Harriet Beecher Stowe´s Uncle Tom´s Cabin: The Creation and influence of a masterpiece

Bachelor Thesis, 2009

51 Pages, Grade: 1,7


Table of Contents

0. Introduction

1. Harriet Beecher Stowe

2. The Writing and Publishing of Uncle Tom 's Cabin

3. Sources of Uncle Tom's Cabin

4. Adaptations of the Novel
4.1. George Aiken's Version of Uncle Tom 's Cabin

5. Critique of Uncle Tom's Cabin
5.1. The North
5.2. The South
5.3. Anti-Uncle Tom Literature

6. Content of Uncle Tom's Cabin

7. Comparison of Stowe's Novel and Aiken's Drama
7.1. Structure and Plot
7.2. Characters
7.2.1. Characters Left Out by Aiken
7.2.2. Characters Added by Aiken
7.2.3. Characters in Both the Novel and the Drama
7.3. Themes

8. Conclusion

9. Bibliography

0. Introduction

"So you're the little woman who wrote the book that started this great war" (Raabe 216)! With these words Abraham Lincoln is said to have greeted Harriet Beecher Stowe when she visited the white House in 1863. Without doubt, Un­cle Tom's Cabin, Stowe's first antislavery novel, was one of the most contro­versial books when it was published in 1851/52. Although it certainly can't be seen as the true reason for the Civil War that started in 1861, it nevertheless put the debate on slavery more strongly in the center of public attention.

This paper deals with this highly controversial book. First, the context of the writing as well as the publishing of Uncle Tom's Cabin will be presented, and its sources will be outlined. For a better understanding of the circumstances, some biographical pieces of information about the author will be given before­hand. The next section will focus on the several stage adaptations of Uncle Tom 's Cabin, the one by George L. Aiken will already be treated in more detail. The mixed reactions towards Stowe's novel in general will be delineated, too. After giving a summary of the content of Uncle Tom's Cabin to establish the basis for a further analysis, the main part of this paper will deal with the com­parison of the novel with Aiken's most popular stage adaptation. Similarities as well as differences will be presented as far as the structure, the characters and the themes are concerned. This paper will try to show that Aiken's version of Uncle Tom's Cabin comes very close to Stowe's novel, but that he incorpora­ted his own ideas as well to partly produce other effects, too.

1. Harriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe was born in Litchfield, Connecticut, on June 14, 1811. Her father Lyman Beecher, who was an influential minister of the Congrega­tional Church and a rigorous Calvinist, was head of the household since Stowe 's mother had died early in 1816. Stowe, the seventh of nine children, was shaped by daily religious instructions and family worship. Religion decidedly played a central role in the life of her family. "Because of her father's focus on his sons' mental and intellectual preparation as future ministers, Harriet often felt neglected" (Wurst 2449). Her sister Catherine became a strong influence in her life. When she was twelve years old, Stowe was put under the direction of her disciplinary sister at the Hartford Female Seminary, who "consecrated her­
self to the cause of female education" (Adams 22).

In 1832, her family reunited and moved to Cincinnatti, Ohio (Adams 21­23). Very soon she met Calvin E. Stowe, a biblical scholar, whom she married in 1836 (Wurst 2449). From then on she was busy caring for her growing fa­mily. The marriage produced seven children. During that time ofher life, Stowe was still disappointed and unhappy. Not only was she controlled by her hus­band and her conduct regulated by him, but she had to live in poverty and was strongly bound to her household tasks. She felt constrained. What bothered her the most were her money problems. To help support the family financially, she dedicated herself to writing. Later in her life, Stowe would say that she prima­rily "wrote for money" (Adams 25). Her husband supported her literary career, but her bad physical condition sometimes kept her from writing.

