On this date in 1851 Uncle Tom’s Cabin first appeared as a 40-week serial in The National Era, an abolitionist periodical, and the following year was issued as an illustrated book. Stowe, a Connecticut-born teacher at the Hartford Female Seminary and an active abolitionist, featured the character of Uncle Tom, a long-suffering black slave around whom the stories of other characters revolve. The sentimental novel depicts the reality of slavery while also asserting that Christian love can overcome something as destructive as enslavement of fellow human beings. Assessment of the novel and its title character have undergone profound changes from its first publication to the present day.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the best-selling novel of the 19th century and the second best-selling book of that century, following the Bible. It is credited with helping fuel the abolitionist cause in the 1850s. In the first year after it was published, 300,000 copies of the book were sold in the United States; one million copies in Great Britain. In 1855, three years after it was published, it was called “the most popular novel of our day.” The impact attributed to the book is great, reinforced by a story that when Abraham Lincoln met Stowe at the start of the Civil War, Lincoln declared, “So this is the little lady who started this great war.” The quote is apocryphal; it did not appear in print until 1896, and it has been argued that “The long-term durability of Lincoln’s greeting as an anecdote in literary studies and Stowe scholarship can perhaps be explained in part by the desire among many contemporary intellectuals … to affirm the role of literature as an agent of social change.”
At the time of the novel’s initial publication in 1851 Uncle Tom was a rejection of the existing stereotypes of minstrel shows; Stowe’s melodramatic story humanized the suffering of slavery for white audiences by portraying Tom as a Christlike figure who is ultimately martyred, beaten to death by a cruel master because Tom refuses to betray the whereabouts of two women who had escaped from slavery. Stowe reversed the gender conventions of slave narratives by juxtaposing Uncle Tom’s passivity against the daring of three African American women who escape from slavery.
Senator Charles Sumner credited Uncle Tom’s Cabin for the election of Abraham Lincoln and Lincoln himself reportedly quipped that Stowe had triggered the American Civil War. Frederick Douglass praised the novel as “a flash to light a million camp fires in front of the embattled hosts of slavery”. Despite Douglass’ enthusiasm, an anonymous 1852 reviewer for William Lloyd Garrison’s publication The Liberator suspected a racial double standard in the idealization of Uncle Tom:
Uncle Tom’s character is sketched with great power and rare religious perception. It triumphantly exemplifies the nature, tendency, and results of Christian non-resistance. 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 for the Black man… Talk not of overcoming evil with good—it is madness! Talk not of peacefully submitting to chains and stripes—it is base servility! Talk not of servants being obedient to their masters—let the blood of 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 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, long-suffering, and forgiving? Are there two Christs?
The accusation of a double standard may be apt, but I think that this and other critiques miss the point. Stowe upholds the Christian standard (mostly forgotten in the contemporary U.S.) of meeting hatred and bigotry with love, as did Jesus. Modern critics treat Uncle Tom’s servility as weakness rather than a strength (as Stowe intended). This change of attitudes towards Uncle Tom reflects a general cultural shift in the U.S. from tolerance to aggressiveness as the solution to what are perceived as the world’s ills.
James Weldon Johnson, a prominent figure of the Harlem Renaissance, expresses an antipathetic opinion in his autobiography:
For my part, I was never an admirer of Uncle Tom, nor of his type of goodness; but I believe that there were lots of old Negroes as foolishly good as he; the proof of which is that they knowingly stayed and worked on the plantations that furnished sinews for the army which was fighting to keep them enslaved.
In 1949 James Baldwin rejected the emasculation of the title character “robbed of his humanity and divested of his sex” as the price of spiritual salvation for a dark-skinned man in a fiction whose African-American characters, in Baldwin’s view, were invariably two dimensional stereotypes. To Baldwin, Stowe was closer to a pamphleteer than a novelist and her artistic vision was fatally marred by polemics and racism that manifested especially in her handling of the title character. Stowe had stated that her sons had wept when she first read them the scene of Uncle Tom’s death, but after Baldwin’s essay it ceased being respectable to accept the melodrama of the Uncle Tom story. Uncle Tom became what critic Linda Williams describes as “an epithet of servility” and the novel’s reputation plummeted until feminist critics led by Jane Tompkins reassessed the tale’s female characters. According to Debra J. Rosenthal in an introduction to a collection of critical appraisals for the Routledge Literary Sourcebook on Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, overall reactions have been mixed with some critics praising the novel for affirming the humanity of the African American characters and for the risks Stowe assumed in taking a very public stand against slavery before abolitionism had become a socially acceptable cause, and others criticizing the very limited terms upon which those characters’ humanity was affirmed and the artistic shortcomings of political melodrama.
A specific impetus for the novel was the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, which imposed heavy fines upon law enforcement personnel in Northern states if they refused to assist the return of people who escaped from slavery. The new law also stripped African Americans of the right to request a jury trial or to testify on their own behalf, even if they were legally free, whenever a single claimant presented an affidavit of ownership. The same law authorized a $1000 fine and six months imprisonment for anyone who knowingly harbored or assisted a fugitive slave. These terms infuriated Stowe, so the novel was written, read, and debated as a political abolitionist tract.
Stowe drew inspiration for the Uncle Tom character from several sources. The best-known of these was Josiah Henson, an ex-slave whose autobiography, The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, as Narrated by Himself, was originally published in 1849 and later republished in two extensively revised editions after the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Henson was enslaved at birth in 1789. He became a Christian at age eighteen and took up preaching. Henson attempted to purchase his freedom for $450, but after selling his personal assets to raise $350 and signing a promissory note for the remainder Henson’s owner raised the price to $1000; Henson was unable to prove that the original agreement had been for a lesser amount. Shortly afterward Henson was ordered on a trip south to New Orleans, and when he learned that he was to be sold there he obtained a weapon and contemplated murdering his white companions, but decided against violence because his Christian morals forbade it. A sudden illness in one of his companions forced their return to Kentucky, and shortly afterward Henson escaped north with his family, settling in Canada where he became a civic leader.
Southern plantations were noted for their cooking, and their recipes carried on after the Civil War as what is now classic Southern cuisine. A great many plantation cooks were slave women who created a style that was an amalgam of African and European traditions which was enormously varied across the South. I’ve given a number of recipes here before for hush puppies, hoppin’ John, burgoo, and the like – all personal favorites from my days living in the swamps of North Carolina. Here’s a more upscale recipe from South Carolina still popular today as a summer dish.
Dilled Rice and Shrimp salad
2 cups cooked long-grain white rice
¼ cup white wine vinegar
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
¼ cup freshly chopped dill, plus extra for garnish
salt and pepper
¼ cup chopped green onions, plus extra for garnish
¼ cup sliced radishes
½ lb. cooked and shelled medium shrimp
Combine the oil, vinegar, dill, and salt and pepper to taste in a blender or food processor, and blend until you have a fine emulsion.
Place the rice in a large mixing bowl and pour over the oil and vinegar dressing. Mix well. Add the shrimp and radishes and toss lightly. Cover the bowl and chill for several hours.
Serve with a garnish of fresh dill and green onions and a squirt of fresh lemon juice. You may need to toss the salad to separate the rice after refrigeration.