On the very complicated, confusing, and crucial case of the Uncle Tom’s Cabin toys and games.
In a long-ago Tribute Post here, I wrote about my Dad, University of Virginia Professor Stephen Railton, and more specifically about his public scholarly and pedagogical websites. While the Mark Twain site focuses pretty specifically on Twain’s major works and on their many biographical, historical, cultural, artistic, and scholarly contexts, the Uncle Tom’s Cabin site has a very different additional emphasis (while still highlighting many elements in those categories for Stowe’s novel): tracing the novel’s multi-faceted, multi-century legacy in American culture. It’s fair to ask, as the site itself does in each case, whether any of those aftermaths—from the touring Tom Shows to the dozens of film adaptations, the collectibles to the card games, and many many more—can tell us much at all about Stowe’s novel itself, whether they’re more about their own particular moments or connected to enduring national narratives, how, indeed, we American Studiers analyze this century and a half of Stowe-inspired cultural and material cultural stuff.
Those questions are relevant to any and all of the Stowe legacies highlighted on the website, but are nowhere more vexed and challenging than when it comes to the Tom-inspired children’s merchandise (or “Tomitudes,” as the material culture artifacts inspired by the novel are often known). What on earth do we make of these jigsaw puzzles, these Tom’s Cabin pieces included in assemble-your-own-village sets, these paper dolls and cut-outs of characters and scenes from the novel? Do they simply and neutrally reflect the way that (imagine this next word in the voice of Yogurt from Spaceballs) “merchandising” can and will find its way into anything in our capitalist society? Are they part of the process of stereotyping and watering-down that (building on certain aspects of the novel but ignoring many, many others) has reduced Stowe’s novel from impassionated protest to cultural mainstay? Could they instead represent a way in which those moral lessons and goals of Stowe’s novel could be passed down to open-minded and impressionable young Americans, not unlike the ways in which Tom influenced young Eva (and then she in turn influenced her father, the reformed slaveowner St. Clare), in the novel’s most idealized relationship?
Hell if I know. But I do know this: while Stowe’s novel may be an extreme case (I’m not familiar, at least, with the Marrow of Tradition jigsaw puzzles, the Ceremony cut-out dolls, the Awakening ocean-suicide dioramas), there’s something unavoidably true and important about the fact that our most prominent cultural figures, events, and texts eventually filter down to our kids. Obviously the versions of the America Revolution and the Civil War, of Mark Twain and Martin Luther King, of the frontier and the Cold War, that become toys and games, children’s books and snippets of kids’ TV shows, and the like can seem far removed from those with which us scholarly, adult American Studiers engage. But we’d better not think of them that way, not treat them as distinct in any absolute sense—had better, instead, remember that national, historical, and cultural narratives are created and passed down in a variety of forms, and that the ones that seem the simplest are often those that become the most ingrained in our identities and communities. I’m not saying we all need to play with the Uncle Tom cut-out dolls, necessarily; but we’d all better think about them.
Next playthings tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Any important historical or cultural toys you’d analyze?6/13 Memory Day nominee: Dwight B. Waldo, the scholar and college president whose efforts on behalf of teachers, teachers colleges, and a democratic and public vision of higher education helped change American society for the better.
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