, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin unabashedly appeals to readers’ emotions with scenes of pathos and tragedy. Though the novel seems melodramatic and even derogatory to modern readers, Stowe provided the sentimental appeal necessary to bring the abolitionist cause to the forefront of American consciousness in the mid-nineteenth century.

[2644] Edward Hicks, Peaceable Kingdom (c. 1834),
courtesy of National Gallery of Art, 1980.62.15.
Gift of Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch. Hicks’s Quaker biblical allegory alludes to William Penn’s treaty with the Lenni Lenape Indians and influenced African American artist Robert Duncanson’s painting of Little Eva and Uncle Tom, characters from Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In these works, sentimentality obscured the tension between peace ideals and anti-slavery ideals.

[3457] Anonymous, Harriet Beecher Stowe (c. 1880),
courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration [208-N-25004].
Although Uncle Tom’s Cabin dates from 1851, Stowe remained active for decades, composing both early New England regionalist literature and works dealing with how middle-class women’s household work was changing in an industrializing society.

[5460] Courier Litho. Co., Uncle Tom’s Cabin–On the Levee (1899),
courtesy of the Library of Congress, Prints and Photographs Division, Theatrical Poster Collection.
This poster for a theater production shows happy slaves dancing. Post–Civil War “Uncle Tom Shows” often were performed by whites in blackface. By presenting blacks as subservient in every way, such shows gave the term “Uncle Tom” its derogatory meaning.

[7221] Nina Baym, Interview: “The Publication Success of Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (2001),
courtesy of Annenberg Media.
Baym, professor of English at the University of Illinois, is the general editor of The Norton Anthology of American Literature and author of American Women of Letters and the Nineteenth-Century Sciences: Styles of Affiliation.

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American Passages: A Literary Survey


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