Uncle Tom's Cabin

By Asa Montreaux

Depictions of benevolent Uncle Tom and Sweet little Eva very soundly encapsulate the novel’s argument that blacks are not in fact violent and wanton, but actually meek and loveable and in some very real way noble. And yet they are still portrayed as inferior to whites; to the extent that we see little Eva veritably as Tom’s friend, but ultimately his master. Our understanding of any novel must involve its significance to the culture that receives it. For the novel to mean anything it has to have an audience and as that audience changes, its reception changes and it is interpreted differently; the novel was a tremendous and historic force that swerved the tide toward the end of slavery immensely and yet only a few years later the voices that considered it as hurtful to the South’s traditions or its heroic culture rose significantly in volume. Through the lenses of the various receptions that the novel has received, and particularly through the illustrations of the novel, the significance of the novel and the reasons why it was such a phenomenon are much clearer. The illustrations of Tom and Eva together, starting in 1852, with the illustrations of Billings, these represent literate culture’s response to the novel on not just a rational level but an emotional one. It is a sentimental novel; as Stowe intended, she may have succeeded in changing the world, through the representation of the small act of loving those around us. As Harvard Professor Le Wiener wrote, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was “the prime cause for the progressive ideas in both[the United States and Russia]. The relationship of Tom and Eva it is far from a stretch to suggest, changed the United States in a profound way.
Of the initial engravings by Billings, “Little Eva reading the Bible to Uncle Tom in the Arbor,” became, according to Billing’s biographer James F. O’Gormon, “without a doubt the most important image of the first edition.” Unlike the abolitionist’s “imperilled slave family or kneeling supplicant,” there was no visual precedent for a grown man in the prime of life cozied up with a tiny white girl, alone within a natural setting. In these early renditions, Tom looks like Stowe’s description of “Mr. Shelby’s best hand: ‘A large broad-chested, powerfully made man.” (p. 50). Tom’s vitality might be explained as similar to the brightness Eva has, making both of them something of heavenly beings. Although they are only brief interludes in the book, Tom and Eva’s moments together became among the most cherished moments in the novel. The violent African-American male with the innocent and young Eva—perhaps the person society is meant to protect the closest. Tom’s shining virtue perhaps explains his vitality in an alternative way to depicting him as violent. Over time, Uncle Tom faced more detractors, and “of all the mitigating factors that may have tamed and desexualized Tom, making him a suitable companion for Eva, aging has ultimately been the most effective.” As Tom aged on stage and in pictures, he moved more completely into the role of “Uncle”, instead of the more robust, manly Tom in Billings early engravings. The role of an “Uncle”, who had been “around since before the Civil War, was to speak well of the past, conveniently eluding any mention of slavery.” The engravings with Tom and Eva in natural settings represent an idyllic time, with — if in the context of the novel only brief a harmony — a sense of harmony nonetheless. Billings engravings and their reproduction by imitators passed on a legacy, in which Americans of European ancestry have their self-gratifying notions of superiority in colonial power relationships confirmed. In a scene in which “African-descendant Tom must depend on the masters little daughter Eva, visual culture[sustains] European American feelings of confidence and authority.”
Billings was commissioned to create another set of engravings later on, and the “courtyard pairing” is closer, looking like an image of lovers. Of this second interpretation of Tom and Eva’s relationship, …O’Gorman wrote that “Eva who seems to have lost some but not all of the anatomical maturity she possessed in the 1852 illustrations, sits on Tom’s knee and throws arms and flowers around his neck.” (p. 34). Improving, or perhaps more strongly challenging, notions of how blacks can be treated to allow for intimacy between the two of them. (…?). That intimacy is helped by Tom’s growing fame as an exceptional African man, and perhaps an exceptional man, regardless of race.
