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New essays on Uncle Tom's cabin

Increased interest in the role of women and minorities in establishing the canon of American literature has led to renewed interest in Uncle Tom's Cabin. The essays in this volume set out to provide contemporary readers with a critical and historical interpretation of the novel that reflects the best of recent scholarship. In his introduction Eric J. Sundquist attempts to show that Uncle Tom's Cabin boldly takes issue with both proslavery arguments and prevailing prejudices among abolitionists, employing the forms of popular melodrama and heated rhetoric to carry its complex argument. The individual essays examine the influence of Stowe's novel on the characterization of women in the American novel and on later women writers, the role of women in the antislavery movement, the literary exchanges between Stowe and her contemporaries; Uncle Tom's Cabin and the tradition of the Gothic novel, and the characterizations of blacks in this novel and in later works.
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★

THE

★

AMERICAN
★ NOVEL ★

NEW ESSAYS ON

EDITED BY

ERIC J. SUNDQUIST

★ The American Novel ★

GENERAL EDITOR

Emory Elliott, Princeton University
Other books in the series:
New Essays on The Scarlet Letter
New Essays on The Great Gatsby
New Essays on Adventures of Huckleberry Einn
New Essays on Moby-Dick
New Essays on The Red Badge of Courage

Forthcoming:
New Essays on Chopin's The Awakening (ed. Wendy Martin)
New Essays on Ellison's Invisible Man (ed. Robert O'Meally)
New Essays on Light in August (ed. Michael Millgate)
New Essays on The Sun Also Rises (ed. Linda Wagner)
New Essays on James's The American (ed. Martha Banta)

New Essays on
Uncle Tom's Cabin

Edited by

Eric J. Sundquist

The right of the
University of Cambridge
to print and sell
all manner of books
was granted by
Henry VIII in 1534.
The University has printed
and published continuously
since ¡584.

CAMBRIDGE UNIVERSITY PRESS
Cambridge

London

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Published by the Press Syndicate of the University of Cambridge
The Pitt Building, Trumpington Street, Cambridge CB2 1RP
32 East 57th Street, New York, NY 10022, USA
10 Stamford Road, Oakleigh, Melbourne 3166, Australia
© Cambridge University Press 1986
First published 1986
Printed in the United States of America
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
New essays on Uncle Tom's cabin.
(The American novel)
1. Stowe, Harriet Beecher, 1811-1896. Uncle Tom's
cabin. 2. Afro-Americans in literature. 3. Slavery
and slaves in literature. I. Sundquist, Eric J.
II. Series.
PS2954.U6N48 1986 813'.3 86-9737

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
New essays on Uncle Tom's cabin.---- (The American Novel)
1. Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom's
Cabin
I. Sundquist, Eric J. II. Series
813'.3
PS2954.U5
ISBN 0 521 30203 X hard covers
ISBN 0 521 31786 X paperback

Contents

Series Editor's Preface
page vii

1
Introduction
ERIC J. SUNDQUIST

page 1

2
Strategies of Black Characterization in Uncle Tom's Cabin
and the Early Afro-American Novel
RICHARD YARBOROUGH

page 45
3
Doing It Herself: Uncle Tom's Cabin and Woman's Role in
the Slavery Crisis
JEAN FAGAN YELLIN

page 85
4
Gothic Imagination and Social Reform: The Haunted
Houses of Lyman Beecher, Henry Ward Beecher, and
,
Harriet Beecher Stowe
'

KAREN HALTTUNEN

page 107

v

Contents

5
Sharing the Thunder: The Literary Exchanges of Harriet
Beecher Stowe, Henry Bibb, and Frederick Douglass
ROBERT B. SJEPTO

page 135

6
Stowe's Dream of the Mother-Savior: Uncle Tom's Cabin
and American Women Writers Before the 1920s
ELIZABETH AMMONS

page 155
Notes on Contributors
page 196

Selected Bibliography
page 198

vi

Series Editor's Preface

In literary criticism the last twenty-five years have been particu­
larly fruitful. Since the rise of the New Criticism in the 1950s,
which focused attention of critics and readers upon the text itself —
apart from history, biography, and society - there has emerged a
wide variety of critical methods which have brought to literary
works a rich diversity of perspectives: social, historical, political,
psychological, economic, ideological, and philosophical. While at­
tention to the text itself, as taught by the New Critics, remains at
the core of contemporary interpretation, the widely shared as­
sumption that works of art generate many different kinds of in­
terpretation has opened up possibilities for new readings and new
meanings.
Before this critical revolution, many American novels had come
to be taken for granted by earlier generations of readers as having
an established set of recognized interpretations. There was a sense
among many students that the canon was established and that the
larger thematic and interpretative issues had been decided. The
task of the new reader was to examine the ways in which elements
such as structure, style, and imagery contributed to each novel's
acknowledged purpose. But recent criticism has brought these old
assumptions into question and has thereby generated a wide vari­
ety of original, and often quite surprising, interpretations of the
classics, as well as of rediscovered novels such as Kate Chopin's
The Awakening, which has only recently entered the canon of
works that scholars and critics study and that teachers assign their
students.
The aim o£The American Novel Series is to provide students of
American literature and culture with introductory critical guides to

vii

Series Editor's Preface
American novels now widely read and studied. Each volume is
devoted to a single novel and begins with an introduction by the
volume editor, a distinguished authority on the text. The introduc­
tion presents details of the novel's composition, publication histo­
ry, and contemporary reception, as well as a survey of the major
critical trends and readings from first publication to the present.
This overview is followed by four or five original essays, specifical­
ly commissioned from senior scholars of established reputation
and from outstanding younger critics. Each essay presents a dis­
tinct point of view, and together they constitute a forum of in­
terpretative methods and of the best contemporary ideas on each
text.
It is our hope that these volumes will convey the vitality of
current critical work in American literature, generate new insights
and excitement for students of the American novel, and inspire
new respect for and new perspectives upon these major literary
texts.
Emory Elliott
Princeton University

1

Introduction
ERIC J. SUNDQUIST

C

LEAR judgments of the merits of Uncle Tom's Cabin will never
be easy to make. Even though the Civil War novelist John De
Forest, inaugurating the search for "The Great American Novel"
in an 1868 essay in The Nation, thought Harriet Beecher Stowe's
novel the best candidate to date, the book's phenomenal popu­
larity in its own day and in the century following the Civil War has
served to cast suspicion on it among those who define the artifacts
of high culture by excluding works that seem to cater to the tastes
of the masses. The novel's characterization of black Americans,
whether slave or free, has often rendered it objectionable to mod­
ern sensibilities. Even Stowe's broad depiction of the role of wom­
en in society, because it appears to restrict their moral influence to
the circumscribed arena of home and family, has struck some
feminist readers as constrained or demeaning. Despite such prob­
lems, redefinitions of the place of popular literature, of blacks, and
of women in American political and cultural history witnessed
over the last several decades have focused new attention on
Stowe's masterpiece, illuminating again its complicated and some­
times contradictory powers.
Like any great work of literature, Uncle Tom's Cabin may well
transcend the issues and events of its own era but must nonethe­
less be seen to be firmly anchored in them. This is emphatically
true of Stowe's novel, which is so deeply political in nature despite seeming at times oblivious to crucial realities in America's
great debate over slavery — that it has often been considered a
strange hybrid of polemic and sentimental melodrama, a work
that helped instigate the Civil War and then ceased to have value
once its purpose had been accomplished. But it is also a sign of

1

New Essays on Uncle Tom's Cabfn
prevailing twentieth-century notions of literature in America that
both polemicism and sentimentality, especially in the heated
union of the two forged by Stowe, could discredit the novel. Many
major critical studies of American literature in this century have
found no place for Stowe, and only recently has she been consid­
ered at all central to the great flowering of native literature before
the Civil War known as the American Renaissance. The early
assessment of Carl Van Doren in The American Novel is perhaps
typical of most modern critical response: "Leave out the merely
domestic elements of the book - slave families broken up by sale,
ailing and dying children, negro women at the mercy of their
masters, white households which at the best are slovenly and
extravagant by reason of irresponsible servants and at the worst
are abodes of brutality and license - and little remains."1
One might as well say of Moby-Dick (as some readers have),
"leave out the whales and little remains." The comparison is not
entirely idle. Both Stowe and Herman Melville, at almost exactly
the same time, wrote epic novels that drove to the heart of Ameri­
can democracy by infusing everyday materials with highly charged
political purpose. Melville's novel went largely unrecognized by
readers and critics until this century; Stowe's novel, although re­
taining a popular audience, was progressively lowered in scholarly
estimation almost in exact proportion to Melville's ascent - in part
because it lacks the complex philosophical intent and dense liter­
ary allusiveness of Moby-Dick and in part because it is in direct
opposition to the rich American tradition of masculine confronta­
tion with nature (the frontier tradition of the "American Adam")
that Melville helped to define. Add to this Nathaniel Hawthorne's
condemnation of popular female writers as a "damned mob of
scribbling women," along with the influential novelistic canon
opening out of The Scarlet Letter, based on the narrative introspec­
tion and nuanced dramatic plotting found, for example, in the
works of William Dean Howells, Henry James, and Edith Wharton,
and the main terms by which Stowe has been excluded are
evident.2
Against the standards defined by Hawthorn^ and Melville (and
despite the fact that both Howells and James found the novel
something of a landmark in American fiction), Uncle Tom's Cabin

2

Introduction

has appeared to be awkwardly plotted, overly melodramatic, and
naively visionary - a book for children and (what could be
thought to amount to the same thing) those women readers who,
from Stowe's day on into the twentieth century, have formed the
largest part of the popular reading public. "It literally wallows in
tears," writes one critic. "There is no subterfuge and no artistry
about appealing to the simplest emotions of the reader."3 At the
same time, however, Edmund Wilson wrote in an important reas­
sessment in 1962 that Stowe's work is comparable to that of
Dickens and Zola (as readers in her own day recognized); and the
novel has often been read in Europe, both in the original and in
numerous translations, as the masterpiece of social realism George
Sand, George Eliot, Turgenev, Tolstoy, Hugo, and Heine found it
to be.4 Moreover, contemporary scholars have begun to see in the
novel's astute manipulation of the strategies of sentimentality a
careful artistry and an engagement of striking, if neglected, politi­
cal powers. The tradition of the domestic novel to which Uncle
Tom's Cabin belongs, writes Jane Tompkins, "represents a monu­
mental effort to reorganize culture from the woman's point of
view," an effort that is "remarkable for its intellectual complexity,
ambition, and resourcefulness" and that "offers a critique of
American society far more devastating than any delivered by bet­
ter-known critics such as Hawthorne and Melville." In this view,
the novel's "tearful episodes and frequent violations of probability
[are] invested with a structure of meanings" that draw on impor­
tant nineteenth-century patterns of individual emotion, social
equality, and religious belief in order to fix the work, "not in the
realm of fairy tale or escapist fantasy, but in the very bedrock of
reality."5
The redefinition of the canon of classical American literature
that has accompanied the rise of feminist scholarship in the last
twenty years has had to confront a still greater, and less easily
resolved, problem in the case of Uncle Tom's Cabin. It is a problem
defined with abrupt succinctness in the title of J. C. Furnas's book,
Goodbye to Uncle Tom. Appearing in 1956, Furnas's thorough study
of the novel's relationship to the realities of slavery, its popularized
versions, arid its derivative cultural stereotypes revealed in great
detail what he saw to be Stowe's role in perpetuating "the miscon­

