Edward Rothstein: Digging Through the Literary Anthropology of Stowe’s Uncle Tom

Roundup: Talking About History

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom saw children torn from their mothers’ arms and sold as slaves; he acquiesced as his master, whom he trusted with unwavering devotion, sold him downriver; he saw slaves beat into stupor and submission. And through it all, with Christian forbearance, he never withheld his forgiveness from those whose system of slavery brought on such evils, nor could he lift his hand in vengeance against the most horrific of masters.

But even Uncle Tom’s tolerance might have been strained by the assaults on his reputation during the last half century.

As Henry Louis Gates Jr. recalls in the introduction to “The Annotated Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (Norton), during the militant 1960’s, when Mr. Gates was coming to maturity, Uncle Tom, far from being the hero he was to an earlier century, was a “negative stereotype” of a “black man all too eager to please the whites around him.”

Because of his refusal to rebel, because of his forgiveness that seemed to reek of acquiescence, black radicals saw Uncle Tom as a symbol of “race betrayal.” In 1966, Stokely Carmichael, when denouncing the N.A.A.C.P. executive director, Roy Wilkins, spiced his expletives by calling Mr. Wilkins an “Uncle Tom.” In a position paper on black power, the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee compared Uncle Tom and the most vicious of the novel’s slave owners: “Who is the real villain — Uncle Tom or Simon Legree?”

By the 1970’s, Mr. Gates points out, this slave, whose “very soul bled within him” for the wrongs he witnessed, had become “the most reviled figure in American literary history.”

As Mr. Gates also points out, his creator shared a similar fate. The fall, from dizzying heights, was precipitous. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” first published in 1852, sold 10,000 copies within days of publication, 300,000 within a year. In a few decades it had been read in dozens of languages and so inspired Tolstoy that he regarded it as a model. So powerful was its impact in turning public opinion against slavery that in 1862, upon meeting Stowe, President Lincoln said, “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war!”

But during the last half-century, the book has come to be seen almost as caricature. Under the impact of 1960’s radicalism and academic approbation, it has nearly disappeared from school reading lists. This aesthetic and literary condemnation is traced by Mr. Gates to an influential sally in 1949, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” by the writer James Baldwin, who attacked “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” as a “very bad novel,” ruined by its “self-righteous, virtuous sentimentality.” He found it racially obtuse and aesthetically crude. As for Stowe, Baldwin wrote, “She was not so much a novelist as an impassioned pamphleteer.” That demotion of “Uncle Tom” set the stage for the demolition of Uncle Tom....

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