The reception of Uncle Tom’s Cabin varied over time, and when it was first published it was a major influence in shifting opinions towards anti-slavery sentiments. A growing shift among voters to the anti-slavery … to be attributed to Stowe’s novel: Individuals composing the old politics parties are beginning to look dispassionately and without prejudice upon the anti-slavery aspect of political affairs. Much of the anti-slavery truth, heretofore discarded by them as fanatical, is now received and read by all. Uncle Tom’s Cabin… along the pathway of reform, is doing a magnificent job on the public mind. Wherever it goes, prejudice is disarmed, opposition is removed, and the hearts of all are touched with a new and strange feeling, to which they before were strangers. Henry Wilson, one of the founders of the Republican party, declared that “many votes cast for Fremont were but the … of love so widely broadcast by the Beecher Stowe’s.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin was received in many different ways, and the question of what exactly its impact was is debatable; the novel rejects slavery, but does it reinforce racial stereotyping? It would be very difficult to address both anti-slavery and racial equality at the same time. Racial equality was in any case almost unheard of. The kinds of political and economic changes that would constitute the end of slavery would have been drastic; but Stowe felt that through individual agency the country could be changed. Stowe recommends “not specific alterations in the current political and economic arrangements, but rather a change of heart. — There “is nothing that every individual can do — they can see to it that they feel right. An atmosphere of sympathetic influence encircles every human being; and the man or women who feels strongly, healthily, and justly, on the great intentions of humanity, is a constant benefactor to the human race. See, then, to your sympathies in this matter! Are they in harmony with sympathies of Christ? Or are they swayed and perceived by the sophistries of worldly policy? (p.448).
Stowe is not opposed to concrete measures such as the passage of laws or the formation of political pressure groups; it is just that such actions would be useless because the moral conditions that produced slavery in the first place would continue in force. The choice is not between actions that spring from “the sophistries of worldly policy” and those inspired by “the symptoms of Christ.” In Stowe’s view cannot be changed by manipulating the physical environment; it can only be changed by .. in the spirit because it is spirit alone that is finally real.” (72). Reform has to start with people, who ultimately make up the country, as laws or economic systems are not a nation. So characters in “the novel are linked to each other in exactly the same way that places are: with reference to a third term that is the source of their identity.The figure of Christ is the common term that unites all of the novel’s good characters, who are good precisely in proportion as they are imitations of him. Eva and Tom head the list(she reenacts the last supper and he the crucifixion) but they all share: piety, impressionability, spontaneous affection and victimization. In this scene, Eva is linked with the “spirits bright”(she later becomes a “bright immortal form”) both because she can see them and is soon to join them.” If everyone, or a large number of Americans, were to try to be as Eva is, or strive to be Christ - like, then the country would become a better place through a philosophical change, rather than an economic or political change — especially, one involving manipulation.
Romantic Racialism
Uncle Tom’s Cabin is to the surprise of many readers simultaneously anti-slavery and racist. Stowe unequivocally condemned and opposed slavery. Although, she knew and could persuasively render the arguments of pro-slavery whites, which is one reason why the novel is so powerful — pro-slavery positions find credible representation in characteristics which range from horrifying  slaveholders such as Simon Legree and Marie St. Claire to weak and yet no less contemptible ones such as Mr. Shelby and Augustine St. Claire), Stowe’s opposition to all pro-slavery positions never wavers, and she was a staunch supporter of abolition.
Nonetheless her ideas about race were comparable to Romantic Racialism, which projected an “image of the Negro that could be constituted as flattering or laudatory in the context of some currently accepted ideas of behaviour and sensibility.” Significantly, those flattering or laudatory characteristic were docility, submissiveness, gentleness, humanity, affectionateness, and selflessness, traits conventionally associated in Victorian society with powerless people such as women and children.” (Ammons 239). In the mid-century, the belief that Anglo-Saxon whites had a manifest destiny to own all land from east to west was widely held, that there was an indomitable element of the Anglo-Saxon’s character which impelled them to conquer other “inferior” races. Stowe believed that this trait was real, and that it had a strong influence on the development of American slavery. (Gosset 79).
