Approaches to Teaching Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin , edited by Elizabeth Ammons and Susan Belasco
(Modern Language Association, 2000), 211 pages
Reviewed by Cathleen Lundy Daniel
Approaches to Teaching Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin first caught my eye because of the word teaching. What good is a scholar's research if she is holed up in a little room mired in her wealth of knowledge? Ultimately, the greatest good in academia comes from teaching, the ability to inspire others with one's discoveries. According to Joseph Gibaldi, "bad teaching.... spoils many lives" (Preface). What an interesting bunch of discoveries are unearthed in Approaches to Teaching Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. Published by the Modern Language Association (MLA) in 2000, Approaches brings the latest research on Uncle Tom's Cabin (UTC) together in one volume. The book promises its articles will appeal to graduate students and senior professors, specialists and non-specialists alike. Articles range from the discussion of nineteenth century domestic ideology to the masochistic eroticism found in UTC. The breadth of topics discussed is excellent but a more uniform tone is needed. I found myself wondering if the editor gave different instructions to each author, as assumed audiences are disparate. Some articles take the "high road" of a learned critical approach while others have an informal "low road" tone, casually explaining "here is what I do in the classroom". Overall the book is a good starting point and a first-rate resource for a reader to pick and choose what he finds most useful.
After giving a quick overview of resources available on UTC (including a nod to Professor Railton's website), the editors divide the volume into three separate sections - "UTC in Context," "Controversy and Debate," and "Critical Approaches to the Novel." I found the divisions at times somewhat forced as the domestic ideology article could fit as easily into "Critical Approaches" as into "UTC in Context." I also question why Mary Jane Petersen's article about teaching UTC to less experienced readers would fall under "Controversy and Debate" when she mostly covers student journal responses.
The first section, "UTC in Context," contains historical and background articles on UTC. Professor Railton's class has already covered much of what is substantiated in Susan Belasco's article on UTC 's reception and in Paul Gutjahr's "Illustrations of Stowe's Novel". Elizabeth Ammons gives further information on colonization and its controversy in Stowe's time in her "UTC, Empire, and Africa" article. Stephen Yarbrough and Sylvan Allen discuss Stowe's theological contradictions and argue unconvincingly that her rhetoric excludes the possibility of common ground between the North and South. Susan Nuernberg's "Theories of Race in Nineteenth Century America" asks us to remember that Stowe sought to abolish slavery, not establish racial equality. She also outlines the bizarre scientific approaches used at the time to justify white superiority. One enlightening article in the section is Lisa Logan's "Domestic Ideology," which evidences feminine power in the domestic sphere I had not previously seen in UTC. Logan's domestic angle on UTC attests that the makeup of a home reflects the makeup of a character in the same way some authors use names or physical features to "flesh out" characters. She compares the disorderly home of Marie St. Clare with those of Mrs. Shelby and Rachel Halliday and with the cabin of Tom but accuses Stowe of privileging the white, middle class ideology of home.
"Controversy and Debate," the title of the second section, purports to have the most hotly contested issues surrounding UTC, even though I think many of them also reside in section three. Sophia Cantave uses the in vogue academic rhetoric of "appropriation," "hegemony" and "discourse" a little too often but she gives important documentation of primary source material - slave reactions to UTC - and offers a voice for black interpretation of UTC. David Leverenz likes to take the close reading approach to the extreme and offers the post-modern "any interpretation works" view. Tom as the child molester is one credible reading. Stephen Railton contends how UTC gives white readers a chance to live the black experience vicariously. Gillian Brown reveals how Stowe's sentimentalism, her call to pity, is a call of ownership and possession of a different nature than slavery but still a call for possession and separation.
The third section, "Critical Approaches to the Novel," has the most idiosyncratic ideas for explicating UTC. Each author seems to offer a unique take on the novel. The Freudian "Masochistic Eroticism in UTC" study was a little over the top for me, but if you too found "sadomasochistic fantasies" (158) in UTC, you might want to take a peek. Unless you're looking for specific texts to teach with UTC or methodology you can skip over Jamie Stanesa's article that basically outlines her semester lesson plans. Sharon Carson's article presents some good resources for the African-American responses to UTC and Bush offers possible writing assignments for undergraduates and uses Mr. Jefferson's Declaration of Independence as the basis of Stowe's ideas of equality. My favorite article and the one most relevant to our discussions in ENAM 982 is Kimberly Hebert's "Acting the Nigger." Even though Hebert takes the "high road" and does not specifically address her audience or give specific approaches to teaching, she has a fascinating read on Topsy and her transformation in Tom Shows. She gives clear argumentation and evidence as to how the evolution of Topsy into an "ugly, untouchable, and uncivilized" (185) imp was a precursor to Pecola in Morrison's The Bluest Eye and to the Shirley Temple "half Topsy half Eva" movie character. Her article is an interesting commentary on American society's appropriation of Topsy in ways Stowe did not intend.
I recommend Approaches to Teaching Uncle Tom's Cabin because it offers a wide range of credible scholarship and only a bit of the ludicrous.
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