3

New Essays on Uncle Tom's Cabin
ceptions, Southern and Northern, the wrongheadednesses, the
distortions and wishful thinkings about Negroes in general and
American Negroes in particular that still plague us today." What
Furnas wrote then is without doubt true, perhaps more true, thirty
years later: Many black Americans "have made her titular hero a
hissing and a byword," such a hated epithet connoting meek ser­
vility and offensive minstrel-like traits that many of them "would
rather be called 'nigger' than 'Uncle Tom.' "6
Although Tom's appellation, "Uncle," is a conventional sign of
kinship and familiarity in slave life, and although he is portrayed
by Stowe as a young, broad-chested, powerful man, his passive
martyrdom at the hands of Simon Legree has become an unfortu­
nate image for the entire novel. In the same vein, James Baldwin's
famous claim that the novel is activated by a "theological terror"
in which "black equates with evil and white with grace" tren­
chantly defined the appeal to a race-prejudiced Calvinism latent
within Stowe's best intention's:7 Like the attempts by black indi­
viduals or groups such as the National Association for the Ad­
vancement of Colored People (NAACP) to proscribe the novel or
ban its dramatizations, the brilliant critiques by Baldwin and Fur­
nas recognized disturbing elements in the novel that cannot be
explained away. Any reformation of the canon of American liter­
ature that sets out to give Uncle Tom's Cabin the central place it
deserves cannot afford to take lightly, much less ignore altogether,
such problems in the book itself or in the cultural images it has
engendered.
Upon its publication, the novel immediately produced a flood of
imitative drama, poetry, and songs that capitalized upon its most
saccharine scenes. The melodramatic apotheosis of Eva and bowd­
lerized scenes of minstrel humor appeared in consumable artifacts
- dioramas, engravings, gift books, card games, figurines, plates,
silverware, and needlepoint. Stage versions and the traveling
"Tom troupes" that performed them purged any radical messages
from the blackface drama: Topsy became a star, singing "I'se So
Wicked" and "Topsy's Song: I am but a Little Nigger Gal"; the
famous minstrel performer T. D. Rice "jumped Jim Crow" in the
role of Uncle Tom; the South appeared as an arena of light-hearted
fun (in the P. T. Barnum version, Tom was rescued from Legree by

4

Introduction

George Shelby); Tom and Eva were reunited in cardboard heav­
ens; and abolitionism itself was attacked in such songs as "Happy
Are We, Darkies So Gay." The increased popularity of Tom troupes
following the Civil War — some 400 by 1899 in one estimate - was
not diminished by the fact that blacks finally played a few leading
roles. Blackface white actors returned again in the earliest of many
film depictions, beginning with a twelve-minute version in 1903;
but Sam Lucas starred as Tom in the first black film lead in 1914.
Harry Pollard's monumental 1927 remake had a $2 million budget
($20,000 for real bloodhounds, a staple of stage versions); an
animated Uncle Tom starred Felix the Cat; Shirley Temple per­
formed as the Eva of a Tom troupe in Dimples (1936) and was
paired with Bill "Bojangles" Robinson as Tom in The Littlest Rebel
(1935); Judy Garland was Topsy in Everybody Sing (1938); Betty
Grable and June Hoover were twin Topsies (also a tradition on
stage) in The Dolly Sisters (1945); and Abbott and Costello mas­
queraded as Simon Legree and Eva in The Naughty Nineties
(1945).8
Given this extraordinary record of cultural abuse, it is little won­
der that Richard Wright satirically entitled his collection of stories
about black life in the Jim Crow South Uncle Tom's Children (1940)
or that Ishmael Reed has burlesqued Stowe's novel and its fictive
descendents in Flight to Canada (1976). Uncle Tom's Cabin can now
barely be read with an open mind. Leaving aside the post-Civil War
versions of Stowe's melodrama (which belong to the continued
history of American racism in popular culture epitomized by films
like The Birth of a Nation or Gone With the Wind and the novels that
spawned them), one might note that the popular reaction of the
1850s may well have concealed the novel's guarded subversive
power by containing it within ostentatiously marketable forms that
would reaffirm the basic prejudices of Stowe's audience. The author
herself wrote a dramatic version entitled "The Christian Slave" that
was never staged; and she too derived crude sentimental verse from
her own fiction (based on such themes as "Eliza Crossing the
River," "Eva Putting Flowers Round Tom's Neck," and "Topsy at
the Looking-Glass").9 However, these efforts keep central what the
minstrel versions either suppressed or rendered irrelevantly comic
or absurdly pious: namely, that in its most fundamental sense, the

5

New Essays on Uncle Tom's Cabin
novel (as Stowe later put it) was "written by God," that its message
was an apocalyptic judgment upon America's worst continuing sin.
Underlying Stowe's portrayal of women in society and her de­
pictions of black character is an acceptance of the power of Chris­
tianity that may seem equally alien to modern readers. The model
of Christian virtue that Stowe - like the vast majority of her read­
ers - grew up with underwent important changes between the
American Revolution and the Civil War. The separation of sacred
and secular realms of experience that accompanied the rise of
liberal ideology (which asserted the primacy of man's own capaci­
ty to define the just nature of society, and valued individual con­
science and democratic political ideals above the community of
God defined by institutional religion) accounts to a great degree
for the book's unusual combination of effects. As a recent critic has
noted, "the radical democracy of Uncle Tom's Cabin is at once
liberal and conservative - liberal in its determination to extend
humanity into the excluded slave population, and conservative in
its direct insistence upon reasserting the sacred as the essence of
social justice."10 Because abolitionists had to override the histor­
ical justification of slavery on the basis of biblical scripture and the
Calvinistic claim that all human institutions were forms of bond­
age to the "darkness" of sin, while at the same time retaining a
clear sense of chattel slavery as particularly evil, they often sought
to fuse the rhetoric of human depravity and the rhetoric of re­
generation according to enlightened liberal ideals. Stowe's novel is
itself revolutionary in demanding that the sacred and secular
realms be reunited, that the role of God be reinserted into an
American political system that paid lip service to Christian ideals
and constantly invoked them in its discourse but failed to act upon
them seriously.
What might thus be termed the "radical conservatism" of Uncle
Tom's Cabin can be seen to lie behind its elevation of domestic,
Christian virtues associated with wpmen over the failed political,
secular virtues associated with a patriarchal society. It also helps to
clarify the fact that Stowe could contemplate a potentially revolu­
tionary assault on American social institutions epitomized by a
legal form of slavery that became emblematic for her of other
forms of enslavement - while adopting simplistic or reactionary

6

Introduction
views of the black slave experience. The triangular entanglements
among the role of women, the place of blacks in American history
and society, and the radical powers of Christianity cannot be
pulled apart or reduced to easy schematic interpretations. Precisely
their knotted complexity reveals instead how inadequately Uncle
Tom's Cabin has been understood and how central it is, as a literary
and political document, to the American experience.

By the time Uncle Tom's Cabin began to appear in serial install­
ments in the abolitionist journal The National Era in June 1851, the
crisis over slavery in the United States had reached a high pitch.
Although Stowe's own account of the novel's inception took dif­
ferent forms, she undeniably wrote in reaction to the Compromise
of 1850, the main provisions of which admitted California to the
Union as a free state and abolished the slave trade in Washington,
D.C., but organized the New Mexico and Utah territories without
prohibiting slavery and enacted a Fugitive Slave Law requiring
northerners to aid in the return of escaped slaves to their southern
masters. Among antislavery forces, the Compromise was seen as a
capitulation to the demands of the southern "Slave Power," and
the Fugitive Slave Law in particular seemed a hateful extension of
the brutalities of slavery beyond its legal borders. Already a pub­
lished author of light sketches and short domestic stories, Stowe
wrote a first tentative response for the Era in August 1850 entitled
"The Freeman's Dream; A Parable," which told the story of a
white man who dreamed he was damned for refusing shelter to a
fugitive slave and his family.11
Once the Compromise was passed at the end of the year, the
fictive dream took palpable form in Stowe's own life. When chal­
lenged in a letter from her sister-in-law to "write something that
will make this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery
is," Stowe is said to have risen to her feet and declared, "I will
write something. I will if I live." In early 1851, she confided to her
famous brother, the Reverend Henry Ward Beecher (whose minis­
try at Plymouth Church in Brooklyn was marked by vigorous
antislavery crusading) her desire to write a series of sketches,
called "Uncle Tom's Cabin," "to illustrate the cruelties of slav­
ery"; and irf a letter to her husband she wrote that she was "pro­

7

New Essays on Uncle Tom's Cabin
jecting a sketch for the Era on the capability of liberated blacks to
take care of themselves." A month later, during communion ser­
vice at her church in Brunswick, Maine, Stowe experienced a
dramatic awakening, later described by her son: "Suddenly, like
the unrolling of a picture, the scene of the death of Uncle Tom
passed before her mind. So strongly was she affected that it was
with difficulty she could keep from weeping aloud. Immediately
on returning home she took pen and paper and wrote out the
vision which had been as it were blown into her mind as by the
rushing of a mighty wind."12
The scene that became the rhetorical climax of Uncle Tom's Cabin
thus seemed to arise from a deep well of conscience, to be visionary
in the most exact sense of the term. As Stowe later wrote in an
1879 preface to the novel (speaking of herself in the third person),
"she was perfectly overcome by it, and could scarcely restrain the
convulsion of tears and sobbing that shook her frame." When she
read the scene to her two young sons, "the little fellows broke out
into convulsions of weeping, one of them saying, through his sobs,
'Oh! mamma, slavery is the most cursed thing in the world!' "13
Such a response to the cruelties of slavery would be repeated in
various forms throughout the novel — for example, in the scene in
which Mrs. Shelby, after her husband has sold Tom to the slave
trader Haley, enters the cabin of Tom's family to tell him goodbye:
"Tom," she said, "I come to - " and stopping suddenly, and
regarding the silent group, she sat down in the chair, and, covering
her face with her handkerchief, began to sob.
"Lor, now, Missis, don't - don't!" said Aunt Chloe, bursting out
in her turn; and for a few moments they all wept in company. And
in those tears they all shed together, the high and the lowly, melted
away all the heart-burnings and anger of the oppressed. O, ye who
visit the distressed, do ye know that everything your money can
buy, given with a cold, averted face, is not worth one honest tear
shed in real sympathy? (Chap. 10)14

The scene is instructive in that it defines the book's ability to
ground a moral lesson in a concrete reality, the tragic destruction
of a slave family. Typically, Stowe's own address to the reader is
continuous with the implied audience response symbolized by
Mrs. Shelby's tears, which break down barriers between lowly

8

Introduction
slaves and their properly sympathetic masters. In addition, it illus­
trates the strategy she spoke of when writing in March 1851 to
Gamaliel Bailey, the editor of the Era: "My vocation is simply that
of a painter, and my object will be to hold up in the most lifelike
and graphic manner possible Slavery, its reverses, changes, and
the negro character, which I have had ample opportunities for
studying. There is no arguing with pictures, and everybody is im­
pressed by them, whether they mean to be or not."15
Uncle Tom's Cabin is filled with such pictures, and there is no
doubt that Stowe's readers were impressed by them. When the
serial version of the novel began to appear under the title Uncle
Tom's Cabin, Or the Man That Was a Thing (the subtitle in volume
form would be Life Among the Lowly), her audience was given to
expect a tale that would run about fourteen weekly installments.
In the end, it ran for ten months, gaining a steadily larger au­
dience, as new characters and events came to life and as Stowe
discovered the pleasures and suspense of serial publication. There
is little evidence that the Era's circulation increased much on ac­
count of Uncle Tom's Cabin, but numerous issues must have been
passed from hand to hand. Immediately, fan letters appeared in
the Era or were addressed to Stowe, claiming to identify the origi­
nals of her characters, expressing anguish about the exposed evils
of slavery, or berating her for permitting the death of little Eva.
Despite the growing demonstration of popular support, book pub­
lishers were wary of contracting for an antislavery tale appearing
in an obscure journal by a very minor author. The firm Stowe
finally found, Jewett and Company of Boston, then had to wait
anxiously from September 1851 until April 1852 for the relentless
cascade of her story to reach its conclusion. The explosion of sales
that followed the publication of Uncle Tom's Cabin's slightly revised
two volumes in 1852 shocked everyone except her reading public.
Thousands of copies were sold within weeks, and the newly fa­
mous author received congratulations from already famous au­
thors like Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and John Whittier, and
from politicians like William Seward and Charles Sumner. Al­
though her faulty royalty and copyright arrangements prevented
her from making a fortune on the book, Stowe's name and Tom's
story were already immortal.

