Location: [Reed College] [Andrew White]
When Harriet Beecher Stowe published her anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, in 1852, Southerners naturally took offense. Indeed, they were outraged. After all, the novel attacked the basis of their whole way of life. Slave-run plantations were an essential part of Southern culture. Uncle Tom's Cabin created a furor of controversy and even violent responses. The Southern Literary Messenger warned its readers that Stowe speaks for a large and dangerous faction that must be put down by the pen, else "we may be compelled one day (God grant that the day may never come!) to repel them [them] with the bayonet" (Duvall 163).
For the most part Southerners criticized the novel as fantastical and exaggerated, objecting most strongly to the portrayal of blacks as equal to whites. The chief defense of slavery in anti-Uncle Tom's Cabin reviews was the supposed inferiority of blacks (Gossett 193). There were a few quiet voices that expressed admiration for the novel, but most reviewers condemned it by virtue of its content.
One would expect that the South did not favor Stowe's novel because of its anti-slavery content. But it is also intriguing that at the same time, many Southerners strongly objected to Uncle Tom's Cabin because of its medium -- they disapproved of the use of fiction in this way. A number of reviewers thought it unscrupulous to attack an institution by means of a novel. Indeed, many had not expected a major attack on slavery in this form, being more accustomed to the straight-up approach of abolition pamphlets. They complained that a novel is hard to refute because it is impossible to comment on fictional incidences. A. Woodward stated that a writer could almost prove anything with a novel -- by using fiction one could "prove the sinfulness of every institution beneath the sun, social, civil and religious" (Gossett 195).
William Gilmore Simms, a Southern novelist, was the one who most extensively developed the argument that it was artistically incorrect to use the novel as a vehicle of social criticism: The attempt to establish a moral argument through the medium of fictitious narrative is, per se, a vicious abuse of art and argument. The thing cannot be done conscientiously. Art has its laws, and, in such a work, art is paramount. The novel is made to yield, and must yield, where the fiction demands it (Gossett 195).
Although Simms himself did not write novels correcting some great evil, many of his writings contain some moralizing over social and political evils like we see in Uncle Tom's Cabin. How he saw this as differing from Stowe's moralizing is unclear. Later, however, he did confess a regard for the novel's artistic qualities. In his estimation Stowe was "a woman of great inventive faculty, and Uncle Tom's Cabin, considered wholly aside from the slavery question, is a story of great and striking, though coarse, attraction" (Gossett 195).
It is significant, I think, that the medium as well as the message of Uncle Tom's Cabin was criticized. But why would the use of fiction be considered unscrupulous? Certainly, it is true that fictional incidences, albeit based on actual happenings, are difficult to address or refute. Yet, to call this method of protest "a vicious abuse of art" seems a bit extreme. What was so abusive about the fictional nature of Uncle Tom's Cabin particularly?
It seems to me that one of the primary reasons Southern reviewers objected so strongly to Stowe's use of the novel is that they realized the power it gave her to expose the evils of slavery. In fact, I would argue that using fiction made her message more effective than it would have been had she used non-fiction, as had been done in the abolition pamphlets. Surely Stowe was aware of this advantage, and she exploited it. What specific advantages did fiction offer to Harriet Beecher Stowe? This is an intriguing question with number of possible answers. I cannot hope to answer it completely, but by turning especially to Stowe's contemporaries I hope to make a significant start.
One advantage of fiction for Stowe, it seems, was the capacity it gave her to overstate a point and get away with it If she had written a non-fiction account of the murder of a slave in the same fashion she had Uncle Tom at the hands of Simon Legree, most would have scoffed at her excessive allusions to the slave's impeccable, Christ-like character. Stowe probably could not have done something like this with non-fiction. Even as a first hand witness to the event she would not have had the power of the third-person omniscient narrative that she has with the novel genre. The perspective affords Stowe the opportunity to address the actions of her characters -- like Uncle Tom's Christ-like response to Legree -- as if it were the actual truth. To many Southerners Stowe's depiction of slavery was "exaggerated" and erroneous (Gossett 194).