William Lloyd Garrison had a conception of the innate traits of Anglo-Saxons similar to that of Stowe. He was convinced, however that it was rigorous application of law and not the language of love and emotion which was needed to combat these tendencies of the race. “We, Anglo-Saxons, being somewhat ferocious and exceeding stubborn in our nature,” he wrote to a friend, just before the onset of the Civil War in 1861, “need” line upon line, and precept upon precept, to make us noble and good toward each other, and to those whose place in the scale of mankind is lower than our own.
There were many different ways in which white Americans understood blacks. They attributed characteristics to other races, different always with a definitive “racial othering” which made blacks inferior, no matter how well they might be portrayed. Of these colonial kinds of belief, Romantic Racialism  is a very important one, which was anti-slavery and is close to what Harriet Beecher Stowe thought about blacks. The novel strongly supports abolition, but does not argue for an end to “white supremacy.” According to —, the novel endorses colonization. Racism in the United States was sustained by the Anglo-Saxon whites who “granted humanity to people of all races, but then asserted that every race had its own essential, inherent characteristics.” Each race though “created and beloved  by God,” had its own special “virtues, vices, and most importantly, ranked location.” Tom and Eva are very close, and Eva grants him a special status. Generally, Stowe “praised blacks for being jolly, cheerful, gregarious, and affectionate, with the implication that these qualities are inherent.” (p.     69).
In the nineteenth century, race theories proliferated and “thus it is almost impossible to assign acute sources for them.” Ideas concerning Anglo-Saxons being the owners of virtues of courage, steadiness, and fidelity are very recognizeable in the works of Sir Walter Scott, works which Stowe had read.(82) Stowe was writing to “admonish whites to abolish slavery and purify the religion of sin…” Stowe shows herself “to be a romantic racialist by having certain black characters represent all that whites are not.” Stowe makes Tom a symbol of the “Christian virtue and piety” lacking in white America. Tom is “excessively meek, patient, and humble. He is affectionate, forgiving, compassionate, attached to family, nonviolent, and trusting. Stowe’s treatment “of black characters is so ambivalent that it is impossible for us to determine how much of Tom’s meekness is due to his religious virtues and how much to his racial heritage. Stowe describes him as “a large, broad-chested, powerfully-made man, of a full glossy black, and a face whose truly African features were characterized by an expression of grave and steady good sense, united with much kindliness and benevolence”. When he realizes that he will be sold away form his family, he responds not with resentment or anger. “I’m in the Lord’s hands,” he says; “nothin’ can go no furder than he lets it;—and that’s one thing I can thank him for. It’s me that’s sold and going down[the river], and not you[his wife] nut the chil’en. Here you’re safe;—what comes will come only on me and the Lord, he’ll help me—I know he will’. “ (…)
But what has been the effect of this book on black people? An experiment lasting over fifteen years conducted by Albion Tourgee, a novelist, judge, and activist who spoke out against racial segregation, provides one answer. Tourgee had former slaves read or listen to readings of Uncle Tom’s Cabin because he wanted “to determine to what extent [they] thought was an accurate portrayal of southern slavery”. “‘Choosing the most intelligent coloured people’ available he “found that most ex-slaves did not think Uncle Tom was too meek as later generations of black activists would. Instead they thought of him as unrealistically critical of his masters. Tom spoke out more frankly than a real slave might have dared to;’” The few recordings of black responses to Uncle Tom’s Cabin vacillate between evasive silences and complete acceptance of Stowe’s words and reactions, suggesting that her depictions are better than what slaves could have produced. Donovan gives the example of a female former slave perfectly content with Stowe’s words standing in for her own.” (98-99).
The way whites treated blacks was direct result of how they understood them; blacks status as mere property was profitable for slaveholders and they were reluctant to recognizes black’s freedom even after the war. By 1830, the number of slaves in the United States was about two million, increasing by approximately 30% in each decade. New slaves continued to arrive through domestic slave trading. The closure of foreign trading in 1808 didn’t slow down the demand for slaves. Many were bought and sold internationally on the black market, with around 5,000 Africans being smuggled into the United States each year. (p.51).
