For Christmas my Mother gave me an interesting book of women’s literary criticism. I flipped through somewhat at random and found fascinating reading about the lives and writings of both Margaret Mitchell (author of Gone with the Wind, published in 1936) and Zora Neale Hurston (who wrote Their Eyes were Watching God, published in 1937.) Both critiques referenced Uncle Tom’s Cabin, by Harriet Beecher Stowe. From those, I discovered that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the bestselling book of the 19th Century after the Bible. And yet, as I finish my 2nd graduate degree, I have never read it, it has never been on any suggested reading list of mine, but I certainly have heard many references to it, and I am of course acquainted with the use of the phrase “Uncle Tom” as an insult. It seemed time to fill this gap in my education.
The Seattle Public Library has The Annotated Uncle Tom’s Cabin, annotations by Henry Louis Gates, Jr, and Hollis Robbins. At times, the annotations get a little tedious, for example when they note that such and such behavior or phrase would “be racist to any modern reader.” Yes, thank you, I can see that it is, I’m sorry you were worried I might not. Sometimes the annotations are unwelcome foreshadowing when they say things like “this is the first indication that character such-and-such is going to die.” What? It wasn’t obvious to me! I didn’t want to know that! But overall the annotations are very valuable, particularly for those of us not well versed in quoting scripture. Many of the characters, particularly Tom himself, quote scripture, and the annotations help the reader along in knowing what the next, unquoted but clearly implied, line of scripture would be, or illuminating the larger biblical story that is being referenced for its parallels to the current situation.
The book was written to incite abolitionist passion in the heart of every legally white American, particularly women who comprised the bulk of the novel-reading public. Prior to writing for the anti-slavery National Era newspaper (where Uncle Tom’s Cabin was originally published as a serial), Stowe wrote for Godey’s Lady’s Book. The book is alternately gripping, melodramatic, and a bit preachy, as one might expect from a novel with a political aim. During one particularly long character monologue I found myself briefly reminded of Robert Heinlein. Supposedly when Abraham Lincoln welcomed Harriet Stowe to the White House for a visit in 1862 he said “So you’re the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war”!
Published in 1852 Uncle Tom’s Cabin sold 300,000 copies in the US in its first year, 2 million world-wide in its first two years and was translated into 37 languages. In more than one debate between characters, Stowe draws parallels between capitalists/laborers and slaveholders & slaves. This perhaps led to the book’s popularity in countries like Russia, where even Tolstoy read it. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom is a Christian martyr – hardworking, positive attitude and obedient – until ordered to do something more actively immoral than simply make the best of his role in the system of slavery, at which point he is clear that while his human master may own his body & its labors, God owns his soul and is to whom he is ultimately accountable. After two such occasions, he is whipped near to death, at which point he forgives his tormentors, has his wounds washed by caring supporters and at last he rests in a shed for two days and dies on the 3rd. Even I can recognize that biblical reference to the death of Christ. Tom of the book is no “Uncle Tom”.
So how did this character’s name become synonymous with sellout? It seems worth some pondering to me that Uncle Tom seems to have “sold out” by being co-opted. My first clue was a picture caption explaining that “By the turn of the twentieth century, Uncle Tom had become such an icon that he even appeared on whiskey bottles, like this one from the United Distilling Company of Cincinnati.” Seeking validation that this was the source of the sell-out, I did a little websurfing and discovered The Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia.
The “why” of the museum is long, involved, and worth reading, and I will pull this excerpt: “The mission of the Jim Crow Museum is straightforward: use items of intolerance to teach tolerance. We examine the historical patterns of race relations and the origins and consequences of racist depictions. The aim is to engage visitors in open and honest dialogues about this country’s racial history. We are not afraid to talk about race and racism; we are afraid not to.” It is Dr. David Pilgrim’s thorough writing on The Tom Caricature that explains that the many derivative works, significantly stage performances and later film, quickly degraded Uncle Tom into variations of weak, old, passive, happy, childlike servants. These are the Uncle Toms that made it to the sixties and became the source of intra-racial taunts. Dr. Pilgrim breaks down some of the usage and documents examples. He also has some interesting analysis of “Tom” roles in films over the decades and their evolution.
The book still fresh in my mind, I went to see The Waters of Babylon at the Seattle Repertory Theatre. At one point the Cuban character, Arturo, tells the legend of the death of Chief Hatuey, leader of the indigenous peoples of Cuba. To my astonishment, it nearly mirrors the story of Prue from Uncle Tom’s Cabin. There’s a version of Chief Hatuey’s death here. Another webpage traces the story to the “History of the Indies” written by Father Bartolomé de las Casas. Researching him leads me to the following :
“Historia apologética de las Indias”, for instance, has been only partly printed in the “Documentos para la Historia de España” (Madrid, 1876). The “Historia de las Indias”, the manuscript of which he completed in 1561, appeared in the same collection (1875 and 1876). His best-known work is the “Brevísima Relacion de la Destruycion de las Indias” (Seville, 1552). There are at least five Spanish editions of it. It circulated very quickly outside of Spain and in a number of European languages.
Fascinating. It makes sense to me that American abolitionists would have familiarized themselves with prior writings on the subject. So did Harriet Beecher Stowe copy the story from Father Bartolomé’s 1552 publication, or did the 1875 editors use Prue’s story from Uncle Tom to embellish the story of Chief Hatuey? Only going to the source will tell, but either way, anti-oppression movements have deep global roots.