Stowe's so-called exaggeration of the historical realities of slavery via fiction was noted by Northerners as well. After spending three months in the South in 1854, Nehemiah Adams published an account of his visit entitled South-Side View of Slavery. In a chapter discussing the influence of Uncle Tom's Cabin, he expresses the disillusionment he felt when he realized that the novel had given him false impressions and an incomplete picture of slavery: At the north I partook fully in the general effect of the book upon our feelings, as the author knows full well, but at the south, even after seeing or hearing things like many which are related in the story, I found that still the whole impression of the book on my mind was that of a falsehood (160).
Among other things, Adams notes that his view of little Negro children was inaccurately shaped by Stowe's portrait of Topsy in Uncle Tom's Cabin. Although he met slave children like Topsy while visiting the South, he says that most were quite civil like white children. Adams adds that this misperception may have been his fault as the reader, but that it was also "the fault of novel writing, its intrinsic evil" (160). He felt somewhat betrayed by the novel, having been taken in by a narrative that he found incongruent with reality.
Adam's objection to Uncle Tom's Cabin is similar to that of Plato towards poetry. For the Greek philosopher, since fiction was not based on reality, or truth, it was mimesis -- an inaccurate representation of the actual. Adams argues that Uncle Tom's Cabin, like all other novels, "deceives" (160). For him, the story had altered or twisted reality. Others in the South responded to this element of Stowe's fiction more vehemently than Adams. William "Parson" Brownlow, editor of the Knoxville Whig, called Stowe "a deliberate liar, adding that the author was "as ugly as Original sin -- an abomination in the eyes of civilized people. A tall, course [sic] vulgar looking -- stoop-shouldered with a long yellow neck and a long peaked nose through which she speaks" (Degler 149,50). Literary criticism has seen better moments.
This particular response, in its varying degrees, to the "deceiving" character of fiction seems to be fostered by `overstatements' in Stowe's novel that sometimes border on exaggeration. And one could argue that the portrayal of Topsy is such a case. However, the way in which the character of Topsy is drawn seems more to be Stowe's effort to show the hardening effects that slavery can have on little children, than it does a typification of all Negro children. But can the reader, ignorant of the reality the novelist is "portraying," be aware of this? And since Topsy is the only Negro child we really get to know in the novel, is it possible to avoid seeing all Negro children like her, as Adams did? In this way the reader is somewhat at the mercy of the narrator. But of course this serves the author's purpose all the more.
Another aspect of Stowe's `power' for which Adams argues is her ability, as a woman, to write moving fiction: " No fictitious narrative of slavery could make a deeper impression than a book on this subject written by a female hand which knew well how to touch the chords of the human heart, especially if there were interspersed skillful representations of the unnaturalness of second love, of the impossibility that maternal affection should be imitated, and that where a stepmother has children of her own, there is the strongest temptation to partiality, with other theoretically truthful things which a woman of genius would know so well how to set forth" (165) In retrospect, this particular observation might seem to be a bit sexist in that Adams makes much of Stowe's ability as a woman to be sentimental, "touching the chords of the human heart." Yet, gender issues aside, there is something to what Adams is saying. Clearly, part of the strength of Stowe's narrative is her use of fiction's power to affect the reader with the drama of slavery. He adds that Stowe shows herself to be a "woman of genius" by portraying things that are "theoretically truthful." In a way then, Adams seems to be reaffirming the basic truthfulness of the novel despite his previous objections. In theory, what Stowe says is true, although it is not the complete picture. Connected to this, modern literary critic Severn Duvall notes that Stowe shows an "uncanny talent for dramatizing the essential torture of Southern life" (italics mine -- 163). What Stowe captures is not so much the actual nature of slavery as it is slavery's essential nature.
Realistically, It would be impossible to fully portray slavery in Uncle Tom's Cabin. The novel is a dramatization, not a documentary. However, Stowe exploits the genre despite any inherent limitations or weaknesses. By dramatizing the "torture" of slavery, Stowe is able to put the reader into the shoes of her characters. The alternate title or subtitle of Uncle Tom's Cabin, "Life Among the Lowly" indicates among other things precisely this -- the ability of the book to cause the reader to `live' among the "lowly," i.e. to feel and suffer with the enslaved protagonists. Duvall adds that Uncle Tom's Cabin "follows essentially the wanderings of the lowly; as readers we must stand in with the slave, seeing things largely from his perspective if not directly through his perception" (165). By using protagonists who are slaves, the reader is forced to see things in the slave's frame of reference. This would be nearly impossible to accomplish through an objective, informational brochure. The novel is powerful where non-fiction cannot be -- it brings the plight of the slave to life in the reader, using the reader's imagination.
