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American author and abolitionist Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) had a lasting impact on American literature and politics. The novel's melodramatic dialogue and events cast the slavery debate in stark terms of good and evil. Stowe's novel drew greater numbers of people to the abolitionist cause in the North and stirred outrage in the South. In this article, American historian and author Jim Cullen examines Uncle Tom's Cabin as a political and cultural phenomenon. Cullen describes how the novel was received at the time it was published; in the period following the American Civil War (1861-1865); and in the 20th century.

Uncle Tom's Cabin and American Culture

By Jim Cullen

Pop culture blockbusters are nothing new. Before The Simpsons, before Star Wars, before Gone with the Wind, there was Uncle Tom's Cabin. Although now almost forgotten, it was one of the most significant cultural phenomena in American history. Uncle Tom's Cabin was more popular in its day than any other book except the Bible, and it maintained that popularity in various incarnations for over 50 years.

The daughter, sister, and wife of church ministers, Harriet Beecher Stowe was an unknown writer in 1851, when her story of a good-hearted African American man named Tom began appearing monthly installments in The National Era, one of a number of anitslavery newspapers published in the northern United States. Stowe shared with many of these newspapers a deep hatred of slavery?what some called "the peculiar institution." She wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin in response to the Fugitive Slave Act, an 1850 law requiring Northerners to return escaped slaves to their owners. "The catching business, we beg to remind [readers], is rising to the dignity of a lawful and patriotic profession," Stowe wrote sarcastically after depicting a scene of slavecatchers negotiating a deal. "If all the broad land between the Mississippi and the Pacific becomes on great market for bodies and souls...the trader and catcher may yet be among our aristocracy."

Uncle Tom's Cabin may have been written as a political statement, but it also captured the nation's imagination through its vivid characters, many of whom became household names for the next 100 years: Little Eva, the angelic child whose death scene was the ultimate tearjerker in American fiction; St. Clare, the Southern intellectual who recognizes that slavery is wrong but fails to oppose it; Simon Legree, the Northern-born slave trader, whose very name became a synonym for heartless evil; and above all, the patient, benevolent Uncle Tom, whose life stands as an indictment of the slave system.

Like many stories told in installments in the 19th century, Uncle Tom's Cabin was episodic, with a series of subplots. Basically, however, there are two overarching tales. One tells the story of the Harrises, a Kentucky slave family, who narrowly escape being "sold down the river" into the deep South, where conditions were harsher and escape nearly impossible. They eventually flee to safety in Canada. The other is the story of Uncle Tom, a kindly slave who is sold down the river but is fortunate enough to be bought by St. Clare at the urging of his daughter, Eva. Eventually, however, Tom finds himself in the hands of the evil Legree, who seeks to take from him the only things he has left: his decency and his faith.

When published in book form in 1852, the novel was an instant success. It sold 3000 copies on the first day it was released, over 300,000 within a year, and 500,000 copies by 1857?not including illegal editions that were commonly issued in the days before strong copyright laws were passed. Even by contemporary standards the book's sales are remarkable, especially considering that the population of the United States was only about one-tenth of what it is now. By the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, Uncle Tom's Cabin has become the most popular novel ever written by an American and a tremendous international success....}

In a sense, however, the success of Stowe's book tells only half the story of Uncle Tom's Cabin. The other half concerns its continued proliferation in other versions. Offended Southerners responded to Stowe with a series of novels, including Aunt Phyllis's Cabin (1852) and The Planter's Northern Bride (1854). Stowe, in turn, replied with The Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin (1853), in which she used documents to support her portrayal of the South. So called "Tom" literature, pro and con, became a virtual genre of its own in the years before the Civil War, although no other work in print managed to have the appeal of the original.

On stage, Uncle Tom's Cabin had a somewhat different history. The first dramatic version, which opened in 1853, retained the antislavery character of the book. But it was soon challenged, and ultimately supplanted, by a pro-Southern version that ended happily and turned Tom into a caricature of Stowe's original character. Satiric minstrel portrayals, with songs such as "Happy Uncle Tom," became part of the staged version. By the late 19th century, many people viewed the story's politics as less important than dramatic scenes like the escape of Eliza Harris and her child across the icy Ohio River. Such scenes were especially attractive to early filmmakers, who produced a series of variations on Tom at the beginning of the 20th century; on notable work is that of acclaimed directory Edwin S. Porter, whose 12-minute version was released in 1903.

