Friday, March 20, 2020
March 20, 2020: StoweStudying: Uncle Tom’s Cabin
[On March 20, 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s titanic novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published in book form for the first time. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy a handful of Stowe contexts, leading up to a special post on the wonderful Stowe Center in Hartford!]
On whether we can in any way blame an uber-popular cultural work for its misappropriations.
I’ve written before in this space, such as in this June 2016 post, about my first published article, in which I argued (among other things) that we can and should blame Margaret Mitchell’s stunningly popular novel Gone with the Wind (1936) for its destructive effects on American society and culture. After all, I would say (as I did at length in that article) that both of those elements of Mitchell’s novel were entirely intentional: of course she intended it to be popular (as do virtually all writers and artists, if of course precious few achieve that goal anywhere near as fully as did Mitchell); and it’s my contention that she likewise entirely intended it to affect American narratives of region, race, and Reconstruction (she did after all write to Thomas W. Dixon, one of the most overtly white supremacist novelists in American history, “I was practically raised on your books, and love them very much”). Mitchell in no way originated the mythic and racist narrative of Reconstruction in particular that the second half of her book features (even Dixon didn’t originate it, although he was much closer to its origin points), but she both built upon and amplified it in ways that frustratingly continue to echo down to our own 21st century moment.
If Gone with the Wind was the 20th century’s most popular American novel (and I’m pretty sure it was, statistically at least), Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the 19th century’s. And while Gone spawned one equally popular and influential film adaptation, UTC has almost certainly produced (as I highlighted in yesterday’s post and as my Dad’s website examines at great length) more adaptations and aftermaths than any other American cultural work. Moreover, a great many of those UTC aftermaths have been implicitly or (as in the use of the phrase “Uncle Tom” itself) explicitly racist in their meanings and effects. Yet of course there’s an important distinction between the two novels when it comes to these prominent and enduring effects (among many differences we could identify between the two books): not only did Stowe not intend to amplify racist narratives, but indeed I would argue that her book is (at least in its purposes and goals, and certainly for its 1850s moment of publication) one of the most overtly anti-racist works in American literary or cultural history. Which is to say, even if you don’t think as highly of Stowe’s novel as I do, the frustratingly longstanding racist aftermaths of Uncle Tom’s Cabin have to be called misappropriations.
Of course an author can’t entirely control what happens to her work after it is published, nor necessarily even influence broader societal forces in her own era (much less those that extend into subsequent centuries). Yet just as I wasn’t completely willing to let my fav Bruce Springsteen off the hook for the frustrating misunderstandings and misappropriations of his song “Born in the U.S.A.,” so too would I say that there are ways to critique Stowe’s novel in relationship to these subsequent misappropriations. After all, while her novel is as I argued strikingly anti-racist in its overall purposes and goals, Stowe also relies in her creation of particular African American characters (especially Tom and Topsy) on racial stereotypes that were all-too-easily turned into fodder for minstrel shows and other racist depictions. I don’t believe for a second that that invalidates the most progressive and activist sides to Stowe’s book—but it’s part of the complex story and legacy of this hugely important American novel as well.
Special post this weekend,
PS. What do you think?