Stowe’s Protest Novel
Lesson 4: Stowe’s Protest Novel
By the end of this lesson, you should be able to do each of the following without consulting notes or other resources:
Our class activities this week include the following:
Think Fast: In a paragraph (100 words), react to Harriet Beecher Stowe’s explicit purpose in writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin. What features of the novel seem to fulfill this purpose?
Presentation: “Stowe’s Protest Novel” (Professor Canada)
Background: Read “Slave Sale Announcements,” “Runaway Slave Advertisements,” the excerpt from The Life of Josiah Henson, and “A Slave Auction Desccribed by a Slave” in the Norton Critical Edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. How might real materials such as these have helped to shape Stowe’s novel? In what ways is Stowe’s narrative different from the true accounts provided in these materials? Comment on the ways in which fiction departs from and builds on nonfiction.
Stowe and Abolition: Read Stowe’s letter to Eliza Cabot Follen, the excerpts from The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and Stowe’s “Appeal to the Women of the Free States” in the Norton Critical Edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Summarize these materials for the rest of the class. Comment on Stowe’s work for the abolitionist cause.
Reactions: Read George Sand’s review of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, William G. Allen’s essay on the novel, and James Baldwin’s “Everybody’s Protest Novel” in the Norton Critical Edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. What in Stowe’s narrative seems to appeal to some readers? What seems to vex other readers? How do their reactions reflect their own beliefs about the power or purpose of literature? Take a side and make your own argument about the value of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. What does your argument reveal about your own attitudes toward literature?
Sentimentalism: Read Jane Tompkins’s “Sentimental Power: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Politics of Literary History” in the Norton Critical Edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Summarize Tompkins’s argument for the rest of the class. Use this argument to interpret one or two scenes that Tompkins’s does not explicitly analyze. Do you accept Tompkins’s argument? Defend your position.
Discussion: During this time, we will discuss the insights and questions that have emerged during our reading, “Think Fast” exercise, presentations, and cooperative learning.
Think Again: Write your own review (300 words) of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Make an argument about whether it succeeds as an example of a particular genre, such as protest novel or sentimental novel.
Conferences: While the rest of you are working on the “Think Again” exercise, I will meet with two of you in one-on-one conferences. During this time, I will review some of your writing, orally quiz you on lesson objectives, and field your questions.
Announcements: We will wrap up this lesson with announcements regarding upcoming lessons, as well as other relevant subjects.
Names and Terms
Make sure you know the meaning and significance of each of the following names and terms:
Make sure you are familiar with the following key date:
1850: Compromise of 1850
1851: Uncle Tom’s Cabin launched in National Era
1861-1865: Civil War divides North and South
You can find more information about the subject covered in this lesson by consulting the print or electronic resources listed below:
Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction, 1790-1860, a scholarly volume by Jane Tompkins, makes a case for the value of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and other sentimental novels of the antebellum era.
The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, written by Stowe herself, provides historical material substantiated the picture of slavery she presents in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
Having completed our study of Moby-Dick, we turn now to a very different novel, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Please read the first half of the novel by Monday. Also, I will assign each group a few additional readings from the Norton Critical Edition.
As we agreed after class on Friday, September 20, we will take our field trip to Asheville on Saturday, October 19. The following students have expressed an interest in going on the trip: Dee Charles, Mike Hemminger, Jerry Hinson, Becca Howell, Nicole Kinlaw, Sarah McDaniel, Erin Murner, Amy Robinson, Cresta Strickland, and Jennifer Teague. I will post complete details on the Web in the next week or so. Meanwhile, please e-mail me to let me know how many guests you wish to bring and whether you plan to drive yourself.
Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1811-1896
Upon meeting Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1862, President Abraham Lincoln famously declared: “So this is the little lady who started this great big war” (Lowance 3). Although exaggerated, Lincoln’s comment underlines the enormous sensation that Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin created after its appearance in 1851. Indeed, Stowe’s expose of slavery was the most popular book written by an American in the nineteenth century, trailing only the Bible in sales. Her impact has stretched into our present century, when the names Uncle Tom, Simon Legree, and Little Eva still carry strong associations with some Americans. Despite her undisputed popularity, modern scholars differ on Stowe’s achievement as a literary artist. Many have dismissed Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a sentimental novel, but it has also been argued that Stowe and other writers of sentimental novels were employing interesting literary strategies of their own. After writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe published a number of other works, including A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Oldtown Folks.