Altogether, Stowe spent about eighteen years in Cincinnatti. Although it was a period of poverty and distress, it was nevertheless a period rich in observation and experience (Anthony 117). "It was there that she first visited a plantation in neighboring Kentucky and was introduced directly to issues of slavery, because in Cincinnatti, there were many freed and fugitive slaves" (Wurst 2449). On the plantation, Stowe saw the life of the slaves in their cabins. To the impressions she gained there those of her brother, who had been to New Orleans and as­cended the Red River, were added (Anthony 117). In Cincinnatti she also be­came familiar with the abolitionist movement and the "underground railroad." Although these experiences had a deep impact on her, it took her several years to digest these things and write about them (Ellis 1247). "It was not until her return to New England in 1850 during the discussion over the Fugitive Slave Law, that her anti-slavery feeling became intense" (Anthony 117).

Before she left Cincinnatti for her home New England, she suffered a stroke of fate. In 1849 her one-year-old son Samuel Charles died of cholera. "It was at his dying bed and at his grave," Stowe wrote of Charley in a letter, "that I learned what a poor slave mother may feel when her child is torn away from her" (Stowe (2007) 21). One year later she started writing Uncle Tom's Cabin at Brunswick. The novel was published in 1851/52, followed by A Key to "Un­cle Tom's Cabin" in 1853. Three years later she wrote Dred: A Tale of Great Dismal Swamp, another antislavery novel, published in 1856. The pen forever remained her most powerful antislavery weapon (Hedrick 906/07). Legend has it, that when Stowe came to the White House in 1862, president Abraham Lin­coln greeted her as "'the little lady who wrote the book that made this big war! л" It is more than doubtful that the book caused the Civil War, but, nevertheless, the legend shows that Stowe had become a famous public figure, and that Uncle Tom's Cabin exercised a great influence on public opinion (Adams 8/9).

After the Civil War, Stowe was again busy writing books, mainly New Eng­land and society novels. She poured forth a steady stream of fiction publishing on the average almost a book a year until she ended her literary career in 1878 (Anthony 119). Throughout her career she used literature to have a political voice, and shape public opinion. "She urged the nation to civil disobedience, challenged religious orthodoxy, and dared to discuss incest - all in the name of motherhood, Christianity, and democracy" (Hedrick 908). Never did she have the success she had with Uncle Tom's Cabin again. Her eventual conviction that her bestselling novel was written by God has been much ridiculed (Wa­genknecht 162). However, one has to keep in mind that in her final years, her mind at times wandered. She died on July 1, 1896 in Litchfield, Connecticut (Wurst 2450).

2. The Writing and Publishing of Uncle Tom's Cabin

When Stowe began writing her famous novel she was about forty years old and in poor shape. She had been living in poverty with her family for a long time, was sick and exhausted from trying to fulfil her roles as a good wife, mother, and housewife. She had been subservient for all her life, felt miserable, and even compared her situation to that of a slave (Adams 44). In her own words, Uncle Tom's Cabin was "her declaration of independence, ... her emancipation proclamation" (Adams 27). "Into Uncle Tom's Cabin ... Mrs. Stowe was able to pour her whole life ... ." Before the book's success, she was harassed by debt and unknown; after it, she was wealthy and famous (Adams 45/46). And Uncle Tom's Cabin made her more thanjust famous - it made her immortal.

Before she wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin, Stowe had already published stories in which she treated the issue of slavery, e.g. "The Freeman's Dream: A Pa­rable". Nevertheless, the effectiveness of these works was rather weak. "Com­pared with this crude effort, Uncle Tom's Cabin would be a masterpiece of per­suasion" (Gossett 89). After the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law, which was part of the Compromise of 1850, Stowe at last set out to write an antislavery novel. It is said that her sister-in-law, Mrs Edward Beecher, exerted the final influence on Stowe when writing a letter to her toward the end of 1850. She is quoted as saying, "'Now, Hattie, if I couldjust use the pen as you can, I would write something that would make this whole nation feel what an accursed thing slavery is"" (Anthony 117). Reading the passage aloud to her family, Stowe "rose from her chair, crushed the letter in her hand, and ... said, "I will write something. I will if I live"" (Gossett 90). And so she did, although it wasn't ea­sy for her. Still she had to care for her children and the house in Brunswick, Maine, where she had been living since the spring of 1850. And she was all alone, her husband Calvin being away in Cincinnatti. To him she wrote that she was thinking of writing a sketch for the National Era (Gossett 87-91). It wasn't long afterward that Stowe imagined the character of Uncle Tom. There are different stories about how she imagined his death scene. Once she said that during a communion service in Brunswick, "she had what she could only de­scribe as a 'vision" of the scene which illustrated the worst possible evil of sla­very - death by torture" (Gossett 91). Another time she said that the scene arose before her when she was lying down to rest after lunch one day. "In the introduction to the 1879 edition of Uncle Tom's Cabin, Stowe told how she had written the whipping scene of Uncle Tom before anything else in the novel..." (Gossett 92).

