Term Paper: Uncle Tom's Cabin - Fiction

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The North primarily used images of the brutality of slavery in their depiction of Stowe's chronicle. Both in text and drawings the Union drew on the grotesque physical evils of slavery to rally support for Emancipation. The power of the visual spectacle opened the eyes of Northerners once ignorant to the evils of slavery.

The harsh Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, was one of the factors which impelled Harriet Beecher Stowe to write Uncle Tom's Cabin. This bust image of Anthony Burn, whose trial under the Act touched off riots and protests by abolitionists and citizens of Boston in 1854, was drawn from a daguerreotype. The print depicts scenes from his life. 6

Perhaps because of the immediate impact of physical pain and the accessibility of sympathy achieved through the medium of art and narrative that the Northerners relied chiefly on this image to convey their point. Bennet's review expounds on this point:

The success of Uncle Tom's Cabin as a novel, has naturally suggested its success upon the stage, but the fact has been overlooked, that any such representation must be an insult to the South -- an exaggerated mockery of Southern institutions -- and calculated, more than any other expedient of agitation, to poison the minds of our youth with the pestilent principles of abolitionism

In the progress of these varied scenes we have the most extravagant exhibitions of the imaginary horrors of Southern slavery. The negro traders, with their long whips, cut and slash their poor slaves about the stage for mere pastime, and a gang of poor wretches, handcuffed to a chain which holds them all in marching order, two by two, are thrashed like cattle to quicken their pace. Uncle Tom is scourged by the trader, who has bought him, for "whining" about his bad luck (Bennet)."

It is interesting that Bennet hails from New York, because he is tremendously concerned with not offending the South and is not one of the most outspoken proponents for abolition. Yet his comments set the stage for the debate that rages, and clarifies the emotions surrounding the intensity of the issues at hand:

The institution of Southern slavery is recognized and protected by the federal constitution, upon which this Union was established, and which holds it together. But for the compromises on the slavery question, we should have no constitution and no Union -- and would, perhaps, have been at this day, in the condition of the South American republics, divided into several military despotisms, constantly warring with each other, and each within itself. The Fugitive Slave Law only carries out one of the plain provisions of the constitution. When a Southern slave escapes to us, we are in honor bound to return him to his master. And yet, here in this city -- which owes its wealth, population, power, and prosperity, to the Union and the constitution, and this same institution of slavery, to a greater degree than any other city in the Union -- here we have nightly represented, at a popular theatre, the most exaggerated enormities of Southern slavery, playing directly into the hands of the abolitionists and abolition kidnappers of slaves, and doing their work for them. What will our Southern friends think of all our professions of respect for their delicate social institution of slavery, when they find that even our amusements are overdrawn caricatures exhibiting our hatred against it and against them? (Bennet)"

The anonymous author of a publication called The Liberator responds to Bennet's review:

Strange, is it not? A few years since, and the crowd at the National would have mobbed an anti-slavery speaker. Now it cheers -- 'rounds of applause,' we are told, follow the representation of the play nightly, and, at the most popular theatre in New York, no play has had such a run as Uncle Tom

Bennett is a Satanic wag. The gravity with which he affects to regard such a play as 'not according to good faith to the Constitution, or consistent with either of the two Baltimore platforms,' is inimitable as a stroke of satire."7

The Abolitionist Debates

And so it began, the great national debate for and against slavery. If Uncle Tom's Cabin was not the seed for this great debate, it was certainly fertilizer. The novel became a vehicle for both Northerners and Southerners to communicate and grapple with the issues of the time. The Southern effort to placate the evils of slavery conversely used the image of the "happy darkie." In contrast to the Northern visuals and gruesome descriptions of slave beatings and whippings, the "happy darkie" is always dancing and singing. In fact, the black face minstrelsy shows became the most popular form of mass entertainment in both the north and south. White men would blacken their faces with cork and perform songs of the "the good old days on the plantation." The insinuation is that the only unhappy slaves are those that run away to the North and are unable to survive.

All up and down de whole creation,

Sadly I roam,

Still longing for de old plantation

And for de old folks at home.

Chorus:

All de world is sad and dreary

Ebery where I roam

Oh! darkies how my heart grows weary,

Far from the old folks at home.

All round de little farm I wander'd,

When I was young,

Den my happy days I squander'd,

Many de songs I sung.

When I was playing wid my brudder,

Happy was I,

Oh! take me to my kind old mudder,

Dere let me live and die.8

This sample from one of the white minstrel groups, though their primary purpose was entertainment, propagated very distinct stereotypes. It served the white community in that it appeased any guilt over slavery they might be feeling by showing cheerful slaves dancing and singing, and as evident in this song living in a family environment. However, in many accounts of slavery, most notably Uncle Tom's Cabin, the separation from family and the displacement resulting, cannot escape a central role in the stories. In this particular song, the presence of the mother and brother can be accounted for by either naivety or assumption that most slaves were left in family groups or assimilated into the families already present on the plantations. Not only does this song serve both to portray life on the plantation in a positive light, but also to warn the slave community of the loneliness and desperation they will fell should they attempt to leave "de good old folks at home."

Similarly the accent of the language used is indicative of the prejudice in the writer. Although the race of the writer is unknown to me at present, it seems probable, pending confirmation from further research, that it was written by a white man or else composed by a black man and put to paper by a white man. The translation from the auditory language of slaves to paper reveals the prejudice. The unnecessary change of "the" to " de" proves gratuitous and unnecessary. The purpose of this change and the abbreviation of "ed" to " 'd" is a tool of the Southerner to distinguish himself, his intelligence, and mode of communication superior and different to the that of the slave.

Interestingly, in the recreation and translation of Uncle Tom's Cabin, the novel, into the play the meaning is changed by the fusion of different elements and influence. The story was "seized by popular culture, and people ran away with it and basically did what they wanted to with it," says Kathleen Hulser, curator of a new exhibition, "Reading Uncle Tom's Image: a Reconsideration of Harriet Beecher Stowe's 150-Year-old Character and His Legacy," which premiered at the New York Historical Society.9 "The Uncle Tom that we know as an insult - as an old man who is meek, submissive, doesn't stick up for himself, desexualized - that really isn't who the person is in the novel. It's who he became on stage."

If 'Uncle Tom's Cabin' is anything, it is - and has always been - a Rorschach test for a reader's feelings about slavery in general and black people in particular," writes Dr. Johnson in his introduction to the new edition. "It transcended the category of literature to become that rarest of products: a cultural artifact; a Rosetta stone for black images in American fiction, theater, and film - not so much a novel, one might say, as an experience inseparable from the events that precipitated the Civil War."

The growing popularity of the minstrel groups fused itself into in the play. In the book the only dancing and singing occurs when little Harry and Topsy dance and when the Legree demands his slaves to sing and dance for him. However, by the… [END OF PREVIEW]

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