Uncle Tom at 150:

A Survey of the Criticism of Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin

Hope Greenberg

Prof. Dona L. Brown

History 296

March 15, 1995

The review of Uncle Tom's Cabin in the October 1853 edition of the North American Review raised the themes that would dominate criticism of the novel for the next one hundred years. Was this novel a work of genius, of great literature, or did its very popularity mean it could not be? Were the people portrayed recognizable human beings, only representative of believable human beings, or completely unrealistic? And, most importantly, was the practice of slavery as described in the novel a true representation of that institution and the people involved in it?

Before examining the critical response to Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel, however, it may be useful to look at an earlier article in the North American Review, this one published in October 1851. Though written during the same period that Stowe's novel was being introduced in serial form in the National Era, the author does not exhibit any signs that he has read the unfolding story. He calls for a dispassionate, reasonable dialogue between the proponents and opponents of slavery, asserting that slaves should be free so that can each can "become what God intended him to be ‹a man." (1) This is no call for immediate abolition. Rather, the author postulates that emancipation will happen gradually, "naturally," as a process of progress and economic necessity, helped on by white Southern men. However, he does not see a South where black and white can live together on equal terms, and so advocates colonization. He concludes with positive comments on the debate itself, seeing it as reflecting the best impulses of men even though they disagree.

This, then, was the atmosphere into which Uncle Tom's Cabin was introduced. Any number of pamphlets, broadsides, articles and sermons had been printed, read and discussed, arguing all sides of the issue. When Stowe wrote her initial letter to the National Era, a paper that had already printed some of her stories, she explained her entry into the fray of this subject by saying that "the time is come when even a woman or a child who can speak a word for freedom and humanity is bound to speak." (2) She continues by describing her method, which "will be to hold up in the most lifelike and graphic manner possible Slavery . . . There is no arguing with pictures, and everybody is impressed by them, whether they mean to be or not."

Impressed they were. The phenomenal sales of this work are the theme of universal wonder throughout the critical response and attempts to explain it from no small part of that response. George Sand, in an early review of the book (December 1852) remarks on this "immense success"(3) but does not find it at all inexplicable. While she concedes that it may not fully meet with contemporary conventions of literary merit, she counts this as unimportant next to the book's ability to move and to make one feel. Her review focuses on the relationships, mother to child, Tom to Eva, and the domestic culture. In this, her assessment is quite different from other contemporary reviews which focus on the issue of slavery itself.

Two of the most vituperative articles argue at length on either side of the question. In the October 1852 issue of The Southern Literary Messenger, George F. Holmes began his review with a personal attack on Stowe, claiming that

"where a writer of the softer sex manifests, in her productions, a shameless disregard of truth and those amenities which so peculiarly belong to her sphere of life, we hold that she has forfeited the claim to be considered a lady." (4)

The rest of his review is a litany of complaint. He complains that the style is bad, that the book's two plots have nothing to do with one another. He complains that Mrs. Shelby disgraces her womanhood by not supporting her husband's decision. He complains that Mrs. Byrd rules the roost and that Mr. Byrd has forsworn his oath to the American people to uphold its laws. Above all he complains that the cruel treatment of slaves, including the absurd idea of shooting runaways, is ridiculous because one does not shoot one's property. He explains that the law states that slaves may not be beaten, so of course, none are. And, in defense of Southern masters, he points out that "much of the odium [of] slavery . . . is due to the cruelty of New England masters" (5) primarily because they have not been raised with an understanding of how to interact with slaves. He also animadverts on a theme that will be repeated in other critical works: that Stowe paints her white characters black and her black characters white.

Holmes punctuates his article with quotations from the law, addressing in logical and inexorable fashion each point of contention. This method is mimicked by F. C. Adams, a Charleston reviewer, in his book A Review form Home: In Answer to the Reviewers and Repudiators of Uncle Tom's Cabin as he refutes the arguments laid out by Holmes and similar critics such as William G. Simms. Adams finds the work to be a "truthful picture" (6) and sets about providing twenty-five specific examples of instances similar to those portrayed by Stowe.