As she had planned it, Uncle Tom's Cabin first appeared as a serial in the antislavery journal National Era. At the beginning she had no intention of writing a novel. To Gamaliel Bailey, the publisher of the newspaper, she wrote that she thought of her story extending through four issues of the weekly journal. In the same letter she explained that it would be a series of sketches about the "patriarchal institution," and that the incidents described would have occurred in the sphere of her observation or her personal knowledge. Stowe was paid $300 for the story and received additional $100, as her story in the end didn't extend through four, but through more than thirty issues of the Na­tional Era (Gossett 97). The journal printed Stowe's story from June 5, 1851, to April 1, 1852 (Wurst 2451). In 1852 Uncle Tom's Cabin was published in book form by J. P. Jewett (Hedrick 907). There were two volumes, "with a woodcut of a negro cabin as the frontispiece" (Anthony 117). Within the first week of its publication, ten thousand copies were sold. "The first edition, con­sisting of 5,000 copies, was bought out injust two days ..." (Hill 53). Within a year, the story sold more than three-hundred thousand copies solely in the Uni­ted States. The sales in Europe were not less phenomenal. In one year, forty different editions were published in Great Britain and its colonies; overall, 1.5 million copies were sold. The story was translated into dozens of languages and dialects. In Germany, a total of seventy-five editions were printed. Even in Ita­ly, Stowe had great success with her first novel, although it was banned by the Catholic Church (Hill 53). Not only was Uncle Tom's Cabin translated into ma­ny languages, and were hundreds of editions printed all over the world, but it was immediately put on stage, and "embodied in popular culture in the form of songs, toys, and figurines" (Hedrick 907).

3. Sources of Uncle Tom's Cabin

People have agreed on Theodore Weld's American Slavery As Itls (1839) being a major source for Stowe's antislavery novel. In the preface to the 1878 edition of her book she explicitly acknowledges the use of Weld's well-known propa­ganda book for abolition (Adams 57). American Slavery As It Is was "a collec­tion of excerpts from legal documents, advertisements, and statements from slaveholders" (Wurst 2450).

Stowe owed much to Weld, but she made use of other sources as well. Un­cle Tom's Cabin shares similarities with other abolitionist novels, e.g. with Ri­chard Hildreth's The Slave: or Memoirs of Archy Moore (1836). The character of Archy reminds one of George Harris, and the cruel overseer of the novel is a Northerner - just like Legree. Cassy suggests an appropriate comparison with Eliza, and there is even a character similar to Uncle Tom, namely the slave Thomas. Both Uncle Tom and Thomas are of unmixed African blood, gentle, and pious Christians. Although several common features can be recognized, Stowe never admitted acquaintance with Hildreth's antislavery novel (Adams 57; Gossett 154).