9

New Essays on Uncle Tom's Cabin

Despite the fact that Uncle Tom's Cabin is in important respects a
complex work built on complex issues, its popularity owed much
to the surface simplicity of its story and to the wealth of moving
and detailed pictures the "painter" Harriet Beecher Stowe had
promised her editor. Yet Stowe had not had the wide experience
with slavery and blacks that her letter suggests, and she appeared
willing to ignore a problem of which critics of sentimental liter­
ature had long been aware - that simple pictures are easily re­
duced to stereotypes and, as the scene in Tom's cabin makes clear,
might possibly lead to emotional indulgence and a cathartic dis­
persal of "heart-burnings and anger" in her audience (as in the
potentially rebellious slaves in Tom's cabin) rather than to mobi­
lizing action on behalf of the oppressed. The risk lay in the fact
that, although Christianity "made it possible for abolitionists to
find solace and salvation in the lowly condition of black people,"
as Ronald Walters'has written, it might require a psychological
and geographical distance "that allowed abolitionist imaginations
to see slavery abstractly, as a moral drama rather than as interac­
tion among real human beings."16 It is one of the most marked
features of Uncle Tom's Cabin that its greatest and most effective
scenes constantly waver between picture and abstraction. Even so,
Stowe understood the inherent power of melodrama to move an
audience. And when almost a year later she wrote the final install­
ment of the serial version of the novel, she made no mistake in
addressing her readers in a surprising way: "Farewell, dear chil­
dren, till we meet again." It was not that Stowe imagined children
as her only audience (there was ample testimony to the contrary),
but rather that she accurately gauged the emotive level at which
the story would do its work. As Forrest Wilson has remarked, she
had of necessity been writing a "violent and tragic tale, spattered
with murder, lust, illicit love, suicide, sadistic torture, profanity,
drunkeness [and] barroom brawls" that would "condition a
whole generation of children to march in the spirit of crusaders ten
years later up to the cannon's mouth."17
The untenable claim that Uncle Tom's Cabin in any way "caused"
the Civil War (Abraham Lincoln is reported to have remarked upon
meeting Stowe in 1863, "so this is the little lady who made this big
war") must be considered in relation to Stowe's artistic strategies. It

10

Introduction
must take account as well of the fact that the Christian tradition in
which Stowe was raised — as the daughter of one minister, the sister
of six, and the wife of yet another - often rendered experience of the
temporal world in terms of timeless allegorical or parabolic images
whose immediacy and simplicity could conceal complex meanings
and require complex responses. Uncle Tom's Cabin employs biblical
quotation, hymns, sermons, and scriptural emblems to enforce its
deepest levels of significance. As Tompkins puts it, Stowe "rewrites
the Bible as the story of a Negro slave." If little Eva is represented as
a type of Christ, it is because the life of Jesus, properly understood,
requires a radical "femininity" and innocence that the institutions
of American society have buried under a load of oppression and
sophisticated theology; if Tom is represented as a type of Christ, it is
because Stowe's story, she later wrote, is meant "to show how
Jesus Christ, who liveth and was dead, is now alive and forever­
more, has still a mother's love for the poor and lowly, and that no
man can sink so low but that Jesus Christ will stoop to take his
hand."18
The significant events of Stowe's life up to the publication of
Uncle Tom's Cabin may not appear to have destined her to write the
novel, even though the fiery process of her composition sounds
apocalyptically conditioned. Born in Litchfield, Connecticut, in
1811, Harriet was the seventh of Lyman Beecher's nine children
by his first wife, Roxanna (he had four more with a second wife
after Roxanna's death in 1816, an event that affected Harriet deep­
ly and led her to speak often of the important influence of her
mother as a moral model). Lyman Beecher was a well-known
Presbyterian minister whose moderate antislavery stance empha­
sized moral suasion, not violent activism, and looked to coloniza­
tion of freed blacks in Africa as the best solution to America's
crisis. Beecher's beliefs grew out of the Calvinistic theology of
Jonathan Edwards, which held that man was depraved and de­
pendent upon God's grace for salvation but stressed as well the
importance of emotion and the awakening of benevolent human
feelings in the process of Christian conversion. Lyman Beecher's
lifelong quarrel with the rising liberal theology of New England
Unitarians like Ralph Waldo Emerson, Theodore Parker, and
William Ellery Channing, the radical abolitionists led by William

11

New.Essays on Uncle Tom's Cabin
Lloyd Garrison, and the more extreme midwestern evangelistic
revivalism sparked by Charles Grandison Finney made him repre­
sentative of battles fought during the shift in American theology
away from the more rigid doctrines of Puritanism. Stowe would
later chronicle these intellectual and sotial changes in her father's
and her own generation in such novels as The Minister's Wooing
(1859) and Oldtown Folks (1869), which portray the historical de­
cline of New England Puritanism. Rejecting her father's strict ad­
herence to the doctrines of original sin and election while retaining
his sense that slavery was representative of man's earthly damna­
tion, Stowe sided finally with the liberals and the revivalists,
whose theology demanded active social reform in the service of
God. Although the thirteen-year-old Harriet underwent the re­
ligious conversion experience required by her father's beliefs in
1824, her devotion to his creed was never rigid. Her letters over
the next several years, in fact, reveal melancholy doubts about her
own salvation and, at times, overt reaction against the "vehement
and absorbing intensity" of the "devotional thought and emotion"
that led her to feel that "my mind is exhausted, and seems to be
sinking into deadness."19
From 1824 to 1832 young Harriet assisted her sister Catharine, a
pioneer in women's education, at the Hartford Female Seminary;
and she later contributed to several of Catharine's important text­
books when they taught together in Cincinnati, where Lyman
Beecher had moved in 1832 to take over the Lane Theological
Seminary. Cincinnati during the 1830s and 1840s was a hotbed of
antislavery activity and the scene of several bloody race riots. Al­
though a brief visit to Kentucky in 1833 constituted Stowe's only
direct experience of the slave South, her family and friends had
regular contact with men and women active in the underground
railroad, and the Cincinnati press was full of reports about and
advertisements for escaped slaves. A number of the stories con­
nected with these experiences would find their way into Uncle
Tom's Cabin. More significantly, the Lane Theological Seminary
was wracked by antislavery controversy. When he found Lyman
Beecher's position too moderate, a student named Theodore Weld,
influenced by Finney's radicalism, formed the Lane Anti-Slavery
Society and, in the face of opposition from Beecher and other Lane

12

Introduction
conservatives, led away a large number of students to Finney's
new divinity school at Oberlin in 1833, a divisive action from
which Lane never fully recovered. Prompted in part by the in­
creasingly vocal antislavery beliefs of her brothers William, Ed­
ward, and Henry, and even her sister Catharine, and by the fami­
ly's friendships with influential abolitionists such as James G.
Birney, Salmon Chase, and the editor Gamaliel Bailey, Harriet
gradually turned against the ineffective and often abstract views of
her father and her husband, Calvin Stowe, a Lane professor of
religion whom she married in 1836 after the death of his first wife,
Eliza, one of Harriet's best friends.
Besides bearing and caring for six children during her years in
Cincinnati (and one more in Maine), Stowe became active in local
literary clubs, continuing her girlhood readings, which mixed
rigorous theology with writers like Milton, Byron, and Scott, and
developing writing talents that had been evident in her early life.
By the late 1830s she was contributing sketches to annual gift
books, as well as to periodicals such as the Western Monthly Maga­
zine, the New York Evangelist, the Ladies Repository, and Godey's
Lady's Book. In 1843 a group of her New England tales was col­
lected in a volume entitled The Mayflower, and in 1845 she wrote a
piece on "Immediate Emancipation" for the Evangelist. If none of
these literary efforts gave an indication of the great power that
would be unleashed in Stowe's response to the Fugitive Slave
Law, they demonstrated her gradual psychological release from
the harsh introspection of Lyman Beecher's Calvinism. Also, the
very facts of her career chronicle the double burden faced by a
woman writing in the nineteenth century. Her obligations to her
family inevitably took first place in her life; her letters are a record
of her struggle to find time for writing amid the seemingly endless
series of pregnancies and the illnesses and depression that often
accompanied them. As though recasting her painful conversion
experience of childhood in secular terms, Stowe's desire (echoing
Anne Bradstreet and anticipating the more famous expression of
Virginia Woolf), to have for her writing "a room for myself, which
shall be my room," was figured in terms of bondage: "I have
determined rjot to be a mere domestic slave, without even the
• leisure to excel in my duties. I mean to have money enough to

13

New Essays on Uncle Tom's Cabin

have my house kept in the best manner and yet to have time for
reflection and that preparation for. the education of my children
which every mother needs." In early 1847, burdened by domestic
duties to the point of a severe depression of the kind that afflicted a
number of women in the nineteenth century, Stowe underwent
hydrotherapy at a sanitarium in Brattleboro, Vermont. The treat­
ment improved her physiologically; it also led her to demand of
Calvin Stowe more freedom from family cares.20 Along with the
Cincinnati cholera epidemic that carried off their son Charles in
1849 (an event of great personal pain that would be portrayed by
Stowe in the scenes of childhood death in Uncle Tom's Cabin), the
therapeutic cure of Stowe's "hysteria" eventuated in Calvin's re­
settlement in 1850 at Bowdoin College in Maine and must be seen
to lie behind the feminine release from domestic enslavement that
her great novel would initimate - even if, like Stowe herself, it
remained committed to the ideal of maternal nurture and care.
Surrounded by a family of ministers, Stowe was a first-hand
witness to the declining political power of the clergy and its post­
Revolutionary War displacement into the growing fields of evan­
gelistic and secular social reform.21 Although Christianity is at its
heart, Uncle Tom's Cabin attacks the explicit or implied support of
slavery by institutionalized religion in its allusion to the Beecher
family friend Joel Parker, the "American divine" who tells us that
slavery "has 'no evils but such as are inseparable from any other
relations in social and domestic life' and then again in the example
of Marie St. Clare's clergyman, who preaches the standard pro­
slavery line that "some should be high and some low, and that
some were born to rule and some to serve" (Chaps. 12, 16). It was
such views, North and South, that Frederick Douglass had in mind
when he wrote in the blistering appendix to Narrative of the Life of
Frederick Douglass (1845): "Revivals of religion and revivals in the
slave-trade go hand in hand together. . . . The clanking of fetters
and the rattling of chains in the prison, and the pious psalm and
solemn prayer in the church, may be heard at the same time. The
dealers in the bodies and souls of men erect their stand in the
presence of the pulpit, and they mutually help each other." Stowe
wrote Douglass in 1851, during the serialization of Uncle Tom's
Cabin, that she found his view rather harsh; she also asked Doug­

