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"Uncle Tom's Cabin" and the Reading Revolution

"Uncle Tom's Cabin" and the Reading Revolution: Race, Literacy, Childhood, and Fiction, 1851–1911

Barbara Hochman
Copyright Date: 2011
Pages: 400
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    "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and the Reading Revolution
    Book Description:

    "Uncle Tom's Cabin" and the Reading Revolution explores a transformation in the cultural meaning of Stowe’s influential book by addressing changes in reading practices and a shift in widely shared cultural assumptions. These changes reshaped interpretive conventions and generated new meanings for Stowe’s text in the wake of the Civil War. During the 1850s, men, women, and children avidly devoured Stowe’s novel. White adults wept and could not put the book down, neglecting work and other obligations to complete it. African Americans both celebrated and denounced the book. By the 1890s, readers understood Uncle Tom’s Cabin in new ways. Prefaces and retrospectives celebrated Stowe’s novel as a historical event that led directly to emancipation and national unity. Commentaries played down the evangelical and polemical messages of the book. Illustrations and children’s editions projected images of entertaining and devoted servants into an openended future. In the course of the 1890s, Uncle Tom’s Cabin became both a more viciously racialized book than it had been and a less compelling one. White readers no longer consumed the book at one sitting; Uncle Tom’s Cabin was now more widely known than read. However, in the growing silence surrounding slavery at the turn of the century, Stowe’s book became an increasingly important source of ideas, facts, and images that the children of exslaves and other freeblack readers could use to make sense of their position in U.S. culture.

    eISBN: 978-1-61376-004-8
    Subjects: Language & Literature

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-x)
  4. Preface: On Readers
    (pp. xi-xviii)
  5. Introduction: The Afterlife of a Book
    (pp. 1-25)

    Between 1851 and the centenary of Stowe’s birth in 1911Uncle Tom’s Cabinwas adapted for disparate ends by editors, publishers, and illustrators as well as other readers—men and women, Northerners and Southerners, adults and children, black and white. This study explores a transformation in the cultural meaning of one book. It contributes to a history of reading in the United States by tracing changes in reading practices and a shift in widely shared and deeply intertwined assumptions about literacy, fiction, childhood, and race. These assumptions reshaped interpretive conventions and generated new meanings for Stowe’s narrative in the decades...

  6. 1 Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the National Era: Recasting Sentimental Images
    (pp. 26-50)

    Surprisingly little attention has been paid to the interplay betweenUncle Tom’s Cabinand the material that surrounded it when it first appeared as a series of installments in the free-soil weekly theNational Era.¹ Publishing in that context, Stowe faced a formidable challenge: how to shape an account of slavery that would have a greater impact than the discourse already typical of the abolitionist press. In representing slavery during the 1840s, writers of slave narratives, sermons, poems, and other texts often sought to elicit sympathy from their readers. But abolitionists did not ask their readers to collapse the distance...

  7. 2 Imagining Black Literacy: Early Abolitionist Texts and Stowe’s Rhetoric of Containment
    (pp. 51-77)

    This chapter examines Harriet Beecher Stowe’s depiction of literacy against the background of widely shared antebellum assumptions about African American readers, and about literacy as a social practice. InUncle Tom’s CabinStowe revised several well-known images of literate slaves. Her representation of Uncle Tom’s Bible-reading, George Harris’s conversion to Christian and domestic literacy, and Topsy’s evolving relation to reading all addressed growing fears that literacy was a Pandora’s box,—“if you give a nigger an inch, he will take an ell” in the infamous words of Frederick Douglass’s master, Hugh Auld.¹ Stowe’s image of pious and peace-loving African American...

  8. 3 Legitimizing Fiction: Protocols of Reading in Uncle Tom’s Cabin
    (pp. 78-103)

    This chapter argues that throughoutUncle Tom’s CabinStowe employed scenes of reading not only to make a case for black literacy but also to disarm a resistance to fiction that was still widespread in literary culture of the period. Although fiction-reading had become an extremely popular activity by mid-century, it was still regarded as problematic by many people. On the one hand, as an inferior literary form, fiction was deemed appropriate mainly for women and children, roughly equivalent to a taste for soap opera a hundred years later; on the other hand, it was considered especially dangerous for the...

  9. 4 Beyond Piety and Social Conscience: Uncle Tom’s Cabin as an Antebellum Children’s Book
    (pp. 104-130)

    When the last installment ofUncle Tom’s Cabinappeared in theNational Era, on April 1, 1852, Stowe directly addressed the “dear little children who have followed her story” and from whom she now must part.¹ Her concluding words to children were deleted when the novel came out in book form, butUncle Tom’s Cabinfeatured children, spoke to children, and positioned both children and books as important grounds of domestic value. Stowe’s thematic emphasis on child-rearing has been much discussed, but scholars have paid no serious attention to children either among Stowe’s intended readers or as part of her...

  10. 5 Sentiment without Tears: Uncle Tom’s Cabin as History in the Wake of the Civil War
    (pp. 131-168)

    This chapter explores the renewed appeal of Stowe’s novel for commentators, editors, and publishers toward the end of the century. It also sharpens my focus on two methodological questions that consistently inform this study: How can the paratextual material of individual editions (prefaces, introductions, illustrations) serve as a basis for general claims about the way a text was read and used at a particular historical moment? To what extent can we see the comments and editorial choices of literary professionals as evidence of culturally typical reading practices and as factors that shape the responses of others? These questions come to...

  11. 6 Imagining the Past as the Future: Illustrating Uncle Tom’s Cabin for the 1890s
    (pp. 169-204)

    The Stowe display in the Woman’s Building Library at the Columbian Exposition of 1893 included two American editions ofUncle Tom’s Cabin:the first edition, published by John P. Jewett in 1852, and the most recent edition at the time of the fair, published by Houghton Mifflin in 1891. This chapter examines the illustrations of these two editions, both issued by Stowe’s publisher, in order to show how changes in visual imagery framed and interpretedUncle Tom’s Cabinfor readers separated by forty turbulent years of social history.¹

    The “negro problem” intensified in the 1890s. Lynching increased in the South...

  12. 7 Sparing the White Child: The Lessons of Uncle Tom’s Cabin for Children in an Age of Segregation
    (pp. 205-230)

    Harriet Beecher Stowe died in 1896, the year that the court decisionPlessy vs. Fergusonmade segregation a legal and widespread social practice in the United States. After her death publishers found it both timely and profitable to reissueUncle Tom’s Cabin, often with fresh introductions and visual accompaniments.¹ Adaptations for children and youth also proliferated in this period. By the turn of the century Stowe’s book had become a “classic” and was widely recommended to juvenile readers.²

    Children’s editions of a classic always retell a well-known story, but they alter the text, recasting a familiar plot and characters with...

  13. Epilogue. Devouring Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Black Readers between Plessy vs. Ferguson and Brown vs. Board of Education
    (pp. 231-252)

    Throughout this study we have seen the complex interplay of personal and cultural history in shaping reader response, the pitfalls of taking readers’ testimony at face value, the highly charged politics of literacy, and the frequent gaps between the public consensus and individual experiences of reading. I want to end this book by pursuing the unique meaning ofUncle Tom’s Cabinfor African Americans as the ongoing repercussions of the Civil War and the failure of Reconstruction were intensified by legalized segregation.

    Over the last twenty years, with the burgeoning of reception studies, reading studies, and the history of the...

  14. Notes
    (pp. 253-330)
  15. Bibliography
    (pp. 331-362)
  16. Index
    (pp. 363-377)
  17. Back Matter
    (pp. 378-378)