From Minstrel to Martyr and Back Again: Shifting Critical Perspectives on Uncle Tom’s Cabin

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From Martyr to Minstrel and Back Again:

Shifting Critical Perspectives Toward Uncle Tom’s Cabin

When the first installments of Uncle Tom’s Cabin were published in 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe had probably anticipated a fair amount of controversy. Two years earlier, the Fugitive Slave Act had polarized the nation by requiring runaway slaves captured in free states to be returned to their masters in the South. With theories about an encroaching “Slave Power” conspiracy gaining traction in the North, and the United States teetering on the precipice of all-out Civil War, Stowe’s work had essentially tossed a match at a powder keg. Even without the benefit of hindsight, she foresaw the outraged reaction from slaveholders, who decried the work as slanderous propaganda that misrepresented the institution of slavery (Hulser 76; “Africans in America”), and pre-emptively refuted their arguments within the book itself (Stowe 42, 46, 83, 91).

However, in the decades following the Civil War, as the national conversation shifted away from slavery and towards civil rights, a new controversy emerged, one that Stowe most likely did not foresee. The story of Uncle Tom’s Cabin had, to many black critics, become a symbol of white condescension and black submission (Spingarn).

We can call this the Tom Paradox: A book written with the explicit purpose of bridging the racial divide inadvertently wound up expanding it. While Stowe had initially lionized Tom as a Christ-like martyr, over time he developed a reputation as a spineless groveler, overly eager to appease his white masters (Spingarn). Several other characters, like Chloe and Sam, reinforced or invented racial stereotypes that haunted the African-American community for years (Gates 544). Indeed, over time, many of the tropes associated with the notorious 19th century minstrel shows have their origin in Uncle Tom’s Cabin (Lott).

How could this happen? How could a book with such an straightforward, unsubtle message, commercially successful and quoted endlessly in the national dialogue (Bauer 211), develop such an ironic backlash? There is no single cause, but rather a confluence of legal, political, and social circumstances that turned a tale of racial brotherhood into shorthand for ethnic condescension. As we shall see, myriad forces have been behind Uncle Tom’s Cabin tumultuous rise and fall in American culture.

The immediate success of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is well-documented. An overnight success, within the first year of its publication it sold 300,000 copies in the U.S (Bauer 221; “Africans in America”). By the end of the 19th century, it was the most commercially successful novel in the country, second only to the Bible (Bauer 221; “Africans in America”). Yet in addition to its commercial popularity, the book was largely beloved by the African-American and Abolitionist community (though some were uncomfortable with the proposed solution of black colonization) (Douglas 11; “Africans in America”). Frederick Douglass’ Abolitionist paper — aptly named Frederick Douglass’ Paper — enthused that “the friends of freedom owe the Authoress a large debt of gratitude,” (Goldner) while in the same paper the poet Frances Harper published a glowing poem in praise of Stowe (Goldner). Supposedly, when Stowe met Abraham Lincoln, he famously remarked “So this is the little lady that started this big war!” (Wellington). Although there is little evidence he actually said this — the first mention of this quote comes from 1896 — the very fact it survives to this day speaks volumes about the public’s perception of the relationship between the end of slavery and Stowe’s work (“Africans in America.”).

It was not long, though, before Uncle Tom’s Cabin became a victim of its own success. Even before the serialized novel had come to an end, the lax copyright laws of the 19th century allowed hoards of unlicensed spinoffs, parodies, and adaptations to proliferate across the country (Parton). Although a variety of “anti-Tom” novels had been immediately published in response to Stowe’s book, their agenda and message was usually clear. Far more damaging to the story’s reputation were “Tom Shows,” live performances of Uncle Tom’s Cabin that often took creative liberties with the plot and characters (“H.J. Conway’s Uncle Tom Shows”).

Though many were faithful to the author’s intent — Stowe herself was said to have seen at least one production and been “delighted” by the portrayal of Tops (Lott 211) — others diluted or altered the message. One performance held by P.T. Barnum, for example, turned St. Clare into a pro-slavery advocate and outsourced the abolitionist rhetoric to a Yankee reporter named Penetrate Partyside (Lott 215). It was in these plays that the idea of Tom as a “submissive Negro” has its origin, as numerous performances reimagined the strong, youthful Tom as a feeble old man forever accommodating his white masters (Rosenthal 31).

Part of this can be attributed to the fact that Tom Shows shared much of their creative DNA with minstrel shows and blackface performances; T.D. Rice, of Jim Crow fame, played Tom on several occasions (Lott 212). In many cases, this led to minstrel tropes infecting the narrative of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. In an effort to appeal to the mass market, showrunners would often tone down the Christian moralizing and anti-capitalist rhetoric in favor of broad slapstick and farcical comedy. Characters like Sam and Topsy became increasingly buffoonish and two-dimensional, shedding their complexity for reductive racist caricatures (Lott 213).