14

Introduction
lass for information about slave life that might prove useful to her
novel, a request that apparently went unanswered.22 But there are
no portraits of the church in Uncle Tom's Cabin that run counter to
Douglass's charges.
That the role of the church in the antislavery movement was
vexing is evident enough in Stowe's novel. But her response to the
problem was also troubled by the advocacy of nonviolence. Even
Garrison, the prime advocate of nonviolent tactics, who once
nominated Jesus Christ for president, found in her book a replica
of his own confusion:
We are curious to know whether Mrs. Stowe is a believer in the
duty of non-resistance for the white man, under all possible outrage
and peril, as well as for the black man. . . . When [slaves] are spit
upon and buffeted, outraged and oppressed, talk not then of a non­
resisting Savior — it is fanaticism! . . . Talk not of servants being
obedient to their masters - let the blood of the tyrants flow! How is
this to be explained or reconciled? Is there one law of submission
and non-resistance for the black man, and another law of rebellion
and conflict for the white man? When it is the whites who are
trodden in the dust, does Christ justify them in taking up arms to
vindicate their rights? And when it is the blacks who are thus
treated, does Christ require them to be patient, harmless, longsuffering, and forgiving? And are there two Christs?23

Because Garrison and other radical social reformers tended to dis­
trust or reject the institutions around them, however, their efforts
risked utopian isolation from reality. Like many of them, Stowe, in
attacking existing institutions while disavowing violent resistance,
emphasized an appeal to individual conscience as the source of
eventual collective perfection. Yet such a strategy threatened to
make slavery a guilt-ridden conundrum admitting of no clear po­
litical solution.24 In Uncle Tom's Cabin, Stowe's focus on individual
acts of conscience primarily ascribed to women is an attempt to
surmount such barriers by finding in the feminine perfection of the
heart an elementary path beyond the reasoned abstractions of the
head.
As Stowe's experiences of underground railroad activities in
Cincinnati find her pursuit of sentimental literature proved, the
individual act of conscience could be united with public action perhaps in a more fruitful way than many of her more famous

15

New Essays on Uncle Tom's Cabin
literary peers in the antebellum years realized. Even though she
was active in local literary circles'before her fame in the 1850s,
Stowe appears to have been largely unaffected by the antislavery
opinion of other major literary figures.But this is due in part to
their relative reticence on the subject. Emerson spoke out in
important addresses like "Emancipation in the British West In­
dies" (1844) and "The Fugitive Slave Law" (1851); and Thoreau
attacked the Mexican War as a proslavery ruse in "Civil Disobe­
dience" (1849), excoriated the Compromise in "Slavery in Mas­
sachusetts" (1854), and celebrated John Brown's assault on
Harper's Ferry in "A Plea for Captain John Brown" (1859). Long­
fellow, Lowell, Holmes, and especially Whittier wrote important
antislavery verse, as did Whitman, whose brilliant war poems col­
lected in Drum-Tags (1865) were a record of America's deep
wounds, healed and purified in the terrible war for reunion. In
several short stories and in Th'e Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym
(1838), Poe wrote ambiguously about racial hysteria. Hawthorne's
views, as in his campaign biography of Franklin Pierce (1852) or
his essay "Chiefly About War Matters" (1862), can only be in­
terpreted as moderately proslavery, whereas Melville, both in his
later war poems collected in Battle-Pieces (1866) and in the ex­
plosively enigmatic story "Benito Cereno" (1855), vehemently
attacked slavery but concealed his vision in complicated allegory.
In contrast to the "inner civil war" waged by northern intellec­
tuals and the paucity of major literary works produced by this
strangely "unwritten war" (to cite the titles of two important
studies of the subject),25 the tradition of antislavery literature to
which Stowe would be assigned has until recently played only a
minor role in definitions of the period's great literature; but it too
seems to have offered Stowe few resources for her own process of
composition. Aside from family experience and discussion, and her
own inspired vision, the major source for the details of Uncle Tom's
Cabin was probably Weld's American Slavery As It Is (1839), a widely
read collection of statements by slaveholders and extracts from
advertisements, newspapers, and legal documents on which Stowe
drew extensively when she wrote her documentary defense of the
novel, A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, in 1853. In the Key and elsewhere,
Stowe herself noted parallels to her work in the lives and slave

16

Introduction
narratives of Henry Bibb, William Wells Brown, Solomon Northup,
Frederick Douglass, Josiah Henson, and Lewis Clarke; the last two
men built careers on the now dubious claims that they were Stowe's
models for Uncle Tom and George Harris. Although their exact
influence on Stowe is equally open to question, there were at least a
dozen antislavery novels and many shorter tales published before
Uncle Tom's Cabin. Some texts, like John Greenleaf Whittier's The
Narrative of James Williams (1838), nearly became fiction when the
slave's story was fashioned into a narrative by the white writer. The
most famous novel (taken by many at the time to be an authentic
narrative), Richard Hildreth's The Slave, or Memoirs of Archy Moore
(1836), offers a number of potential parallels in plot and character
to Uncle Tom's Cabin that are, if anything, watered down and
undermined by Stowe. The mulatto Archy and his wife Cassy may
lie behind George and Eliza Harris, but their lives end in tragic
separation. The black slave Tom, at first religious and obedient,
becomes a fugitive rebel after witnessing the flogging death of his
wife at the hands of an overseer; tracked down by the overseer, Tom
calmly murders him. In Hildreth's novel, as in most authentic slave
narratives, the Christianity and domesticity valued by Stowe are
shown to be thoroughly corrupted by plantation life.26
Whatever the sources of Stowe's novel in previous antislavery
fiction or slave narratives, it is evident that works that followed
hers often responded directly to it. For example, Northup, in
Twelve Years a Slave (1853), and Douglass, in his revised auto­
biography, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855), explicitly invoke
(and implicitly criticize) the novel and its main character. Northup
writes:
Men may write fictions portraying lowly life as it is, or as it is not may expatiate with owlish gravity upon the bliss of ignorance discourse flippantly from arm chairs of the pleasures of slave life;
but let them toil with him in the field - sleep with him in the cabin
- feed with him on husks; let them behold him scourged, hunted,
trampled on. . . . Let them know the heart of the poor slave - learn
his secret thoughts - thoughts he dare not utter in the hearing of the
white man . . . and they will find that ninety-nine out of every
hundred are, intelligent enough to understand their situation, and to
cherish in /heir bosoms the love of freedom, as passionately as
themselves.27

17

New Essays on Uncle Tom's Cabin
Douglass presents an even more striking case. As though in re­
sponse to Stowe's request for information about slave life, both the
heightened drama of his violent resistance to the slave breaker
Covey and his harsher attack on the corruption of the black family
under slavery in My Bondage and My Freedom seem deliberately to
take Stowe's main themes in a more aggressive direction. When he
remarks that "scenes of sacred tenderness, around the deathbed,
never forgotten, and which often arrest the vicious and confirm
the virtuous during life, must be looked for among the free," or
that because the "image of [my mother] is mute, and I have not
striking words of her's treasured up ... I had to learn the value of
my mother long after her death, and by witnessing the devotion of
other mothers to their children,"28 Douglass suggests the limita­
tions of Stowe's vision even as he gives further ammunition to her
attack on the destruction of the family. Douglass's turn toward an
advocacy of violent slave rebellion by the 1850s and Stowe's
lukewarm response to his 1853 letter requesting aid in establishing
a black educational program in manual arts (a project in which she
had claimed to be interested) further indicate the differences be­
tween the two greatest literary figures of the antislavery crusade.

If the sources of Uncle Tom's Cabin are open to debate, its instru­
mental role in the abolitionist cause is beyond question. When it
appeared in book form in 1852, 50,000 copies were sold within
eight weeks, 300,000 within a year, and 1 million in America and
England combined by early 1853. It added an entirely new dimen­
sion to a campaign that had often bogged down in internecine
quarrels and useless theorizing. By giving flesh-and-blood reality
to the inhuman system for which the Fugitive Slave Law“ now
required the North, as well as the South, to be responsible, it
became a touchstone for antislavery sentiment. Stowe was hardly
the first to call attention to slavery's destruction of both black and
white families, but her novel perfectly combined the tradition of
the sentimental novel and the rhetoric of antislavery polemic. In
scene after scene, the fragmentation of black households and the
corrosive moral effect on white conscience is her focal point.
When Lucy's child is sold by the unfeeling Haley, for example,
Stowe writes bitterly: "You can get used to such things, too, my

18

Introduction

friend; and it is the great object of recent efforts to make our whole
northern community used to them, for the glory of the Union."
And when Lucy then commits suicide, Stowe adds: "the woman
had escaped into a state which never will give up a fugitive, - not
even at the demand of the whole glorious Union" (Chap. 12).
The irony, which Stowe well understood, was that the Compro­
mise of 1850 was itself founded on a notion of "sentiment" in that
the preservation of the Union — in the face of increasing demands
on the part of the South for slavery's extension - was seen to be
critical to America's still young experiment in democracy. Where­
as antislavery radicals such as Garrison demanded that the North
adopt a policy of disunion from the South, more practical northern
leaders like Daniel Webster were willing to sacrifice the revolution­
ary ideals of freedom to ward off the social and economic chaos of
a political division of the country. Webster and others appealed to
the founding fathers, whose views on slavery embodied in the
Constitution (despite the vision of equality announced in the Dec­
laration of Independence) were ambiguous, open to both proslav­
ery and antislavery interpretation. In doing so, they conceived of
America as a social family presided over by benevolent fathers, one
in which an inevitably hierarchical structure of white men ruling
over women, blacks, and children was the norm. Still, the national
cult of the fathers centered on George Washington, which devel­
oped around the popular ideal of mothers instructing their chil­
dren in the virtues of America's greatest father figure (even Uncle
Tom's cabin contains his rude portrait over the fireplace), present­
ed ambiguities of parental power open to antislavery exploitation.
The sketch concerning liberated blacks about which Stowe had
written her husband in early 1851 turned into "The Two Altars,
or, Two Pictures in One," which ironically compared the sacrifices
of a family for the Revolutionary cause at Valley Forge to the 1850
sacrifice of a fugitive slave on the "altar of liberty" in accordance
with the Fugitive Slave Law. All sides appealed to the wisdom of
the founding fathers on the question of slavery, and all found
support for their views, not least because Washington and Jeffer­
son, among ofhers, had been slaveholders themselves. Not until
Abraham Lincoln broke the impasse by preserving the Union and
at the same time destroying slavery was the paralyzing ambiguity