While reviewers at home were battling over the truth or falsity in the portrayal of the condition of slaves, the London Times reviewer took a broader view. Recognizing her skill in delineating character, (7) the reviewer also declares that Mrs. Stowe is a crusading abolitionist. He does not approve of the method of portraying two "separate" story lines and is skeptical of some characters power to profoundly and instantly effect others. He, too, criticizes Stowe for painting her "negroes, mulattos, and quadroons, in the very whitest white, while she is equally careful to disfigure her whites with the very blackest black." (8) However, the reviewer, while deciding that emancipation is inevitable, prophetically points out that the end of slavery in America will not mean the end of racism. Because of this he concludes that Uncle Tom's Cabin, with its powerful call to abolition, will be more danger than savior to the country.

The reviewer in the October 1853 edition of the North American Review expresses some of the same criticisms but comes to quite different conclusions. Despite its "defects of conceptions and style" it "has the capital excellence of exciting the interest of the reader" as it draws characters with "spirit and truth." (9) It is this power that makes it a strong advocate of abolition. He agrees that slavery has caused not only cruelty to slaves but also has morally degraded the whole Southern culture to the point where it is in decline. His main argument centers around the theme that the slave cannot be property. However, the slave is obviously of an inferior race and, as such, cannot expect to ever be more than a permanent servant class. He concludes that the entire argument will evaporate if slaves are treated as respected servants, if the abuses described by Stowe are mitigated, that this servant class will happily live with their superiors as suits their docile nature. Northerners need have no compunction at returning runaways to their masters if they can learn that these creatures are not men "unjustly claimed as chattel, but as a person who has rights secured to him by law . . . as one who really owed service and labor in return for support and protection." (10)

Forty years later, after the war had charted the course of black-white relations in the United States, Charles Dudley Warner again took a critical look at Uncle Tom's Cabin. Generally a biographical description of Stowe and this work, he yet concludes that the book has "the fundamental qualities, the sure insight into human nature, and the fidelity to the facts of its own time which have from age to age preserved works of genius." (11) This glowing report of the author's genius and the reality of her descriptions is floridly echoed by Constance Mayfield Rourke in 1927. Citing from letters, Rourke continues the process begun by Stowe herself and those near her of creating the myth of "the little woman" who was the vehicle for the book "that God wrote." This Stowe, however, is a restless spirit, fleeing from her father's world, thunder[ing], and hammer[ing] and creat[ing] a shattered furor" over the Byron affair, and joining in sentiment if not in actuality, with the most extreme feminists of her day. The major biography of Stowe, Crusader in Crinoline written by Forrest Wilson, while comprehensive in scope, is also florid and as might be expected, exceedingly glowing in its report on the life of this member of the Beecher family.

The twentieth century saw new forms of appraisal of Uncle Tom's Cabin. The long held notion that her characters' dialect was accurate was questioned by Tremaine McDowell. James Baldwin condemned her for her false portrayals of African-Americans, portrayals that he claimed shaped Americans views of an entire race. This sentiment was expanded upon by J. C. Furnas in his Goodbye to Uncle Tom. In a strangely backhanded compliment he blames Stowe for creating too believable a picture of "Africans." Far from seeing her "white characters as black and black characters as white" he sees the slaves in her work as "either gentle or pellucidly Christian or diabolically brutalized. When markedly tinged with "white blood" they are far more intelligent, enterprising and sensitive and show it by running away." (12)

Instead of signaling a goodbye to Uncle Tom, the last thirty years has seen a resurgence in interest. Accepting that the view of slavery says more about the author's own perceptions of that institution and its people than about the reality, recent authors have found in Uncle Tom's Cabin limitless possibilities for reconstruction, what Thomas P. Riggio has called the "rescue of Mrs. Stowe's novel and, especially, of its chief character from the opprobrium that had befallen them." (13) Riggio, himself, is not completely reconciled to this idea, finding ties between Uncle Tom's Cabin and later overtly racist works. Thomas Graham is willing to excuse her, accepting that her work may have reinforced negative stereotypes but seeing her work as an argument for the brotherhood of all men.

One of the early cries for renewed interest in Stowe's works was made by Alice C. Crozier in her book The Novels of Harriet Beecher Stowe. This book is also interesting because it is an early work that makes the connection between the positive characters in the book and the idea of love, particularly the self-denying love associated with Christ. Crozier also examines the literary influence of such English writers as Scott on Stowe's work.

