Uncle Tom’s Cabin; or, Life Among the Lowly, is an anti-slavery novel by American author Harriet Beecher Stowe. Published in 1852, the novel helped lay the groundwork for the Civil War, according to many.
Stowe, a Connecticut-born teacher at the Hartford Female Academy 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.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the best-selling novel of the 19th centuryand 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 were sold in Great Britain. In 1855, three years after it was published, it was called “the most popular novel of our day.”
The book and the plays it inspired helped popularize a number of stereotypes about black people. These include the affectionate, dark-skinned “mammy”; the “pickaninny” stereotype of black children; and the “Uncle Tom”, or dutiful, long-suffering servant faithful to his white master or mistress.
Uncle Tom, the title character, was initially seen as a noble, long-suffering Christian slave. In more recent years, however, his name has become an epithet directed towards African-Americans who are accused of selling out to whites. Stowe intended Tom to be a “noble hero” and praiseworthy person.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin is dominated by a single theme: the evil and immorality of slavery. While Stowe weaves other subthemes throughout her text, such as the moral authority of motherhood and the redeeming possibilities offered by Christianity, she emphasizes the connections between these and the horrors of slavery. One way Stowe showed the evil of slavery was how this “peculiar institution” forcibly separated families from each other.
Stowe’s puritanical religious beliefs show up in the novel’s final, overarching theme – the exploration of the nature of Christianity and how she feels Christian theology is fundamentally incompatible with slavery. Because Christian themes play such a large role in Uncle Tom’s Cabin—and because of Stowe’s frequent use of direct authorial interjections on religion and faith—the novel often takes the “form of a sermon.”
Uncle Tom’s Cabin has exerted an influence equaled by few other novels in history. Upon publication, Uncle Tom’s Cabin ignited a firestorm of protest from defenders of slavery (who created a number of books in response to the novel) while the book elicited praise from abolitionists. As a best-seller, the novel heavily influenced later protest literature.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin outraged people in the American South. The novel was also roundly criticized by slavery supporters.
Acclaimed Southern novelist William Gilmore Simms declared the work utterly false, while others called the novel criminal and slanderous. Reactions ranged from a bookseller in Mobile, Alabama, who was forced to leave town for selling the novel to threatening letters sent to Stowe (including a package containing a slave’s severed ear). Many Southern writers, like Simms, soon wrote their own books in opposition to Stowe’s novel.
Literary significance and criticism
As the first widely read political novel in the United States, Uncle Tom’s Cabin greatly influenced development of not only American literature but also protest literature in general. Later books which owe a large debt to Uncle Tom’s Cabin include The Jungle by Upton Sinclair and Silent Spring by Rachel Carson.
Despite this undisputed significance, Uncle Tom’s Cabin has been called “a blend of children’s fable and propaganda.” The novel has also been dismissed by a number of literary critics as “merely a sentimental novel.”
Modern scholars and readers have criticized the book for what are seen as condescending racist descriptions of the book’s black characters, especially with regard to the characters’ appearances, speech, and behavior, as well as the passive nature of Uncle Tom in accepting his fate. As a result, the book (along with illustrations from the book and associated stage productions) played a major role in permanently ingraining these stereotypes into the American psyche.
Even though Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the best-selling novel of the 19th century, far more Americans of that time saw the story as a stage play or musical than read the book, Eric Lott, in his book Uncle Tomitudes: Racial Melodrama and Modes of Production, estimates that at least three million people saw these plays, ten times the book’s first-year sales.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin has been adapted several times as a film. Most of these movies were created during the silent film era (Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the most-filmed book of that time period). Because of the continuing popularity of both the book and “Tom” shows, audiences were already familiar with the characters and the plot, making it easier for the film to be understood without spoken words. There has been no Hollywood treatment since the end of the silent era.
For several decades after the end of the silent film era, the subject matter of Stowe’s novel was judged too sensitive for further film interpretation. In 1946, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer considered filming the story but ceased production after protests led by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
The most recent film version was a television broadcast in 1987, directed by Stan Lathan and adapted by John Gay. It starred Avery Brooks,Phylicia Rashad, Edward Woodward, Jenny Lewis, Samuel L. Jackson and Endyia Kinney.
A number of animated cartoons were produced, including the Bugs Bunny cartoon Southern Fried Rabbit (1953), in which Bugs disguises himself as Uncle Tom and sings My Old Kentucky Home in order to cross the Mason-Dixon line; Uncle Tom’s Bungalow (1937), a Warner Brothers cartoon supervised by Tex Avery; Eliza on Ice (1944), one of the earliest Mighty Mouse cartoons produced by Paul Terry; and Uncle Tom’s Cabaña (1947), an eight-minute cartoon directed by Tex Avery.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin has influenced numerous movies, including Birth of a Nation. This controversial 1915 film set the dramatic climax in a slave cabin similar to that of Uncle Tom, where several white Southerners unite with their former enemy (Yankee soldiers) to defend, according to the film’s caption, their “Aryan birthright.”
Other movies influenced by or making use of Uncle Tom’s Cabin include Dimples (a 1936 Shirley Temple film), Uncle Tom’s Uncle, (a 1926 Our Gang episode),its 1932 remake Spanky, the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical The King and I (in which a ballet called “Small House of Uncle Thomas” is performed in traditional Siamese style), and Gangs of New York (in which Leonardo DiCaprio and Daniel Day-Lewis’s characters attend an imagined wartime adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin).
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