By this time, however, Tom's reputation was beginning to suffer, particularly among black Americans. There is no question that Stowe and her largely white readership understood Tom to be a heroic character. But the very qualities she and the others cherished about him?his dogged sense of optimism in the face of crushing defeats; his ready obedience to virtually any command given to him; and above all, his unquestioning loyalty to white people who do not deserve it?made him more a fantasy of what white people wanted black people to be than what black people themselves wanted to be. More and more, the term "Uncle Tom" was used not as a compliment, but as a way of describing a black person who was too willing to accommodate the wishes of whites.

Moreover, not all Tom characters depicted on stage and in film could even be said to have been created with Stowe's good intentions. Because of the segregation and discrimination that were central to American life after the Civil War, black actors were often not permitted to perform on stage. Instead, white men "blacked up" their faces with burnt cork to play black characters in minstrel, vaudeville, and other forms of entertainment. Many of these performances were deeply satirical, with the explicit intention of mocking, not celebrating, the lives and works of black Americans.

For these and other reasons, Uncle Tom's Cabin began to seem increasingly dated. The last major movie version was released in 1927 (featuring a black actor in the lead role), and not long after that the book went out of print. Other works, including the 1915 film Birth of a Nation and the book and film versions of Gone with the Wind (1936; 1939), replaced Stowe's attack on slavery with complaints about Northern arrogance in dealing with the South. Scarlett O'Hara, not Little Eva, became a household name.

In the 1970s feminist literary critics rediscovered Uncle Tom's Cabin. While neither these nor other readers typically regard the book's racial politics as viable or attractive, many are struck by the book's moral energy, the power of Stowe's storytelling, and her ability to make a female perspective on society both practical and compelling. No longer a fixture in mainstream popular culture, Uncle Tom's Cabin nevertheless has secured a lasting place in American history, setting a standard of influence from which subsequent works of entertainment can be measured.

About the author: Jim Cullen is the author of The Art of Democracy: A Concise History of Popular Culture in the United States (1996), published by Monthly Review Press.


Ableman v. Booth ] Adams, John Quincy ] "America" - By James M Whitfield ] Amistad mutiny ] Anti-Slavery Convention Address - Angelina Grimke's ] American Anti-Slavery Society ] From David Walker's Appeal - Our Wretchedness in Consequence of Slavery ] Birney, James Gillespie ] Black Code ] Bleeding Kansas ] Brown, William Wells ] Brown, John ] Chapman, Maria Weston ] Child, Lydia Maria ] Clay, Cassius Marcellus ] Compromise of 1850 ] Crandall, Prudence ] Emancipation Proclamation ] Forced Labour ] Foster, Abigail Kelley ] freedman ] Freedmen's Bureau ] Freetown ] Fugitive Slave Acts ] gag rule ] Grimke, Sarah (Moore) and Angelina (Emily) ] From The Liberator  - By William Lloyd Garrison ] Liberty Party ] Abraham Lincoln ] lynching ] The Martyr - From Uncle Tom’s Cabin ] Middle Passage ] Missouri Compromise ] peonage ] personal-liberty laws ] On the Reception of Abolition Petitions ] Racism ] Reconstruction ] Serfdom ] Sharp, Granville ] Congregations Sites for the Abolitioninsts ] Stevens, Thaddeus ] Thoreau's "A Plea for Captain John Brown" ] [ Uncle Tom's Cabin and American Culture ] Truth, Sojourner ] Turner, Nat ] Underground Railroad ] Whittier, John Greenleaf ]

 ] Wiliam LLoyd Garrison ] Frederick Douglass ] The Liberator ] Thomas Clarkson ] Wilberforce, William ] Uncle Tom's Cabin ] Slavery ] 관련 문서들 ]


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