Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Uncle Tom's Cabin


Uncle Tom's Cabin had a tremendous impact. The character Uncle Tom is an African American who retains his integrity and refuses to betray his fellow slaves at the cost of his life. His firm Christian principles in the face of his brutal treatment made him a hero to whites. In contrast, his tormentor Simon Legree, the Northern slave-dealer turned plantation owner, enraged them with his cruelty. Stowe convinced readers that the institution of slavery itself was evil, because it supported people like Legree and enslaved people like Uncle Tom. Because of her work, thousands rallied to the anti-slavery cause.Southerners were outraged, and declared the work to be criminal, slanderous, and utterly false. A bookseller in Mobile, Alabama, was forced out of town for selling copies. Stowe received threatening letters and a package containing the dismembered ear of a black person. Southerners also reacted by writing their own novels. These depicted the happy lives of slaves, and often contrasted them with the miserable existences of Northern white workers.

Most black Americans responded enthusiastically to Uncle Tom's Cabin. Frederick Douglass was a friend of Stowe's; she had consulted him on some sections of the book, and he praised the book in his writings. Most black abolitionists saw it as a tremendous help to their cause. Some, however, opposed the book, seeing Uncle Tom's character as being too submissive and criticized Stowe for having her strongest black characters emigrate to Liberia.


It is ironic that the book which contributed most to the anti-slavery cause should have gained the reputation it has today as a racist work. Uncle Tom, though he defies white authority to save his fellow slaves, is the model of Christian humility. He is forgiving in the face of absolute brutality and suffers countless indignities with patience. Though this endeared him to whites and helped them see the evils of slavery, it also encouraged the image of the submissive, childlike black man -- an idea exaggerated in theatrical productions of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Many of these showed Uncle Tom as a groveling, subservient character, and included blackface mistrel shows between scenes.

Harriet Beecher Stowe

Like most white writers of her day, Harriet Beecher Stowe could not escape the racism of the time. Because of this, her work has some serious flaws, which in turn have helped perpetuate damaging images of African Americans. However, the book, within its genre of romance, was enormously complex in character and in its plots. The book outraged the South, and in the long run, that is its significance. (source: PBS series "Africans in America")



New York University's English Professor, Dr. Cyrus R.K. Patell, discusses Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.

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