Uncle Tom's Cabin and American Culture,
by Thomas Gossett
(Dallas: Southern Methodist U P, 1985)
Reviewed by Veronika Timpe
According to Benjamin Bennett, "The success or authority of a book always comes from some kind of social performance." Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin is one of these books that has experienced a broad variety of controversial responses and reactions as well as adaptations and remakes. Guided by this dictum and its applicability to Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin, Thomas F. Gossett nets almost anything that has ever been written or said about the novel in his 1985 book Uncle Tom's Cabin and American Culture. He presents the information, the diverging opinions, and little anecdotes surrounding the novel in a historical chronology.
Right from the very beginning of his outline, Gossett takes an unequivocal stand. He clearly positions himself as a defender of Stowe and her literary work. Throughout the book Gossett retains his position on the side of those modern critics who defend Uncle Tom's Cabin and Stowe against those critics who claim her novel to be not only racist, but also "sentimental about political and social institutions([ix])." He pursues the aim of showing the novel to be a product of its time; that it is "considered against the socio-cultural background of the mid-nineteenth century" not a racist and sentimental piece of writing, but a "powerful novel [through which] antislavery became a powerful cause" (99). Thus, he takes the novel and attempts to show its relevance and role in connection to the socio-cultural conditions from its publication in 1852 down to the present.
Beginning with six chapters on Stowe's background, Gossett starts off with an interpretive biography of her earlier years. He portrays Stowe's upbringing and education while particularly focusing on the influence which her father's strong character and Calvinist convictions had upon her. These biographical chapters seek to reveal how Stowe's thoughts on matters such as race, religion, and slavery gradually developed and how these ideas evolved in the composition of Uncle Tom's Cabin. In later chapters Gossett occasionally resorts to the biographical data in order to substantiate certain points he makes.
In the following three chapters Gossett expertly provides a detailed analysis of the thematic content as well as the characters in Uncle Tom's Cabin. He furthermore points out distinctions of Stowe's novel that are not only new in comparison to other literary works of her time, but also contributive to the main purpose of her book: its struggle for anti-slavery. Thus, Gossett highlights the lack of a love story in the novel as an advantageous characteristic for the book to gain a wide readership even among people who had objected to reading novels before. Moreover, it is the book's dual structure, i.e. the two plots, which he identifies as a new literary device. Throughout the analysis of the two plots, Gossett's main focus lies on race and its interconnectedness with religion. Given the fact that Gossett was Professor of English with a specific research interest on race and literature, the notion of "race" remains a predominant feature in his further contemplations throughout the book.
In the remaining eleven chapters Gossett tries to catch and reproduce the atmosphere that revolved around Uncle Tom's Cabin throughout the different periods from 1852 to the present. He considers the different reactions to Stowe's novel in the North and South of the United States before the Civil War and proceeds with a closer look at anti-Tom literature, such as Hall's novel Frank Freeman's Barber Shop and Eastman's Aunt Phillis Cabin. Gossett furthermore looks at theatrical adaptations in the 1850s. It is primarily Aiken's play -- according to Gossett "the best of all productions" (227) -- which he presents in comparison to the Conroy version (instead of Conway, he mistakenly, yet consistently refers to it as the "version written by Henry J. Conroy" ) . He points out additions and omissions in several different adaptations, investigates emancipation as well as race relations and even illustrates Stowe's visit to a performance. In this context, Gossett does not fail to mention the two major changes Uncle Tom plays caused. First, he states, they turned theater visits from a disreputable enterprise to a decent social activity and second, they contributed to a widespread shift towards anti-slavery.
After a short excursion to reconstruct Stowe's position and activities during the Civil War, Gossett turns his attention to considering the increasingly critical reputation Uncle Tom's Cabin has experienced since 1865. He tries to present all layers of society, from literary critics and historians like Harvard professor Barrett Wendell to responses of former slaves such as Albion W. Tourgée who had published an article that revealed his opinion of Stowe's work in 1896. Most critics had rejected the novel due to its literary defects and its poor portrayal of slavery, but some nevertheless thought it to be a remarkable piece of fiction. Tourgée, for instance, admired Stowe for her novel, but criticized the black characters in Uncle Tom's Cabin as "blacked Yankees" (361). In addition to the changes in the reception of the novel, Gossett exposes the growing Uncle Tom Mania in the field of theatrical productions. From "Tommer shows" over the most curious and bizarre performances, that featured crocodiles snapping at Eliza and showed Tom in British royal military uniform singing "God save the Queen," all the way to ballet, musical and finally film adaptations, Gossett provides a broad picture of the many forms which Uncle Tom's Cabin had adopted in the United States and abroad over the years. He even outlines the use of Stowe's novel as a propaganda tool in Communist China and Russia.
Thus delineating the various aspects of Uncle Tom by appraising newspaper articles, reviews, letters, diaries, plays, literary texts, pamphlets and tracts, Uncle Tom's Cabin and American Culture displays an affectionate, densely textured portray of the controversies that have accompanied Stowe's work throughout time. Moreover, it emphasizes Uncle Tom's permanent significance and shows that the novel, despite all controversial ideas, distortions, and misinterpretations, has survived over the years.
However, the remarkable diversity of Gossett's book is to some degree also its weakness. Given the title of the book, Uncle Tom's Cabin and American Culture, the reader expects a detailed analysis of how Stowe's work and American culture are interconnected and how they influenced one another. The book however does not live up to what the title promises. Gossett compiles a large amount of material, but does not examine in depth the cultural significance Stowe's novel had throughout the different periods, i.e. he does not analyze the interrelations between the book and societal changes. Gossett hardly embeds the collections of responses into a social context and thus, does not contribute much to the reader's understanding of US culture. With regard to the later part of the book, for instance, he states in the preface that he "examines the critical reputation of Uncle Tom's Cabin as a novel" ([x]), but he hesitates to move beyond the mere exposition of responses. He probably attempted to let the literary, autobiographical and newspaper fragments speak for themselves and create a picture of the socio-cultural environment of the respective periods, but they nevertheless require some analysis and connection to the historical context of American culture in order to convey a complete picture.
To live up to the reader's expectations, Gossett should have picked a different title such as "Reactions and responses to Uncle Tom's Cabin from 1850 to the present" or "Stowe and Uncle Tom's Cabin throughout time." Since Gossett's book grows by accumulation rather than by argumentation or any coherent development other than chronology, it very much reminds of an archive. As such it is a very useful resource and reference book for students and scholars dedicated to the study of Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin.
Due to its similarity with a chronologically ordered archive, the book almost seems to be a hardcopy version of Stephen Railton's online archive and thus, very much intersects with our class. In fact, it might as well have had the potential to serve as the basis for our class since, for the most part, its structure and topics resemble the syllabus and order of our reading assignments.
Taking everything into account, Gossett compiles a very broad variety of responses and reactions to Stowe's novel as well as its theatrical and filmic adaptations and presents them in form of a textured chronology. Despite the lack of a detailed socio-cultural analysis of the impact and significance of Uncle Tom's Cabin, Gossett's book nevertheless provides a useful archive with a specific focus on the issue of Uncle Tom and race throughout one-hundred and thirty years. Thus, Gossett's Uncle Tom's Cabin and American Culture reminds us that Uncle Tom is, after more than a century, still a piece of literature with major importance.