The autobiography of Josiah Henson[1] has also been identified as an au­thentic source for parts of Uncle Tom's Cabin. His character can well be com­pared with that of Uncle Tom. Henson himself claims to have provided Stowe with the originals of George Harris, Eliza, Topsy, Legree, St. Clare and Eva in the persons of friends and particular acquaintances. In fact, Stowe knew Hen- son's autobiography very well (Adams 56). Still, opinion is deeply divided on this issue. Some people think that Stowe simply copied certain things from o­ther books and built on the reports of others, while other people are sure that she derived her materials mainly from personal experience and observation. It is said that when Stowe visited a plantation in Kentucky in 1833, she observed everything and thereby got all she needed for the depiction of the Shelby plan­tation (Wagenknecht 157). As far as the characters are concerned, among other things, it is assumed that the human original of Topsy was a black girl named Celeste, whom the Beechers came to know in Cincinnati. The human original of Eliza is supposed to have been a fugitive, whom Stowe's father had helped (Adams 56). Nevertheless, several originals have been suggested for the diffe­rent characters. It is not clear which source is the right one.

Other great writers of that time seem to have influenced Stowe, too. The character of Eva shows some similarities with Charles Dickens' Nell. Topsy suggests comparison with Pearl of Nathaniel Hawthorne's masterpiece The Scarlet Letter. "Neither Hawthorne nor Stowe was convinced that children are inherently innocent" (Gossett 132/33).

Some themes of Uncle Tom's Cabin have their source from very personal events in the life of Stowe. "In her depiction of Eva's death, she may owe something to family accounts of her own mother's death. Lyman Beecher had seen the moment of Roxana's dying as her grand entrance into heaven" (Gos­sett 143).

Stowe as a professional writer used all the sources she could use to write Uncle Tom's Cabin. The most important sources were probably her own experi­ence and observations. Only because of that was she able to write her novel with such a passion like she did.

4. Adaptations of the Novel

"Despite the popularity of Stowe's novel, most Americans probably got their Uncle Tom experience from one of the myriad performances on stage" (Ri­chards 371). Stowe's novel was complex. The melodramatic scenes and the vi­vid characters in Uncle Tom's Cabin provided great material for dramatic pro­
ductions (Toll 90). Therefore, it is not surprising that at about the same time, when the novel was published in book form, there were several adaptations of Uncle Tom's Cabin with which Stowe had no connection - never did a play­wright seek for her permission to bring a play based on the content of her fa­mous novel on the stage - and from which she gained no profit. "Some scripts followed a simple theme and were almost sketches; other versions lasted as long as five hours and included some fifty scenes" (Meserve 113). Be that as it may, these adaptations misrepresented her novel to such a degree "that it still controls some people's reactions to the author" (Adams 7). Weak copyright laws in the United States provided for the novel's title, characters, and plot de­vices being taken and used in different ways. All across the nation theaters put on so-called "Tom shows." Most of the productions didn't have anything in common with the original novel except the title or the names of the characters e.g. (Gardner 165). "By 1900 there were twelve different playscripts in print and probably many more pirated and adapted versions were staged but never published" (Hill 53). As a matter of fact, some of the versions were well per­formed into the 20th century. About fifty troups toured the United States in 1879, and there were still twelve companies which performed Uncle Tom's Ca­bin in 1927 (Bordman 685). Even in England, people were scrambling to get Uncle Tom's Cabin on the stage. Eight versions of the play are solely recorded in London during 1852. No other play can show a comparable variety in the stage versions. Not without good reason does the play deserve the title "The World's Greatest Hit" (Meserve 108, 112-13). Those who don't completely a­gree with that must at least acknowledge that "Uncle Tom's Cabin was one of the most important documents in American dramatic history." Every major American actor or actress had played one of the characters from the famous no­vel (Miller 22).