19

New Essays on Uncle Tom's Cabin
of the American Revolutionary tradition, now passed through the
furnace of civil war, overcome.29'
Uncle Tom's Cabin unites the uses of sentiment in literature and
in politics; in doing so, it provisionally challenges the patriarchal
model on which the sentiment of unfon was based. The domestic
tradition in fiction and in social thought declared women to be the
moral superiors of men but at the same time attributed to them
specific characteristics of sensitivity, docility, and weakness. Draw­
ing into itself the faltering powers of the clergy, the domestic tradi­
tion separated the "woman's sphere" of homemaking and the
moral instruction of children from the masculine world of com­
merce and politics. However, it also risked providing a new ra­
tionale for the subordination of women. Because the sentimental
family acted as an ordering structure in place of the "natural hier­
archy" that had been shaken by the birth of liberal individualism
and bourgeois capitalism, the home itself could become a kind of
prison, and by the same token the rebelling woman could appear a
traitor to the values and needs of her family. Uncle Tom's Cabin
hangs on this paradox. For if it acts out (in the words of Constance
Rourke) "deep-laid patterns of escape, bondage, and rebellion"
that included for Stowe not just slavery and the Calvinist dogma of
her father, but also the bondage of women within the domestic
ideal, the novel is in each case ambivalent about the limits and
means of such rebellion.30
From the 1820s to the 1840s, the domestic ideal merged with
rising social reform movements, tentatively seeking a moral role
for women that would move beyond the confines of the home and
utilize their seemingly greater access to Christian virtue to cbrrect
the ills of society evident in drinking, gambling, prostitution,
crime, and - most of all - slavery. Not only men but women
themselves were divided over the proper limits of their role in
reform causes, fearing corruption of their delicate sensibilities. Ca­
tharine Beecher, for example, eschewed women's direct involve­
ment in politics. In her Essay on Slavery and Abolitionism (1837),
she denounced abolitionist societies for their public stridency; and
carefully separating the duties of men from those of women, she
warned that woman's deviation from the place she "is appointed
to fill by the dispensations of heaven" would deprive children of

20

Introduction
their proper moral instruction and subvert the cause of reform:
"For the more intelligent a woman becomes, the more she can
appreciate the wisdom of that ordinance that appointed her subor­
dinate station, and the more her taste will conform to the graceful
and dignified retirement and submission it involves."31 Angelina
and Sarah Grimké, southern Quaker sisters who were vocal aboli­
tionists, wrote powerful replies to Stowe's sister, advocating wom­
en's public activism in the antislavery cause. In 1840, a quarrel
over Garrison's proposal to place a woman on the executive com­
mittee of the American Anti-Slavery Society so splintered aboli­
tionist ranks, some historians have argued, that the campaign
against slavery was set back by a decade. Later in the year, the
World Anti-Slavery Convention in London refused to admit wom­
en delegates from the United States; but two of them, Lucretia
Mott and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, immediately resolved to launch
a women's rights movement, and the 1848 Seneca Falls conven­
tion was the eventual result.32
The place of Stowe and her novel in the argument over women's
role in reform is not perfectly clear. During debate about the KansasNebraska Act (which was passed in 1854 and seemed a further
conciliation of southern slavery interests) she announced her posi­
tion thus:
Women of the free States! the question is not shall we remonstrate
with slavery on its own soil, but are we willing to receive slavery into
the free States and Territories of this Union? . . .
And now you ask, What can the women of a country do?
O women of the free States! what did your brave mothers do in
the days of our Revolution? Did not liberty in those days feel the
strong impulse of woman's heart? . . .
The first duty of every American woman at this time is to thor­
oughly understand the subject for herself, and to feel that she is
bound to use her influence for the right. Then they can obtain
signatures to petitions to our national legislature. They can spread
information upon this vital topic throughout their neighborhoods.
They can employ lecturers to lay the subject before the people. They
can circulate the speeches of their members of Congress that bear
upon the subject, and in many others ways they can secure to all a
full understanding of the present position of our country.
Above all, it seems to be necessary and desirable that we should
make this subject a matter of earnest prayer.33

21

New Essays on Uncle Tom's Cabin
If Stowe's appeal stops somewhat short of the full activism Mott
and Stanton proposed (will women, or only men, be employed as
lecturers?), it nevertheless appears to surpass the concluding chap­
ter of Uncle Tom's Cabin, which answers the question of what a
woman or any individual can do: "they can see to it that they feel
right" (Chap. 45). Although she also calls for the education of free
blacks and escaped slaves in her final chapter, it is certain that the
influence of women in the novel is largely restricted to the "wom­
an's sphere" of Christian example and moral instruction.
From the perspective of feminist activism, Uncle Tom's Cabin is
moderate. Stowe would probably not have agreed with Susan B.
Anthony, who once counseled a mother to steal her child from its
abusive father: "does not the law of the United States give the
slave holder the ownership of the slave? And don't you break the
law every time you help a slave to Canada? Well, the law which
gives the father the sole ownership of the children is just as wick­
ed, and I'll break it just as quickly." But the great emotive power of
her novel arises time and again from its capacity to equate the
victimization of slaves and women (with children, a third sup­
posedly oppressed group, linking the two), to play upon the po­
tential conversion of sentiment into action adumbrated by another
abolitionist, Lydia Maria Child. Both women and blacks, Child
wrote, "are characterized by affection more than intellect; both
have a strong development of the religious sentiment; both . . .
have a tendency to submission; and hence, both have been kept in
subjection by physical force, and considered rather in the light of
property, than as individuals."34 Child's characterization pin­
points those attributes that radical feminists rejected and that led
Stowe to depict some of her black characters in postures of sub­
missiveness, but it also clarifies the moral role ascribed to women
and blacks in the novel. Although the ethical influence of wives
and mothers often fails in Uncle Tom's Cabin, it sometimes succeeds
as well. The recent critics who have designated Tom himself as the
novel's primary Victorian "suffering heroine" have done so in
order to locate in Stowe's protagonist her basic argument "that
home and mother must not figure as sanctuaries from the world
but as imperative models for its reconstitution."35 Were such a
reconstitution to succeed throughout the Union, Stowe implies,

22

Introduction
not only slavery but the whole host of problems attributable to
male "lust" and patriarchal governance in politics and in the fami­
ly itself would disappear. The book must therefore be located mid­
way between the moderate position of woman's "influence" and
the more radical position of feminist "power."
Stowe's presentation of a range of home models - on a scale
running from Rachel Halliday's ordered, maternal Quaker home
and kitchen down through the disordered chaos of Dinah's kitchen
at Marie St. Clare's (which Ophelia must set aright) to the drunken
hell of Legree's virtual house of prostitution, its walls defaced by
"slops of beer and wine" and the arithmetical sums of his slave­
holding commerce (Chaps. 13, 18, 35) - shows the progressive
failure of maternal influence. In each instance, the domestic model
projects a political model of nationhood and implies a final refuge
with, or judgment by, God. In a remarkable essay entitled "Can
the Immortality of the Soul Be Proved by the Light of Nature?",
composed when she was twelve years old, Stowe herself had writ­
ten that the Gospel reveals that man is "destined, after this earthly
house of his tabernacle is dissolved, to an inheritance incorrupti­
ble, undefiled, and that fadeth not away, to a house not made with
hands, eternal in the heavens."36 For St. Clare and for Tom, such a
heaven is the "home" to which they escape from the house of
earthly bondage (Chaps. 28, 33). Purified of evil, the American
home would create a millennial heaven on earth; at the least, it
would stop slavery and repair the "House Divided," in the popular
New Testament image Lincoln invoked in a famous speech on the
destructive sectional conflict over slavery.
The division in Stowe's houses rests both on slavery and on
sexual roles. In extremity, the two are yoked together in the prob­
lem of slaveholding sexual abuse and its resulting miscegenation.
The southern diarist Mary Chesnut was perhaps right when she
sarcastically remarked that "Mrs. Stowe did not hit the sorest spot.
She makes Legree a bachelor," but Stowe's exploitation of the
already conventional "tragic mulatto" theme (whatever questions
it can be seen to raise for her depiction of George Harris) went to
the heart of bpndage.37 Like a slaveholding version of Poe's House
of Usher, Legree's decayed mansion symbolizes tragic sexual per­
version. In her story of Cassy's mistreatment at the hands of white

23

New Essays on Uncle Tom's Cabin

masters (leading even to infanticide as the ultimate act of rebellion
against slavery) and its climax in escape through her terrorizing of
Legree in the ghostly garments-of his "mother's shroud/' Stowe
makes the gothic novel the primary stage of antislavery sentiment
(Chap. 42). Along with the fiction of other white writers, novels
by black women, such as Harriet Wilson's Our Nig (1859), set in
the North, and Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl
(1860), set in the South, testified as well to the rape and abuse of
black women. Like Uncle Tom's Cabin, they supported the aboli­
tionist charge that slavery and sexual violation were inseparable
and that the plantation could become an arena of erotic dissipation
and male lust, a "cage of obscene birds"38 that scandalized the
most intimate affections of the domestic ideal by revealing the
painful hierarchy upon which it was built.
There is more to be said about Stowe's handling of the question
of miscegenation. But we may note again that although Uncle
Tom's Cabin conforms to the model of moral instruction (especially
as it is directed toward an audience of children), its gothic explora­
tion of licentious behavior surpasses "influence" in a decidedly
public act that can be construed, at least provisionally, as a revolu­
tionary attack on the masculine world. In this respect, Stowe's
divergence from her sister must be thought of in the context of
Beecher's Treatise on Domestic Economy. Appearing in 1841, the
Treatise joined the moral influence of woman in the home to the
millennial regeneration of the world American democracy prom­
ised. Women would play a crucial role in that regeneration by
subordinating themselves to men and thus contributing to the civil
and political stability necessary to build "a glorious temple, whose
base shall be coextensive with the bounds of the earth, whose
summit shall pierce the skies, [and] whose splendor shall beam on
all lands."39 Beecher's domestic version of "manifest destiny,"
because it promotes the central claims of America's male AngloSaxon superiority, sidesteps just those issues Stowe attempted to
meet head-on.
If "New World slavery," as David Brion Davis has written, "pro­
vided Protestant Christianity with an epic stage for vindicating
itself as the most liberal and progressive force in history,"40 Amer­
ica's moral mission, as antislavery forces insisted, would have to