The novel was attractive to all nineteenth century readers in all of its various formats. It was made up of just the right mixture of storytelling and popular culture to make its “higher-law, anti-slavery message palatable to many readers.” Within one month of its publication, 15,000 more copies were demanded, and soon another 50,000. The demand was so large, that even with three paper mills running twenty-four hours a day, and a hundred booksellers selling work, Jewett could not keep up with the demand. The “production and distribution of the novel was considered a major achievement, facilitated by recent technological advances.“ It was said that “such a phenomenon as its present popularity could have happened only in the present wondrous age.”
The political climate that gave birth to this novel was ever worsening. Even after the Civil War, many blacks still were disenfranchised, and economically marginalized. Lynching, and racist organizations, like the K.K.K. were on the rise. For those who advocated the glorification of the pre-Civil war days, with a supposed stability and “racial harmony”, Uncle Tom’s Cabin continued to be threatening. Even in the early twentieth century, many Southern States banned performances of the play version. The backlash was strong, heavily calculated. One particular instance is Dixon’s historical sequel to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, from “a Southern perspective” which claimed to tell “the true story” of what happened “to the South over time as a result of the racial reversal [Stowe] has caused and how nightmarish America had become and how dire the future of America would be if the ascendancy of blacks continued.” (Reynolds 216).
The novel’s popularity was the reason it was s criticized especially after its initial reception. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was “in almost any terms one can think of, the most important book of the century. It was the first American novel ever to sell over a million copies, and its impact is generally thought to have been incalculable. .. writes that “Expressive of and responsible for this polarity is that “it is written by, for, and about women. In this way, nineteenth century America’s religion of domesticity — the reproduction of the story of salvation through motherly love,” grew and moved some powerless people into positions of power and authority. Eva is to be understood as Christ-like, and through the imitation of her love, of her sacrifice, salvation for the South is for Stowe perhaps foreseeable. The household, lead by whites and kept going by blacks, is a community of “co-operation, trust, and a spirit of mutual supportiveness. Stowe’s faith in “established patterns of living and traditional beliefs — is precisely what gives her novel its revolutionary potential.” By taking those beliefs to an extreme and insisting that they be applied universally, not just to one segregated corner of civil life but to the conduct of all human affairs, Stowe, to effect a radical transformation of her society, and more undeniable than any other abuse of the system of slavery”, Harriet Beecher Stowe believed, was “its outrage upon the family.” (Brown 89).
And the novel had a demonstrably key role in the political reshuffling that lay behind the rise of the anti-Slavery Republican party. Uncle Tom’s Cabin appeared at the moment when the Whig party was at odds as a result of internal divisions over slavery. The least understood aspect of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is its political impact. Actually, the novel played a demonstrably key role in the political reshuffling that lay behind the rise of the anti-slavery Republican Party. Uncle Tom’s Cabin appeared at the moment when the Whig Party was crumbling as a result of internal divisions over slavery. As the novel’s stature grew in anti-slavery politics in the North. (69).
The novel intended the modern idea of a “best-seller,” and many of Stowe’s characters became national stock types and icons. Even today, readers cry at the right places, and express horror, relief, or disbelief where textually appropriate. Most important, Stowe’s text allows whites to talk to other whites about the personal and national issues surrounding the slave experience and establishes the character types usually associated with African-Americans. Indeed, throughout the second  half of the nineteenth century and then the early twentieth century, Stowe’s novel provided the nation with a shared cultural context for its discourse on slavery, offering reductive images, phrases, and symbols that quickly became the accepted norm. (93).
Uncle Tom’s Cabin was both successfully commercially and very influential in the most pressing concerns of its time. The illustrations influence how we interpret the novel, showing our gradual relinquishment of racism. The widespread impact of the novel is facilitated by new technologies, which allow the novel to be present in so many different forms such as engravings, plays, and later other forms including movies. The novel affirms literature’s ability to be important to a culture, particularly the central importance of stories in defining ourselves and changing to become a better, more loving community.


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