Before she was Harriet Beecher Stowe, she was Harriet Beecher, a member of one of the most famous and influential families in New England. She was born in 1811 in Connecticut, the daughter of the well-known Evangelical minister Lyman Beecher. Her brothers all became clergymen; most notable among them was the tremendously influential Henry Ward Beecher. After teaching at Hartford Female Seminary, she moved with her family in 1832 to Cincinnati, Ohio, where she taught at Western Female Institute. The move turned out to be an important one for it placed her much closer to slavery. The following year, she visited Kentucky, where she saw slaves at work. In 1836, she married Calvin Stowe, who was also a minister. Meanwhile, her literary career was beginning. In 1834, she had published four stories in Western Monthly Magazine, and five years later she was publishing stories in Godey’s Lady’s Book and other national magazines. In 1850, she moved to Brunswick, Maine, and began publishing work in the National Era. Uncle Tom’s Cabin appeared in serialized form in this periodical beginning in 1851 and was published in book form in 1852. After moving that year to Massachusetts, Stowe went to Europe in 1853.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a sensation from the start, and in 1853 Stowe published a companion volume, The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, in which she sought to substantiate the material in her novel. The following year, she organized a petition protesting slavery and presented it to the United States Senate. Over the remaining decades of her life, she continued publishing fiction, including Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (1856), The Minister’s Wooing (1859), and Oldtown Folks (1869), Lady Byron Vindicated (1870). Her husband died in 1886, but she lived another decade and longer before dying of a stroke in 1896.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin or, Life Among the Lowly
When installments of Uncle Tom’s Cabin began appearing in the National Era in 1851, slavery was already a divisive issue in the United States. Nearly as old as America itself—the first African slaves arrived in Virginia in 1619, just a few years after the establishment of Jamestown in 1607—the institution had drawn comment in the eighteenth century from Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and others. The Quakers, including the spiritual autobiographer and pamphleteer John Woolman, had been especially vocal in their denunciation of slavery. While the “peculiar institution,” as it came to be called, eventually disappeared in the northern states, it continued in the South, where a largely agricultural economy heavily depended on it for the production of cotton, indigo, and other crops. By the early part of the nineteenth century, slavery was a source of tension between the two regions, especially as new states were entering the Union. In 1820, the Senate passed legislation under which Missouri was admitted to the Union as a “slave state” while Maine entered as a “free state.” This agreement kept the number of slave states and free states even. The Missouri Compromise, as it came to be called, did not end the controversy, however, the Senate sought to achieve an agreement again with the Compromise of 1850, which involved the admission of California as a free state and passage of the Fugitive Slave Act. The latter law penalized free people who assisted escaping slaves.
Despite Lincoln’s comment about Stowe’s impact, then, Uncle Tom’s Cabin did not single-handedly precipitate the American Civil War (1861-1865). Rather it grew out of an ongoing conflict that involved many Americans, particularly slaves, slave owners, and Northern abolitionists. In particular, Stowe responded not only to the scenes of slavery she had witnessed firsthand, but accounts from others. In the years preceding the publication of her novel, Americans had seen a number of slave narratives, including Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) and The Life of Josiah Henson, Formerly a Slave, Now an Inhabitant of Canada, As Narrated by Himself (1849). In The Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe explicitly identified the latter book as a source for her own novel. When Stowe’s novel appeared, it took its place alongside not only these slave narratives, but numerous abolitionist publications, notably William Lloyd Garrison’s weekly periodical The Liberator (1831-1865) and the writings of Quaker poet John Greenleaf Whittier (1807-1892).
If the “little lady” who wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin did not directly and single-handedly bring about America’s “great big war,” her novel did create a sensation among American readers and help to inflame passions about slavery. In its first year, it went through 120 editions and sold more than 300,000 copies. In this same year dramatist George Aiken turned the book into a play, which went on to have a prosperous life of its own. After an initial run of 100 nights, it ran continuously from 1853 to 1934, becoming the most popular play in United States history.
As literature, Uncle Tom’s Cabin can be approached from several productive angles. It is worth noting, first of all, that it contains elements of at least three genre: the protest novel, the novel of ideas, and the sentimental novel. Although its sentimental features have led some to dismiss it, the literary scholar Jane Tompkins has seen these qualities as a source of strength. In Sensational Designs: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Politics of Literary History, Tompkins argues that “. . . the popular domestic novel of the nineteenth century represents a monumental effort to reorganize culture from the woman’s point of view; that this body of work is remarkable for its intellectual complexity, ambition, and resourcefulness; and that, in certain cases, it offers a critique of American society far more devastating than any delivered by better-known critics such as Hawthorne and Melville” (124). Finally, readers of the novel will find in it treatments of companionship, experience, morality, politics, and other subjects.
Lowance, Mason I., Jr., and Ellen E. Westbrook. “Introduction.” The Stowe Debate. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1994. 1-9.
Tompkins, Jane. Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction 1790-1860. New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.
In this lesson, we have examined one of America’s popular novels. We turn in our next lesson to a very different book by a very different writer. The Wings of the Dove is a highly complex and refined novel by Henry James, a writer who has commanded a large following among writers and scholars while largely eluding popular audiences.