Sunday, June 5, 2016

Will the Real Uncle Tom Please Stand Up

An advertisement promoting the sale of the already phenomenally successful Uncle Tom's Cabin from 1853. 

When Abraham Lincoln was introduced to Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1861 he famously remarked, “So this is the little lady who made this big war.” Of course he was referring to her novel Uncle Tom's Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly which had its first installment published on June 5, 1852 in the abolitionist newspaper National Era.  It ran for ten month and then on March 20, 1852 was published as a book. 
The novel was, to say the least, a sensation.  It was the leading best seller of the whole 19th century, lagging in sales only to the Bible.  Within the first year 300,000 copies were sold in editions that ranged from a 13½ cent paper covered “Edition for the Millions” to a lavishly illustrated two volume leather bound edition available for a whopping $5.  It sold nearly as well in Britain where 200,000 copies sold in the same period.  

Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1852, the year her novel was issued as a book.

Stowe was a devout Christian from an ardently abolitionist family that included her brother the Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, the most famous preacher of his day.  She composed the book out of outrage over the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which required Northerners to cooperate in the capture and return of escaped slaves.  She published the first chapters in the National Journal the following year. 
Although she had never visited the South, she based her characters and situations on popular anti-slavery publications already in circulation, including the autobiography of Josiah Hensen, an escaped slave living in Canada who was reputedly the model for the book’s title character.  

The flight of the mulatto house slave Eliza with her infant across the ice floes of the Ohio River tugged on Northern heartstrings.
The sentimental story was fraught with melodrama as it follows the noble slave Uncle Tom and his relations through the brutality of slavery.  Scenes like the escape of the young house slave Eliza clutching her infant over the ice floes on the Ohio River, the mystical vision of the saintly dying white child Little Eva, and Tom’s brutal murder seared the imaginations of readers.  
When the book came out abolitionists were a despised minority even in the North.  Within a few years it so stoked resentment of the Southern slave culture in the North that it helped get slavery opponent Lincoln elected president.   Despite its pivotal role in changing public opinion in the 19th Century, the book, and particularly Uncle Tom became controversial in the 20th.  It was criticized for the stereotypes of its slave characters including the shuffling, subservient male, the happy mammy to the white family, mulatto and light skinned slave women as sexual objects, and children as “Pickanninies.”  
In particular Uncle Tom offended militants emerging from the Civil Rights Movement who used his name as an epithet against Blacks that they considered subservient or insufficiently assertive of their rights.  Many of these stereotypes and images came not so much from Stowe’s original book, which was seldom read in the modern era, but from the stage adaptations the flooded American theaters for decades.  

Wildly stereotypical minstrel show like depictions in decades of cheap touring "Tom Shows" and early silent films came to negatively affect perceptions of the book and its characters by Civil Rights advocates and Black militants.
Several versions toured, many applying stereotypes borrowed from the minstrel show to the characters in the novel.  Stowe had no control over any of theseTom Shows,”  but literally millions of Americans saw them. 
In the early 20th Century the depiction of Blacks in films were often directly drawn from the stock figures of these touring productions. 
Today, Black scholars like Henry Louis Gates, Jr. have expressed a renewed respect for the place of the book in the history of American race relations.

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