24

Introduction
begin at home - home in the sense of nation and in the sense of
family as its proper model. "You see the men, how they are willing
to sell shamelessly the happiness of countless generations of fel­
low-creatures, the honor of their country, and their immortal
souls, for a money market and political power," wrote Margaret
Fuller in Woman in the Nineteenth Century (1845). In thus attacking
the annexation of Texas and the extension of slavery it would
promote, Fuller took a stance similar to Stowe's: "Do you not feel
within you that which can reprove them, which can check, which
can convince them? You would not speak in vain; whether each in
her own home, or banded in unison. . . . Let not slip the occasion,
but do something to lift off the curse incurred by Eve."41 An
advocate of "power" rather than "influence," Fuller is ambivalent
(not to say schizophrenic) in her allusion to Eve (not Adam) as the
source of original sin and its purported contemporary embodiment
in the curse of masculine aggression and slavery. Bypassing the
question of original sin and the Calvinistic tradition of her father,
Stowe embraces the New Testament and takes literally the saving
power of Jesus - but depicts him, in essence, as a woman. Besides
Tom, her critical Christ figure is Eva: a child, a female, a ty­
pological figuring of Christ descended not from Adam but from
Eve, and - as her full name, Evangeline, implies - the book's most
powerful evangelist.
In Eva are united the ministerial leader of evangelistic social
reform and the prime actor in sentimental literature, the child. The
proliferation of children in antislavery literature - and in books
and journals specifically directed at children, such as The Child's
Anti-Slavery Book and Anti-Slavery Alphabet — assumed that, instead
of needing moral instruction, children were perhaps best equipped
to give it. Asexual and uncorrupted, the child, like Eva, was often
imagined to be the "only true democrat" (Chap. 16), and its in­
nate morality would, like Eva's, offer a perfect Christian example.
As Ronald Walters has suggested, the figure of the child could
enact a tension "between the human nature to be liberated and
that to be repressed. . . . the spirituality of the slave matched
against the lustful tyranny of the master [could be dramatized in]
the innocent |;ood will of the child played off against the brutal
K insensitivity of the adult."42 If the child and the slave (and wom­

25

New Essays on Uncle Tom's Cabin
en) were imagined to be "imprisoned" in the family, the most
conventional, conservative domain of sentiment could appear as
the primary locus of needed reform. Consider Topsy's minstrel
catechism with Ophelia:
"You mustn't answer me in that way, child; I'm not playing with
you. Tell me where you were born, and who your mother and
father were."
"Never was born," reiterated the creature, more emphatically;
"never had no father nor mother, nor nothing. I was raised by a
speculator, with lots of others. ..."
"Have you ever heard anything about God, Topsy? ... Do you
know who made you? ..."
"I spect I grow'd. Don't think nobody never made me." (Chap.
20)

Hidden within this comic scene is one of Stowe's most incisive
critiques of the holding and raising of the slave family as property
and its degradation of childlike innocence and faith. The antislav­
ery tradition of "benevolence," which elevated feeling above rea­
son and advocated the democratic extension of rights to the
lowliest members of society, sought to put into practice the radical
doctrines of equality generated in the age of revolution by bridging
what David Brion Davis has called the "immense gulf between
literary pathos and dedicated reform, between the ideal of moral
refinement and a willingness to liberate the uncultivated forces of
nature." As Davis notes as well, the conventional antislavery sym­
bols of heartless master and lamenting slave depended upon "at­
titudes which had first been learned in the theater or in an idle
hour of reading [being] transferred to the grim stage of reality."43
Mediating between master and slave is the figure of the child - a
"slave" itself, but morally superior to its parents and masters.
Eva's pious life and death, then, are not simply ornamental
melodrama; as an emblem of the novel's incorporation of popular
narratives of religious conversion, they are central to Stowe's
evangelistic message. Although it would become ludicrously styl­
ized in later stage versions of Uncl'e Tom's Cabin (a sign of its great
popularity with readers), the scene of Eva's death is the primary
example of Stowe's attempt to construct a bridge between pathos
and reform. The scene is therapeutic in that it might only burn off

26

Introduction
the reader's charged sympathies or direct them away from the
issue of slavery into the cul-de-sac of sentimental indulgence; but
it may also provide, in the only way possible, a suitable representa­
tion of the reader's transfiguration of emotion into antislavery
action of the kind Eva's Christlike role would entail. Significantly,
when St. Clare and Ophelia watch the dying Eva enact the conver­
sion of Topsy ("a ray of heavenly love had penetrated the darkness
of her heathen soul! ... while the beautiful child, bending over
her, looked like the picture of some bright angel stooping to re­
claim a sinner"), they do so by lifting a "curtain," as though the
room were a children's stage, its edifying actions witnessed by
morally flawed adults. And the later gathering of family and slaves
around Eva's deathbed to hear her final sermon ("You must re­
member that each one of you can become angels forever. ... If
you want to be Christians, Jesus will help you") enforces the fact
that the readers of Stowe's story and the audience encircling the
child evangelist have been fused (Chaps. 25, 26). Subsuming the
failed power of institutional religion into the realm of sentimental
social reform, Eva's death belongs to the period's enormous liter­
ature of mourning and consolation44 but transcends its simple
pieties as Stowe seeks out a new world of power by reconceiving
Christian man in the image of a beatific child-woman.

Because he dies before he can act on his daughter's advice and free
his slaves, Augustine St. Clare may be the book's most tragic white
figure. Embodying the South's spiritual enervation, he fails to heed
the example of his mother, refigured now in the ministerial Eva,
and inadvertently sets in motion the climactic horrors of Tom's life
under Legree. The range of violent probabilities explored in the
last third of the novel is also anticipated in St. Clare's discussion
with his brother of the question of revolution. Invoking the "di­
vine law" behind the rise of oppressed "masses" - whether Euro­
pean peasants or American slaves - St. Clare forecasts a rebellion
in the South comparable to the revolt of Haitian slaves in the late
eighteenth century. In mixing Christian millennialism with the
liberal ideology of revolution, however, St. Clare subscribes to the
split betweei} African docility and mulatto aggressiveness that
K Stowe's own differing characterizations of Tom and George Harris

T1

New Essays on Uncle Tom's Cabin
demand. When his brother rejects the model of the revolt in Haiti
(San Domingo), remarking that "the Anglo Saxon is the dominant
race of the world, and is to be so.,'' St. Clare responds that "there is
a pretty fair infusion of Anglo Saxon blood among our slaves,
now, [and] ... if ever the San Domingo hour comes, Anglo Saxon
blood will lead on the day. Sons of white fathers, with all our
haughty feelings burning in their veins, will not always be bought
and sold and traded. They will rise, and raise with them their
mother's race" (Chap. 23).
St. Clare's statement brings into focus a number of the main
themes and questions of Uncle Tom's Cabin. To the South, the San
Domingo revolt was an event of bloodshed and horror that
prompted periodic discussions of the possibility of a similar fate for
American slaveholders. After Nat Turner's murderous slave re­
bellion in Virginia in 1831, southern attitudes became increasingly
reactionary, and rigid measures designed to prevent slave unrest
increased.45 Stowe's own novel Dred (1856) modeled its black
titular hero on Turner (but failed to reenact his revolt), and Turn­
er's purported "Confessions," the primary source of Stowe's
novel, depicted him as a fanatical religious prophet emboldened by
bloody heavenly visions of "white spirits and black spirits engaged
in battle."46 However, such a characterization worked both to
inflame and to quiet southern apprehensions, for Turner could
easily be seen as a freak and his rebellion as a deviation from the
normal docility of the slave population. Likewise, if the mulatto
George Harris is a potential Nat Turner, the black Tom certainly is
not.
The seemingly polarized slave types represented in Nat Turner
and Uncle Tom have recently received more subtle consideration by
John Blassingame, who argues that many slaves developed what
amounted to a double personality. Refining upon the arguments of
an often acrimonious debate over whether southern slaves, de­
humanized by a brutal regime, developed a "Sambo" personality
(that is, an ingrained personality of weakness and submissiveness),
Blassingame suggests that the Sambo role was a mask or ritual act
often adopted by slaves to guard against brutality, and that the
willingness of masters to accept the slave's masked behavior at face

28

Introduction
value grew from deep psychological and social necessity. Southern­
ers, Blassingame writes, were
compelled to portray the slave as Sambo because of their need to
disprove the allegations of antislavery novelists. Facing the withering
attack of abolitionists, they had to prove that slavery was not an
unmitigated evil. The loyal contented slave was a sine qua non in
Southern literary propaganda. . . . With Nat Turner perennially in
the wings, the creation of Sambo was almost mandatory for the
Southerner's emotional security. . . ..This public stereotype only
partially hid a multitude of private fears, which reached the propor­
tion of mass hysteria at the mere mention of the word "rebellion."47

Leaving aside for the moment Stowe's own acceptance of the ster­
eotype, we can note that the numerous novelistic replies to Uncle
Tom's Cabin claimed that Stowe had misconceived the benevolent
paternalism of southern slaveholding and pointed out that Legree
was a northerner (and thus an exception to the norm of kind
southern masters). Southern novelists and essayists often main­
tained as well that northern wage labor was far more vicious than
southern chattel slavery. Drawing on this contrast, novels such as
Mary H. Eastman's Aunt Phillis' Cabin (1852), Caroline Rush's
North and South (1852), William Smith's Life at the South (1852),
John Page's Uncle Robin in His Cabin in Virginia and Tom Without
One in Boston (1853), and Thomas Thorpe's The Master's House
(1854) depicted slaves as content with their lot. The deathbed
scene of the old slave Phillis in Eastman's novel, for example,
shows Phillis telling her master not to free her children, who are
well cared for on the plantation and will suffer in the North or in
Liberia. Because the tearful scene also forecasts a reunion of slave
and master in heaven, where "the distinctions of this world will be
forgotten," it testifies to the planters' need to rationalize slavery
but at the same time mitigate the sin that they implicitly recog­
nized to lie within it.48 In William Gilmore Simms's Woodcraft
(1854), a novel set in the aftermath of the American Revolution
but alluding to the potential civil conflict between South and
North, the relationship between the main character, the planter
Porgy, and his trusted slave, Tom, is one of benevolent affection.
Porgy says hp will shoot Tom "in order to save him" from the

29

New Essays on Uncle Tom's Cabin
hostile forces that would carry him off (he even tells Tom to kill
himself to prevent capture), and Tom says to Porgy: "Ef I doesn't
b'long to you, you b'longs to meb . . . so, maussa, don't you bodder
me wid dis nonsense t'ing 'bout free paper any more. I's well off
whar' I is I tell you."49
Such fictional replies to Stowe entirely buried the potential Nat
figure beneath the Sambo facade. Proponents of slavery as a politi­
cal and economic system took a similar tack. Thomas R. Dew,
writing in the wake of Turner's revolt, argued that abolitionist calls
for emancipation were "based upon false principles, and assump­
tions of the most vicious and alarming kind, subversive of the
rights of property and the order and tranquillity of society. . . .
They are admirably calculated to excite plots, murders, and insur­
rections," and will prompt in the slave a desire "to gain that fatal
freedom whose blessings he does not comprehend." Similarly,
William Harper maintained that "the virtues of a freeman would
be the vices of slaves. To submit to a blow, would be degrading to a
freeman, because he is the protector of himself. It is not degrading
to a slave - neither is it to a priest or woman." In demanding
rhetorically whether one would "do a benefit to the horse or the
ox, by giving him a cultivated understanding or fine feelings,"
Harper echoed George Fitzhugh's Cannibals All!, which carefully
argued that the labor system of northern capitalism was less free
and more inhumane than southern slavery: "It invades every re­
cess of domestic life, infects its food, its clothing, its drink, its very
atmosphere, and pursues the hireling, from the hovel to the poor­
house, the prison and the grave." Citing the fact that God had
authorized slavery and that "human law cannot beget benev­
olence, affection, [or] maternal and paternal love," Fitzhugh
summed up the hierarchical principles that supported slavehold­
ing paternalism:
Within the family circle, the law of love prevails, not that of
selfishness.
But, besides wife and children, brothers and sister, dogs, horses,
birds and flowers - slaves, also, belong to the family circle. Does
their common humanity, their abject weakness and dependence,
their great value, their ministering to our wants ip childhood, man­