In the United States, Charles Western Taylor brought the first important ver­sion to the stage. His play had its premiere at New York's National Theatre in August 1852. It was the first abolitionist document to reach the stage, and, be­sides, there was a second novelty: for the first time, blacks appeared as leading characters in a drama (Miller 22). Before, the stage Negro had the character of a clownish servant and was spoofed (Meserve 73). Clifton Tayleure put a popu­lar version on stage in Detroit in October 1852. H. J. Conway's version, which
was the most famous pro-Southern version of Uncle Tom's Cabin, ran in Bos­ton for two hundred nights, and was eventually staged by the famous showman P. T. Barnum at his multimedia museum in New York in November 1853. Bar- num claimed that Conway's version would give a "'true picture of negro life in the South"" by showing the cruelties of the institution of slavery without un­justly elevating blacks above the white race in morals or intellect. The produc­tion had a happy ending with Uncle Tom being finally rescued from cruel Le- gree's plantation (Richards 369; Toll 91). A few years later there were four ri­val productions solely in New York, with or without a happy ending. Many of these productions of the drama "carried a chorus of authentic blacks to sing and dance plantation and jubilee songs and to perform so-called Negro specia­lities" (Hill 56).

The characters in the plays, whether black or white, became stereotypes. These stereotypes ingrained themselves in the consciousness of the people, and one mustn't forget that the representation of blacks on stage had profound so­cial and cultural impacts and effects (Bryer 6). A range of serious actors resen­ted this stereotyping of blacks and planned to establish their own theater com­panies. Usually, that is to say, it was the case that white actors played the roles of the Negro characters. They used dark makeup and spoke in the Negro dia­lect. The superiority of the white race was often more emphasized when the actors playing Eliza and George Harris, the two mulattoes of the story, used nearly no makeup at all. In the majority of cases, only Topsy, the minor Negro characters, and sometimes Uncle Tom were played as identifiable Negroes with actors being painted black (Hill 56/57). There had already been Negro parts in one or two plays, and blackface singers, in fact, were known at the beginning of the 19th century, but in the course of this century, the conventional stereotype was eventually introduced (Miller 21). "Until the end of the 19th century, the stage Negro continued his stereotype as part minstrel and part noble savage. And he was in nearly all cases played by white actors in blackface" (Miller 23). Sam Lucas would be the first African American to play the role of Uncle Tom, more than twenty years after the role was performed for the first time (Hill 56).

Although there were innumerable dramatizations, in the end, it was only one "which made history -" (Wagenknecht 17) the one by George Aiken from 1852. "Of all the stage versions, Aiken's comes closest to matching the novel"
(Richards 371).

4.1. George Aiken's Version of Uncle Tom's Cabin

The immense success of his dramatization of Uncle Tom's Cabin - the third adaptation of the narrative (Hill 53) - must have been a big surprise. "Aiken's version was said to be the first play offered on Broadway as an entire evening, without an afterpiece or any other entertainment" (Bordman 685). It was "the only one of the many 19th century dramatizations of Uncle Tom's Cabin that was regularly published" (Railton). William Lloyd Garrison, the editor of the anti-slavery newspaper Liberator, who had criticized Stowe's novel blistering- ly, mainly for being in favor of colonization, praised his stage version to the skies (Toll 90).

Aiken, born in Boston on December 19, 1830, had always been interested in acting and the theater, in which he was influenced by his cousin Caroline Fox, who was an actress, but he couldn't start acting himselfbefore 1849. From then on, he had a few minor roles with smaller companies in Rhode Island (Gardner 166). He probably would have gone on like that, had not the husband of his cousin Caroline, George C. Howard, the theater manager of the Troy Museum in New York, asked him to write a version of Uncle Tom's Cabin, in which his talented four-year-old daughter was supposed to play the role of Eva, and come to be known. "For a bonus of $40 and a gold watch, Aiken worked for a week to shape the play around the character of little Eva" (Nathans 14). This origi­nal version of the novel covered up to Eva's death. The play was put on stage for the first time at the Troy Museum in September of 1852, with Cordelia Ho­ward starring Eva. Aiken himself played the role of both George Harris and George Shelby, and his cousin Caroline as well as her husband were involved in the play, too. Caroline played the role of Topsy while her husband scintilla­ted as St. Clare (Gardner 166).

