160 years ago, the first chapter of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s infamous anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in the National Era. In honor of the novel, which some say was the catalyst for the civil war, and Stowe’s 200th birthday, the Harriet Beecher Stowe House is re-releasing Uncle Tom’s in a digital format from the National Era chapter by chapter, week by week. Two centuries after the birth of one of the most influential civil-war era authors, three NYU Press authors reflect on this revolutionary piece of literature.
In Sites Unseen, Princeton Professor of English and Associate Faculty with the Center for African American Studies William Gleason argues that Stowe’s work exemplified architecture and scenery in anti-slavery literature in such dramatic fashion that critics sought to discredit Uncle Tom’s Cabin by deconstructing the novel’s namesake “lowly” slave cabin and the plantation’s furnishings.
“The surest sign that Stowe’s architectural representations had hit their mark is the vehemence and consistency with which her southern debunkers sought to reverse her tropes. Nearly every response to Uncle Tom’s Cabin stages, early in the text, a socio-architectural rebuttal of Stowe’s depictions. In these books, planters’ mansions are always tasteful and refined, slave quarters clean and comfortable. No crumbling Legree plantations or fetid slave huts here, no ma’am—only the honest and open forms of a benevolent institution.” – pg. 55
Gleason says “Despite its flaws, Stowe’s novel remains one of the most incisive investigations we have of the built environment of slavery, from the planter’s drawing room to the slave cabin.” Sites Unseen will be released Aug. 22, 2011.
Harvard associate professor in African and American Studies and Studies of Women, Gender, and Sexuality Robin Bernstein stresses the importance of Stowe’s Eva in her new book Racial Innocence as a “hub in a busy cultural system linking innocence to whiteness.” (pg 6.)
“The paleness of Little Eva’s body, especially her skin and hair, was not incidentally decorative but was instead crucial to Stowe’s plot, as when one of Eva’s “golden tress[es]” twined around Simon Legree’s fingers, and the “fair hair” terrified the slaveholder and compelled him to refrain, if only for one night, from sexually assaulting an enslaved woman.18 Little Eva was neither isolated nor unique but was instead, as Ann Douglas notes, the archetype of “innumerable pale and pious”—one might say white and sinless—“heroines” of nineteenth-century sentimental fiction” – pgs. 5-6
“Harriet Beecher Stowe created two of the most significant child-characters of the nineteenth century: Little Eva, the epitome of the white angel-child, and the enslaved Topsy, who was a far more complicated character. In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe was very careful to reveal the physical and emotional violence that Topsy had endured, and that hardened her and made her appear invulnerable to physical blows. Stowe’s point was that Topsy’s toughness was a pathological response to the evils that are inherent to slavery. But after Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published, actresses and visual artists repeated and expanded upon Topsy’s hardness while forgetting Stowe’s explanation of how Topsy became that way. This un-hurtable Topsy then became the prototype for the “pickaninny,” an abominably de-humanizing image of an animalistic African American child. The pickaninny unfortunately became one of the most powerful and influential anti-black images of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries–exactly counter to Stowe’s agenda,” Bernstein says of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Racial Innocence will be released Dec. 1, 2011.
Meanwhile, author Gene Andrew Jarrett contends that while some African-American writers endorsed Uncle Tom’s as an accurate representation of their race, others came to the conclusion that the novel was complicit in perpetuating caricatures of slaves and was not as progressive as Stowe’s antislavery contemporaries thought,” (pg. 135). However, when Stowe sued a German publisher for copyright infringement in 1853, Jarrett says that the ruling of the court paved the way for African-American literature despite Judge Robert Grier’s opposition to the anti-slavery movement.
“Judge Grier’s ruling in Stowe v. Thomas, according to Richard Schur, ‘in effect licensed the subsequent efforts of African American writers and intellectuals to ‘rewrite’ or ‘write over’ Stowe’s characterization of Uncle Tom.’…even though the ruling was intended, ironically, to permit certain kinds of writing that were presumably contrary to the political interests of African Americans.” – pg 135
“As I say in Representing the Race: A New Political History of African American LiteratureUncle Tom’s Cabin and dealing with the African American politics of racial representation has, unwittingly or not, been affected by that novel’s thematic and commercial magnitude.” Representing the Race is now available.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin was first published in the National Era in 1851 and the novel in its entirety will celebrate its 160th in 2012. Bernstein’s Racial Innocence will be released Dec. 1, 2011. Gleason’s Sites Unseen will be released Aug. 22, 2011. Jarrett’s Representing the Race is now available.