30

Introduction
hood, sickness, and old age, cut them off from that affection which
everything else in the family elicits? No; the interests of master and
slave are bound up together, and each in his appropriate sphere
naturally endeavors to promote the happiness of the other.50

Such a view takes the separation of sexual and racial "spheres"
to an extreme, revealing both the great suppression of the facts of
slave life to which the South could be driven and the deepest
source of southern anxieties about Uncle Tom's Cabin. Stowe's
novel, at least from the southern point of view, appeared to assault
not just slavery but the hierarchy of the family and the economic
structure of America itself, both of which could be seen (as
Fitzhugh suggested) as requiring differing forms of "enslave­
ment." Because "exponents of domesticity defined the home as a
peaceful order in contrast to the disorder and fluctuations occa­
sioned by competitive economic activity in the marketplace,"
Gillian Brown points out, the "ultimate adversary to mothers and
housekeepers is not slavery, not even capitalism, but the mas­
culine sphere of the marketplace . . . not only the patriarchal in­
stitution, but nineteenth-century patriarchy."51 Requested by the
editor of the Southern Literary Messenger to write a review "as hot
as hell fire, blasting and searing the reputation of the vile wretch in
petticoats who could write such a volume," George Holmes re­
sponded with an attack on Stowe's novel that reached the heart of
the matter:
If it was capable of proving anything at all, it would prove too
much. It would demonstrate that all order, law, government, soci­
ety was a flagrant and unjustifiable violation of the rights and
mockery of the feelings of man. . . . The fundamental position,
then, of these dangerous and dirty little volumes is a deadly blow to
all the interests and duties of humanity, and is utterly impotent to
show any inherent vice in the institution of slavery which does not
also appertain to all other existing institutions whatever.52

At the same time, however, a moderate essay in the North Ameri­
can Review suggested that the novel implicitly proved that kind
masters like Shelby and St. Clare were the southern norm; that
although the abolition of the holding of slaves as property was
desirable, freedom for slaves "would be like freedom to children,

31

New Essays on Uncle Tom's Cabin
or to domestic animals," and a governmental paternalism that
recognized the slave's right "to be governed for his own benefit"
was the only answer.53
Between these conflicting interpretations of Stowe's novel lies
the burden of its ambiguity on the question of the family as a
model. Does Uncle Tom's Cabin in fact subvert all patriarchal and
paternalistic order, or does it - rephrasing the distinction between
women's influence and women's power in other terms - allow for
a different, less harsh form of paternalistic governance? The major­
ity of northerners were apprehensive about the effects of eman­
cipation. Like the Free Soil Party (which became the basis for the
Republican Party in the 1850s and eventually propelled Lincoln
into the White House), they often wanted to limit the spread of
slavery in order to protect free white labor in newly organized
territories and often feared that freedom for blacks would provoke
a wave of miscegenation and social and economic chaos. Like
Stowe, they tended to be' "romantic racialists" who believed
blacks innately inferior to whites in political and social terms, but
perhaps superior to them in their affections and natural Christian
virtues; as a result, they often endorsed colonization schemes to
deport freed slaves to their "own" nations in Africa or the Carib­
bean.54 The limits of abolitionist idealism must be seen in these
terms, not least because Uncle Tom's Cabin itself is infused with
them.
When Tom is sold to Haley, he advises George Shelby, his young
master, to "be a good Mas'r, like yer father; and be a good Chris­
tian, like yer Mother." This scene, along with Stowe's depiction of
the African race (especially Tom) as "home-loving and affection­
ate," "naturally patient, timid and unenterprising," and typified
by "much kindliness and benevolence," opens precisely the pos­
sibility that many southern (and some northern) critics seized
upon in claiming that Afro-Americans could not survive outside
the paternalistic protection of slavery unless they were shipped off
to another country (Chaps. 10, 4). Young George, of course, later
becomes an even better master than Tom had advised. Even
though he arrives at Legree's plantation too late to save Tom from
death, he releases the contained rage that Stowe's portrayal of
Tom's agony has instilled in the reader: "George turned, and, with

32

Introduction

one indignant blow, knocked Legree flat on his face; and, as he
stood over him, blazing with wrath and defiance, he would have
formed no bad personification of his great namesake triumphing
over the dragon" (Chap. 41). George goes on to free his family's
slaves (who stay on the plantation as free laborers); but the gap
between the violent act and the benevolent liberation is one that
Stowe's novel can bridge in only a limited way, and George
Shelby's wrath, like George Harris's violent patriotic sentiments, is
not allowed to become a primary model for the reader's own
potential actions.
Tom's own martyrdom is not by any means a Sambo act. For
one thing, he is murdered for refusing to betray Cassy and Em­
meline and for refusing to capitulate to Legree's demand that he
renounce his Christian beliefs. His death results from his aggressive
nonviolence, and Stowe's figuring of him as the book's second
Christ figure alerts us once again to the extraordinary power she
intended the Christian ideal to offer. At the same time, however,
Tom cannot help but be seen in contrast to the mulatto George
Harris, whose infusion of "white blood" (as St. Clare puts it in
speaking of San Domingo) makes him at once rebellious and pa­
triotic. Harris conforms to the dictates of romantic racialism, which
ascribed to Anglo-Saxons characteristics of leadership and the de­
sire for freedom. From his white father, Stowe writes, "he had
inherited a set of fine European features, and a high, indomitable
spirit" that leads him to invoke the Revolutionary fathers as a
source of righteous power: "I'll fight for my liberty to the last
breath I breathe. You say your fathers did it; if it was right for
them, it is right for me!" (Chap. 11). At the novel's conclusion,
however, when he renounces his father's race and embraces his
mother's in leading a colonization movement that will found a
new millennial Christian nation in Africa, George Harris speaks to
the novel's grave anxieties about emancipation even as he crowns
Stowe's argument on behalf of a feminine, maternal world vision.
As we have seen earlier, Stowe found sexual abuse and southern
miscegenation one of slavery's terrible abominations. Yet she also
responded to northern fears about the mixing of the races eman­
cipation mig^t entail. The scene of Eva's death, played out in a
glaringly "white" setting, symbolic of her angelic purity, contains

33

'

New Essays on Uncle Tom's Cabin

this fear in the charged intimacy of the Anglo-Saxon Eva and the
"dark heathen" Topsy:
St. Clare, at this instant, dropped the curtain. "It puts me in mind
of mother," he said to Miss Ophelia. "It is true what she told me; if
we want to give sight to the blind, we must be willing to do as Christ
did, - call them to us, and put our hands on them."
"I've always had a prejudice against negroes," said Miss Ophelia,
"and it's a fact, I never could bear to have that child touch me; but,
I don't think she knew it." (Chap. 25)

Although she is clearly satirized here and elsewhere as a representa­
tive of northern prejudice up against the barriers of its own pur­
ported sympathy with slaves, Ophelia exposes Stowe's recognition
of her own, and the novel's, unwillingness to face the ultimate
question of freedom. As she tells St. Clare in an earlier scene, the
thought of "kissing niggers" revolts her (Chap. 15). If abolitionists
conceived of the southern plantation as a place of rampant sexual
vice, they were hardly prepared to endorse miscegenation among
races made free and equal. The issue is not tangential. In his famous
1858 debates with Stephen Douglas, for example, Lincoln con­
tinually had to defend himself against charges that the Republican
Party advocated miscegenation: "Judge Douglas is especially hor­
rified at the thought of the mixing of blood by the white and black
races. Agreed for once-a thousand times agreed. . . .[But] I do not
perceive that because the white man is to have the superior position
the Negro should be denied everything. I do not understand that
because I do not want a Negro woman for a slave I must necessarily
want her for a wife."55 Nonetheless, proslavery attacks on Lincoln
often brought up the issue; once he had issued the Emancipation
Proclamation, moreover, hysterical rebuttals were unleashed, with
some southern pamphleteers asserting that a sexual holocaust
would ensue. In the description of Forrest Wood, one reply was
built around the "true" enactment of " 'Uncle Tom's Drama,' a play
in which white maidens with 'quivering limbs' and 'snow-white
bosoms, that ever throbbed in angelic purity,' suffered 'untold
outrage, woe and wrong' at the hands of 'Black Ourang-Outangs,'
who dragged them down to 'gratify their brutal instincts.' "56
Uncle Tom's Cabin, to be sure, is not "Uncle Tom's Drama." But
the novel itself, like the racist thought and fiction of the post-Civil

34

Introduction
War years and like the minstrel versions of the novel, which
cleansed the relationship between Eva and Tom in comically styl­
ized ways, conceals a hesitation about black freedom that unfolded
along sexual lines. If the ideal "home" symbolized by a race of
mothers was to redeem the world, it would do so without the most
intimate human passion and would, in an imaginary world of
abstract images, unite the maternal docility of blackness with the
redeemed paternal ideals of revolutionary, millennial whiteness.
George Harris is a George Washington (even an Abraham Lincoln)
purified in the tradition of maternal moral instruction, and Tom is
the martyred prophet without Nat Turner's murderous intent.
Even though colonization was endorsed by many whites (includ­
ing Lincoln) and by some blacks (James Holly, for example, imag­
ined that Haiti could become a new "Eden of America" and "the
Fatherland of the [black] race"),57 it was absurdly impractical, as
even Stowe must have recognized. The novel employs it as a safety
valve for northern anxiety about both slave rebellion and mis­
cegenation. But as though admitting its inadequacy as an answer
to the question of slavery and the question of emancipation, Stowe
reveals a further possibility in the last remarks of her novel:
This is an age of the world when nations are trembling and con­
vulsed. . . . Every nation that carries in its bosom great and unre­
dressed injustice has in it the elements of this last convulsion. . . .
Christians! every time that you pray that the kingdom of Christ may
come, can you forget that prophecy associates, in dread fellowship,
the day of vengeance with the year of his redeemed? . . . [and obeys]
that stronger law, by which injustice and cruelty shall bring on
nations the wrath of Almight God! (Chap. 45)

She returned, that is, to a paternal revolutionary tradition bound
up in the wrath of God the Father, to the suppressed Calvinistic
vengeance of Lyman Beecher's religion to which the novel's im­
mense moral work of mothers may finally give way. In this re­
spect, Stowe's millennial colonizationist vision, with all its racialist
overtones, must be seen to be rooted, as Cushing Strout notes, in
"her messianic view of history, in which all persons tend to lose
their individual reality in the great cosmic drama of God's plan."58