Of course, none of this is to say Stowe herself was completely innocent when it came to utilizing racist stereotypes. The boisterous, overbearing domestic servant Mammy, the “happy darky” Sam, the “pickaninny” Topsy, and the “tragic mulatto” Eliza are all shopworn racial archetypes of the time (Gates 544). Even without interference from outsiders, Stowe’s work remains marred by a deeply troubling, yet apparently unintentional, undercurrent of bigotry (“Africans in America.”). Ultimately, however, a lack of creative control from Stowe allowed the story’s redemptive elements to be drowned out in a sea of racially charged pandering, exacerbating the story’s racial fault lines.

At the same time, traces of Uncle Tom’s transition from heroic martyr to submissive lapdog had already begun to materialize.

Because of Tom’s visibility in American pop culture, he was frequently invoked when black leaders needed to address the fragile balance between passivity and action within the African-American community (Spingarn). One of the earliest derogatory references to Tom was made by Walter G. Christopher in 1883, who mentioned in passing that “no one wishes to revive the ‘Uncle Tom’ type of manhood, but a man who will kick up a row when he knows that he can’t win is a fool” (Spingarn). A later article in the Indianapolis Freeman doubled down on the metaphor, arguing that “the trouble with the Negro has been, and is to-day, he’s got too much ‘Uncle Tom,’ good ‘humble darkey’ stock in his rank; and not enough of the Nat Turner blood, without which he need not look to be respected or go forward” (Spingarn). In 1919, Marcus Garvey acolyte George Alexander McGuire, referenced Tom at a convention speech for Garvey’s Universal Negro Improvement Association, where he said “the Uncle Tom n*gger has got to go, and his place must be taken by the new leader of the Negro race…not a black man with a white heart, but a black man with a black heart” (Spingarn). To these activists, the supposedly noble qualities attributed to Tom were mere euphemisms for continued white dominance, wrapped in the guise of piety and humility.

While Tom’s passivity had long been an object of criticism within the black community, in 1949 the intellectual blowback became more concentrated with the publication of a scathing critique of Uncle Tom’s Cabin by civil rights activist and essayist James Baldwin. According to Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr., Baldwin’s essay, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” forms the foundation of the modern-day African-American anti-Tom movement (Rothstein).

Baldwin’s critique is unsparing. He flatly proclaims it “a very bad novel,” accusing Stowe of using mawkish sentimentality, melodramatic storytelling, and thin characters for political ends (Rothstein). Stowe, to Baldwin, was “not so much a novelist as an impassioned pamphleteer” and her “stock, lovable characters” are empty vessels that exist solely as propagandistic plot devices, with even the noble George no more than “a darky bootblack” (Rothstein).

By reducing the characters to nothing more than their mechanistic role in advancing the narrative within the narrative, the same sentimentality that would otherwise cause us to sympathize with them pushes us away. This strips the novel of the greater truth that can only be found in fully realized characters who don’t serve a political agenda. Because Stowe only cares about Eliza in terms of her utility to abolition, her character is dishonest, even if the ultimate objective is laudable.

Baldwin’s cynical take on Uncle Tom came at the right time and found the right audience. Throughout the 60’s and 70’s, in the wake of the Civil Rights and the Black Power movements, the longsuffering Tom seemed increasingly anachronistic and unsympathetic (Rothstein). To a generation that had personally experienced real change through its own sense of agency, Tom’s passivity made him an objection of scorn and a symbol of subjugation to white authority.

That caricature of Uncle Tom, and indeed the book as a whole, persists to this day, although critical consensus is more ambiguous (Douglas 9; Wellington; Metcalf). Modern scholars unequivocally acknowledge the book’s historical and cultural merit, with some going so far as to proclaim it the most important book in American history (Wellington). But if one steps outside academia and into the public arena, the public perception becomes muddier. The Nation’s Daryl Lorenzo Wellington put it best when he said “many people who have never read the book believe they have a fair idea of its contents…[t]he book they imagine is polemical, high-toned, shrill and simplistic…[it] remains frozen in the past, a blurry childhood memory” (Wellington).

The book’s reputation, among both critics and the public, continues to teeter between high camp and high art (Douglas 11; Wellington). Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, and Henry James considered Uncle Tom’s Cabin to be among the finest books ever written (Douglas 10; Metcalf), yet it is almost impossible for a modern reader not to cringe at Stowe’s absurd racial condescension (Metcalf; “Africans in America.”). We recognize its essential role in advancing racial equality while simultaneously acknowledging the crude myths it helped perpetuate. We may interpret its operatic story as either manipulative melodrama or powerful storytelling. The book operates in such extremes that polarization is inevitable.

What, then, do we make of this work that seems to pull us in so many mutually exclusive directions at once? Is it high art or pulp fiction? Is it progressive or regressive? Are the characters fully realized individuals or flimsy mouthpieces for a political agenda? These questions have bedeviled generations of critics, yet they pose a false dichotomy. Our choices are not merely between “racist” and “egalitarian,” or “popular” and “authentic.” The Tom Paradox can only be reconciled when we realize that Stowe’s work is too great to fit into a single box. Before it was even finished, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was larger than any one person. Its vociferous backlash and countless reproductions have served as a cultural Rorschach test, baring the heart not just of Stowe, but of America as a whole. Its contradictions and inconsistencies, its nobility and its hypocrisy, its genius and its ignorance, are a perfect reflection of an imperfect civilization.

Works Cited

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