E. Bruce Kirkham, in The Building of "Uncle Tom's Cabin " is not content to let the English literary tradition serve as Stowe's inspiration and model. While he acknowledges that Stowe is influenced by Scott and Dickens, he sees a greater influence by writers such as Susan Warner and the domestic sphere. Or, quoting Carl Van Doren, "leave out the merely domestic elements of the book . . . and little remains." (14) This theme of domesticity and the maternal focus is explored by Elizabeth Ammons, both in her article for the collection of critical essays on Stowe and in an article in a collection by Eric Sundquist.

Together with the work of Joan Hedrick, and the authors of The Limits of Sisterhood, Ammons examines Stowe's work not in a framework of traditional literary theory or even nineteenth century abolitionist politics but rather in the world of women. The idea of mothers, daughters, and Mother figures largely in Stowe's life according to Hedrick in her article From Perfection to Suffering: The Religious Experience of Harriet Beecher Stowe. It looms even larger in Ammons article Heroines in Uncle Tom's Cabin, where, of course, the ultimate heroine, the Mother-Christ is Tom himself. Ammons goes on to claim in Stowe's Dream of the Mother Savior that Stowe created for the woman writers who followed her an alternative and challenge to the male writers who had their protagonists flee the emerging industrial community. She, and her sister writers, "can be more often seeking group salvation" as they posit "an alternative and matrifocal concept: an ideal of community as something defined by family (rather than work), measured by relationships (rather than products), and ruled by women (rather than men)." (15)

Will future critics say of us, as we have said of critics of the past, that the critical works are more a window into the time in which they are written then a lens on that which they purport to focus? Undoubtedly. But the fact that so many "lenses" have been focussed on Uncle Tom's Cabin would seem to be a good indicator that this work will continue to be a source of interest and criticism.

1. North American Review, Oct. 1853, p. 352
2. Wilson, p. 260
3. Ammons, p. 3
4. Ammons, p. 7.
5. Ammons, p. 19.
6. Adams, p. 50.
7. Ammons, p. 27.
8. Ammons, p. 29
9. NAR, 1853, 467.
10. NAR, 1853, 492.
11. Ammons, p. 72.
12. Ammons, p. 110.
13. Ammons, p. 139.
14. Van Doren, Carl, American Novel, 110 as quoted by Kirkham, p. 78
15. Sundquist, 157


Adams, F. C. Uncle Tom at Home. 1853; reprint, Freeport: Books for Libraries Press, 1970.

Ammons, Elizabeth. Critical Essays on Harriet Beecher Stowe. Critical Essays on American Literature, ed. James Nagel. Boston: G. K. Hall & Co., 1980.

Anon. "Slavery in the United States: its Evils, Alleviations, and Remedies." North American Review (Oct 1851): 347-385.

Anon. "Uncle Tom's Cabin: The Possible Amelioration of Slavery." North American Review (Oct 1853) 466-493.

Boydston, Jeanne, Mary Kelley, Anne Margolies. The Limits of Sisterhood. Gender & American Culture, ed. Linda K. Kerber and Nell Irvin Painter. Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1988.

Crozier, Alice Z. The Novels of Harriet Beecher Stowe . New York: Oxford University Press, 1969.
Fields, Annie, ed. Life and Letters of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Cambridge: Riverside Press, 1897.

Hedrick, Joan. "From Perfection to Suffering: The Religious Experience of Harriet Beecher Stowe." Women's Studies (1991) 341-356.

Kimball, Gayle. The Religious Ideas of Harriet Beecher Stowe: Her Gospel of Womanhood. Studies in Women and Religion. New York: Edward Mellon Press, 1982.

Kirkham, E. Bruce. The Building of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Knoxville: The University of Tennessee Press, 1977.

Sundquist, Eric J. New Essays on Uncle Tom's Cabin. The American Novel, ed. Emory Elliot. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.
Wilson, Forrest. Crusader in Crinoline. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1941.

This file is from Hope Greenberg's Graduate Portfolio for the course History 296. Created on 24 March 1997.