■ When civil war was imminent, Stowe wrote that it "was God's

35

New Essays on Uncle Tom's Cabin

will that this nation - the North as well as the South - should
deeply and terribly suffer for the sin of consenting to and encour­
aging the great oppressions of the South. . . . that the blood of the
poor slave, that had cried so many years from the ground in vain,
should be answered by the blood of the sons from the best hearth­
stones through all the free States."59 Lincoln's famous conception
of the Civil War, in his Second Inaugural speech, as an act of
divine judgment more eloquently represents this view:
If we shall suppose that American slavery is one of those offenses
which, in the providence of God, must needs come, but which,
having continued through His appointed time, He now wills to
remove, and that He now gives to both North and South this terrible
war, as the woe due to those by whom the offense came, shall we
discern therein any departure from those divine attributes which
the believers in a living God always ascribe to Him? ... if God wills
that it continuemntil all the wealth piled by the bondsman's two
hundred and fifty years of unrequited toil shall be sunk, and until
every drop of blood drawn with the lash shall be paid by another
drawn with the sword, as was said three thousand years ago, so still
it must be said, "The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous
altogether."60

The apocalyptic language of Lincoln and Stowe indicates the man­
ner in which the Civil War could seem a purifying redemption of
America's greatest sin, accomplished only through violent purga­
tion. America's mothers, Stowe implies, would work pacifically to
overthrow slavery, but they would not turn away from the last
solution — the sacrifice of the very sons Uncle Tom's Cabin was
intended to reform. Influence would become power one way or
another; unthinkable slave rebellion would become a liberating
Christian war on their behalf; domesticity would release its re­
strained violent action in the name of freedom.
Intimating but suppressing until the final moment the fury la­
tent within her vision, Stowe's novel could in its own day appear
reluctant to go the full distance on behalf of American slaves. In
later years, given the terrible price of the war and the nation's
consequent failure to actualize freedom for blacks in meaningful
ways, the novel could seem one more flawed instrument of libera­
tion, a well-meant but inadequate indictment’of America's racial
sins as they assumed more complicated and explosive forms in the

36

Introduction
twentieth century. Those forms would be measured and clarified
in the endless entanglements of legal proscription and social theo­
ry, in the violence of country roads and city streets, and in the
literary visions of writers as diverse as Mark Twain, Charles
Chesnutt, Zora Neale Hurston, William Faulkner, Ralph Ellison,
Robert Penn Warren, Chester Himes, Alice Walker, and Ishmael
Reed, to name but a few.
The essays in this volume take up the novel's central and endur­
ing critical problems in a variety of forms. Two, those by Elizabeth
Ammons and Jean Fagan Yellin, are focused on the role of women
in Uncle Tom's Cabin, both as that role is examined in the context of
the domestic ideology that Stowe herself sought to incorporate
and revise in her novel and as it became illuminated by develop­
ments in women's writing in the later nineteenth and early twen­
tieth centuries. Inseparable from the question of gender, as both
essays show, is the question of race, not least because some of the
most influential and controversial abolitionists were women or, in
notorious cases, made an issue of whether women could properly
contribute to the antislavery cause. Most important of all, perhaps,
black women were doubly victimized by slavery and therefore
spoke from a position of particular power. The essays by Robert
Stepto and Richard Yarborough are devoted more explicitly to the
relationship between Stowe's novel and black cultural history.
Stepto examines the role slave narratives may have played in
Stowe's composition and the role of response by black writers that
Uncle Tom's Cabin necessitated. Yarborough follows this response
into the later decades of the nineteenth century and, like Ammons,
shows that Stowe's novel only began to reach the full effects of its
influence after, not on the eve of, the Civil War. Both essays dem­
onstrate that the black response to Stowe was or has been by no
means unanimous. Only in its depth of argument, in fact, is the
novel's full meaning clarified. The two pivotal traditions out of
which Stowe wrote - the Calvinistic religious tradition exempli­
fied in different ways in the works of her father and her brother,
and the tradition of the gothic novel, the source of much fictional
reform writing - are the subject of Karen Halttunen's essay. Her
interpretatiop of Stowe's relation to these traditions serves to tie
together, in specific contexts, the larger and more comprehensive

37

New Essays bn Uncle Tom's Cabin

problems of gender and race as they are represented in Uncle Tom's
Cabin. The renewed interest in the novel that these essays repre­
sent, and its appearance now ima series devoted to classic Ameri­
can texts, indicate how startlingly long it can take for an important
cultural work to achieve recognition, however controversial our
assessments of it may remain. Both the history of race relations in
America and the wealth of imaginative literature devoted to it
testify as well not only to the long struggle for freedom, black and
white, but also to the role played by Uncle Tom's Cabin in a rich,
complex tradition at the heart of our national experience.

NOTES
1 Carl Van Doren, The American Novel (New York: Macmillan, 1922), pp.
118-19.
2 On Hawthorne, Stowe, and canon formation, see, for example, Henry
Nash Smith, Democracy and the Novel: Popular Resistance to Classic Ameri­
can Writers (New York: Oxford University Press, 1978); Jane Tomp­
kins, Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 17901860 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985); Ellen Moers, Harriet
Beecher Stowe and American Literature (Hartford, Conn.: Stowe-Day
Foundation, 1978); and Larzer Ziff, Literary Democracy: The Declaration
of Cultural Independence in America (New York: Viking, 1981).
3 Russell Blankenship, American Literature as an Expression of the National
Mind (London: Routledge & Sons, 1931), p. 322.
4 Edmund Wilson, Patriotic Gore: Studies in the Literature of the American
Civil War (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1962), pp. 3-58.
5 Tompkins, Sensational Designs, p. 127; on the domestic tradition, see
also Herbert Ross Brown, The Sentimental Novel in America, 1789-1860
(Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1940); Frank Luther Mott,
Golden Multitudes: The Story of Best Sellers in the United States (New York:
R. R. Bowker, 1947); Nina Baym, Women's Fiction: A Guide to Novels by
and about Women in America, 1820-1870 (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell Univer­
sity Press, 1978); and Mary Kelley, Private Woman, Public Stage: Liter­
ary Domesticity in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford Uni­
versity Press, 1984).
6 J. C. Furnas, Goodbye to Uncle Tom (New York: William Sloane, 1956),
pp: 8-10 and passim; see also William L. Van Deburg, Slavery and Race

38

Introduction

7
8

9
10

11

in American Popular Culture (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press,
1984).
James Baldwin, "Everybody's Protest Novel," in Notes of a Native Son
(1955; ipt. New York: Bantam, 1964), p. 13.
See Stephen A. Hirsch, "Uncle Tomitudes: The Popular Reaction to
Uncle Tom's Cabin," in Studies in the American Renaissance, ed. Joel
Meyerson (Boston: Twayne, 1978), pp. 303-30; Robert C. Toll, Black­
ing Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth-Century America (New York:
Oxford University Press, 1974); Harry Birdoff, The World's Greatest Hit:
Uncle Tom’s Cabin (New York: S. F. Vanni, 1947); Furnas, Goodbye to
Uncle Tom, pp. 259-84; and Donald Bogle, Toms, Coons, Mulattoes,
Mammies, and Bucks: An Interpretive History of Blacks in American Films
(New York: Viking, 1973).
Collected Poems of Harriet Beecher Stowe, ed. John Michael Moran, Jr.
(Hartford, Conn.: Transcendental Books, 1967).
James M. Cox, "Harriet Beecher Stowe: From Sectionalism to Region­
alism," Nineteenth-Century Fiction, 38, no. 4 (March 1984):444-66.
For Stowe's life and her writing of Uncle Tom's Cabin, I have drawn
primarily on Forrest Wilson, Crusader in Crinoline: The Life of Harriet
Beecher Stowe (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1941), and E. Bruce
Kirkham, The Building of Uncle Tom's Cabin (Knoxville: University of
Tennessee Press, 1977). See also The Life of Harriet Beecher Stowe Com­
piled from Her Letters and Journals, ed. Charles Edward Stowe (Boston:
Houghton Mifflin, 1889); Life and Letters of Harriet Beecher Stowe, ed.
Annie Fields (London: Samson Low, 1898); The Autobiography of
Lyman Beecher, ed. Barbara Cross (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard Univer­
sity Press, 1961); Constance Mayfield Rourke, Trumpets of Jubilee:
Henry Ward Beecher, Harriet Beecher Stowe, Lyman Beecher, Horace Gree­
ley, P. T. Barnum (New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1963); Milton Rugoff,
The Beechers: An American Family in the Nineteenth Century (New York:
Harper & Row, 1981); Lyman Beecher Stowe, Saints, Sinners, and
Beechers (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill, 1934). On Stowe as a writer,
see also Charles H. Foster, The Rungless Ladder: Harriet Beecher Stowe
and New England Puritanism (Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press,
1954); Edward Wagenknecht, Harriet Beecher Stowe: The Known and
the Unknown (New York: Oxford University Press, 1965); Alice C.
Crozier, The Novels of Harriet Beecher Stowe (New York: Oxford Univer­
sity Press, 1969); Critical Essays on Harriet Beecher Stowe, ed. Elizabeth
Ammons (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980); Margaret Holbrook Hildreth,
Harriet Becher Stowe: A Bibliography (Hamden, Conn.: Archon Press,

39

New Essays on Uncle Tom's Cabin

12
13
14

15
16
17
18
19
20

21

22

23

24

1976); and Jean W. Ashton, Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Reference Guide
(Boston: G. K. Hall, 1977).
Stowe, Life of Harriet Beecher Stowe, p. 148.
Fields, Life and Letters, pp. 146-7.
All quotations are from Uncle Tom's Cabin or, Life among the Lowly, ed.
Kenneth S. Lynn (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1962);
the same text is reprinted in a paperback edition by Ann Douglas (New
York: Penguin, 1981).
Kirkham, Building of Uncle Tom's Cabin, pp. 66-7.
Ronald G. Walters, The Antislavery Appeal: American Abolitionism After
1830 (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1976), p. 59.
Wilson, Crusader in Crinoline, p. 278.
Tompkins, Sensational Designs, p. 134; Stowe, Life of Harriet Beecher
Stowe, p. 154.
Wilson, Crusader in Crinoline, p. 67.
Wilson, Crusader in Crinoline, pp. 213, 204. Cf. Barbara J. Berg, The
Remembered Gate: Origins of American Feminism (New York: Oxford
University Press, 1978), pprl 12-42, and Carroll Smith-Rosenberg,
"Beauty, the Beast and the Militant Woman: A Case Study in Sex
Roles and Social Stress in Jacksonian America," American Quarterly
23, no. 4 (October 1971):562-84.
On the clergy and social reform, see Alice Felt. Tyler, Freedom ’s Fer­
ment: Phases of American Social History from the Colonial Period to the
Outbreak of the Civil War (1944; rpt. New York: Harper & Row, 1962);
Cushing Strout, The New Heavens and New Earth: Political Religion in
America (New York: Harper & Row, 1974); Barbara Welter, Dimity
Convictions: The American Woman in the Nineteenth Century (Athens:
Ohio University Press, 1976); Nancy F. Cott, The Bonds of Womanhood:
"Woman's Sphere" in New England, 1780-1835 (New Haven, Conn.:
Yale University Press, 1977); and Ann Douglas, The Feminization of
American Culture New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1977).
Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (New
York: Signet, 1968), p. 121; Stowe, Life of Harriet Beecher Stowe, pp.
151-2.
The Liberator, March 26, 1852, in Documents of Upheaval: Selections from
William Lloyd Garrison's The Liberator, 1831-1865, ed. Truman Nelson
(New York: Hill and Wang, 1966), pp. 239-40.
On slavery and the limits of social reform, see John L.