Uncle Tom's Children
Why has Uncle Tom's Cabin survived—and thrived?
Tompkins composed her article for Glyph soon after elite, male-only universities had gone co-ed and when, for the first time in history, literature PhDs were as likely to be awarded to women as men. To help break into the boys club, Tompkins and the incomparable scholar-critic Ann Douglas made three moves. First, they claimed Stowe as a viable hero for modern feminists, "an impassioned, individual, mischievous, brilliant woman," as Douglas has written. (Not to mention that, in producing a blockbuster, Stowe supplanted her husband as the family's wage-earner.) Second, they identified as sexist a strict hierarchy of aesthetic value that would elevate, say, Hawthorne and Melville over domestic sentimentalists like Stowe and Lydia Sigourney. And by extension, third, they assumed the critical attitude we now associate with "culture studies": Literary merit is a subjective and highly interested value judgment and has no place in rigorous academic discourse.
To block out how important a repudiation of the novel had been to 20th-century American blacks—Richard Wright's early study of racism, after all, was titled Uncle Tom's Children—feminist literary critics focused not on Tom, and not on Harris, but on Little Eva. Little Eva, the angelic daughter of a New Orleans slave owner, dies of a tuberculosis apparently induced by her own deep feelings about the injustice of slavery. (On the subject of how the death of Little Eva gripped 19th-century audiences, Douglas is beyond brilliant; and her masterpiece, The Feminization of American Culture, can't be recommended highly enough.) Stowe's novel gives feminist critics plenty to chew on, given that its primary vehicle for readerly outrage is the violation of maternal affection. Even ferociously proud George Harris is eventually tamed by the language of feminine sympathy: "I was a little fellow, and laid awake whole nights and cried, it wasn't the hunger, it wasn't the whipping I cried for. No sir; it was for my mother and my sisters…" But here, I think, we can reasonably begin to assess the danger of ignoring how luridly overdrawn and crude Uncle Tom's Cabin appears when compared, say, with Jane Austen, the Brontës, or even Fanny Burney.
As good as much of the first-wave feminist criticism of Uncle Tom's Cabin was, it tried to have it both ways, starting with a purely historical observation—that Stowe helped initiate "a monumental effort to reorganize culture from the woman's point of view," then sneaking back in the old-fashioned evaluative buzzwords like "brilliant" and "dazzling" (all in Jane Tompkins' words). It's no coincidence that academic criticism, at just the time Uncle Tom's Cabin was being put back on the syllabus, had started arguing in favor a politics based on "identity," and that the identity of the overwhelming number of professors and students making and listening to the rehab job of Stowe as a feminist icon were likely to be white, middle-class women. In 1996, Jane Smiley, a superb novelist but in this instance a head-scratching critic, wrote an essay for Harper's announcing that Uncle Tom's Cabin deserved to replace The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn as the central document of American literature, on the premise that it represented a more morally sound book for her own children—which is about as particular as it gets. Nonetheless, Smiley has since gone on to argue, "Stowe's passion, insight and literary skill" transform Uncle Tom's Cabin "into a grand panorama of the American interior."
Having now read it, I have a slightly different take on Uncle Tom's Cabin. In its ability to mobilize mass opinion against slavery, it was certainly a triumph. And in some respects the novel remains a founding document of a peculiarly American theology, built up out of our own narcissism. But 150 years later, maybe we can delineate the understandable limits of its heroism and admit its manifest crudity as a work of literary art. Keeping distinct propaganda and literature, after all, is one necessary prerogative of a free people.
Stephen Metcalf is Slate's critic at large. He is working on a book about the 1980s.
Illustration by Amanda Duffy.