Because of the empathy for the characters that the novel engenders, the reader is also able to feel the great irony of slavery. 20th Century literary critic, Carl Degler, quotes one dictionary that defines irony as "a situation, a turn of events which frustrates and appears to mock the hopes or aims of human beings; a result opposite to what might be expected" (3). Of course the great irony of Uncle Tom's Cabin is that the nation, founded on the self-evident truth "that all men are created equal," was guilty of hypocrisy in tolerating the enslavement of any people. Under Southern laws, a Negro slave had no substantial identity or rights. This irony is made apparent as the reader follows Stowe's character focus in which the slaves are portrayed to be just as human as whites. As Duvall states, "Establishing the slave as a unique and human personality, reinforcing concrete characterization by angle of vision, she [Stowe] then goes on to trap the white man into admitting it [the slave's equivalent humanity] in word and deed" (165).
One specific way in which Stowe does this is in her use of ambiguity in black-white relationships. With Shelby and St. Clare the reader encounters two masters who play both filial and patriarchal roles with the slaves on their estates. Uncle Tom, a black slave, is a fatherly figure to young George Shelby and later to Eva St. Clare. This kind of ambiguity is most clear with the two maternal figures in Eva's home: Mamma (her natural, white mother) and Mammy (her adopted slave mother). Interestingly, it is the latter who is more affectionate and intimate with Eva. Both characters are "ironically juxtaposed to emphasize the greater parental affection of the slave" (Duvall 167). Again, this is something that Stowe could only do through fiction. It seems that Stowe would have difficulty blurring the line between blacks and whites were she not operating in the genre of fiction
Apparently understanding the various advantages that the genre of fiction gave Stowe, some Southerners attempted to answer Uncle Tom's Cabin with their own fiction. However, as G. F. Holmes, (contributor to the Southern Literary Message) wrote, these efforts were poor, written "by weak and incompetent persons" who merely lifted traditional pro-slavery arguments directly into the narrative (Duvall 179). Stowe, on the other hand, chose human drama to make her point, not overt argumentation. This brought the reader into the lives of the "lowly" emotionally as well as intellectually. Perhaps this is what Southern critics found so hard to refute. And likely this is why Stowe's novel spoke so much more powerfully than the South's less dramatic, more analytical attempts at a defense of slavery in fiction.
Because Stowe was able to successfully tap the resources of fictional writing, Uncle Tom's Cabin had a huge effect in America on the eve of the Civil War. Yes, the novel is sentimental. As Adams observed, it "touches the chords of the human heart." It is also true that the novel fails to give a complete picture of slavery. But what novel can offer that kind of scope? Even Tolstoy's massive War and Peace fails to fully capture the conflict it portrays. What Uncle Tom's Cabin does succeed in doing, though, is dramatizing the essence of the problem of slavery. With Uncle Tom's Cabin the reader is invariably brought into the powerful drama of human suffering. And this, I believe, is what was most behind the genre protests against the novel.
Adams, Nehemiah. A South-Side View of Slavery. Boston: T.R. Marvin, 1855.
Degler, Carl N. "The Irony of American Negro Slavery." Perspectives and Irony in American Slavery. Ed. Harry P. Owens. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1976. 3-26.
Duvall, Severn. "Uncle Tom's Cabin: The Sinister Side of the Patriarchy." Images of the Negro in American Literature. Eds. Seymour Gross and John Hardy. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1966. 163-180.
Gossett, Thomas F. Uncle Tom's Cabin and American Culture. Southern Methodist University Press, 1985.
Hedrick, Joan. Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Stowe, Harriet. Uncle Tom's Cabin.
The Holy Bible. King James Version.
This page and the essay it contains were created by Andrew White for the Reed College Course: English 341, Nation and Narration: American Literature to 1900, Instructor: Laura Arnold, Spring 1997
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