Later, Aiken would write a six-act version that moved to the end of the novel. His play was such a success that people asked Aiken to mount a sequel, which showed the rest of Stowe's original story. On the whole there were "five different major productions of Aiken's version of Uncle Tom's Cabin between 1852 and 1858" (Railton). The Death of Uncle Tom; or, The Religion of the Lowly, as it was called, had its first performance in November of1852, and was combined with his original version of the play to create a complete version of the international bestseller (Nathans 14). After the play had run for more than a hundred nights, Aiken and his crew were engaged by the National Theatre in New York. A. H. Purdy, who had also staged Taylor's version, had asked him to bring his play to a bigger stage in New York. Purdy's production of Aiken's version was performed 325 times. The play ran from July 18, 1853, to May 13, 1854 (Richards 371). Although Aiken had by that time other successes in the theater and even took over as the manager of the theater in Troy in 1861, he ne­ver "saw the kind of success he had with Uncle Tom's Cabin again" (Gardner 167).

While adaptations of the novel before the Civil War, including Aiken's version, more or less shared an antislavery message, after the war, the different productions of the play lost their antislavery emphasis. Early American drama mirrored the social and political movements of its day (Meserve 120). Pro­Southern versions of the play actually "proved more in touch with the general public's tastes" (Toll 92). This unavoidably had the effect that its antislavery theme was weakened. As a result of that, black characters became increasingly stereotyped. The productions of the play became comic treatments of blacks and had mainly sentimental and melodramatic devices. Simon Legree got mea­ner and meaner, and by 1879, dogs were integrated in the play which pursued Eliza (Meserve 113). "Uncle Tom himself very often didn't become a man of dignity, as might be expected, but a mere figure of pathos, and the character of Topsy and the minor Negroes was so extremely exaggerated that one couldn't easily distinguish them from the blacks of the popular minstrel shows" (Gos­sett 367). Minstrels had very soon incorporated Uncle Tom's Cabin in their shows. Parodies such as "Uncle Tom and His Cabin" or "Uncle Dad's Cabin" were performed successfully. The portrait of a dumb, dancing Negro was com­mon in minstrel playlets. And they spared noone, not even Uncle Tom, a man of morality, spirituality, and humanity like no other. In the blackface minstrelsy, Uncle Tom was given dancing scenes and silly dialogue, and Uncle Tom's Ca­bin was retitled "Happy Uncle Tom" (Toll 92-94). "On stage, minstrelsy repea­tedly acted out images which illustrated that there was no need to fight a war over slavery, no need to accept Negroes as equals in the North ... " (Toll 97). John E. Owens would later adapt and soften Aiken's version of the drama to accommodate the audience. He himself would play the role of Uncle Tom as a low-comedy type (Toll 92).

"Aiken's work as a playwright demonstrates two prevailing influences on American popular culture in the years before the Civil War: the minstrel show and melodrama" (Nathans 14). As the producer of a play for the theaters, he had another audience in mind, to whose expectations he had to come up to, than Stowe with her novel. To please that part of his audience familiarized with minstrel routines and Jim Crow dances, Aiken overstated Topsy in a way that he gave her excessive dancing and comic scenes, and, for that purpose, modi­fied her dialogues (Nathans 15). Thomas Dartmouth "Jim Crow" Rice invented the Negro minstrel show in 1828. Even though actors had already impersonated Negroes on stage for more than thirty years, Rice was seen as the "Father of A­merican Minstrelsy," as he had performed a single blackface act. Jokes and mu­sic acts steadily belonged to a blackface minstrelsy. Usually, the banjo and the tambourine were played. While in the early stages, minstrel companies con­sisted of only a few people, by the end of the 19th century such companies in­cluded a hundred people or even more. The minstrel evolved into a real spec­tacle show. "It is generally agreed that the minstrel show is America's original contribution to world theater ... ." The minstrelsies and the "Tom shows" had one particular thing in common: they aroused attention and created excitement in a way that they "reached out to the average man and made him laugh and cry" (Meserve 74, 109-11).

Melodramatic influence is exerted on the treatment of the characters Uncle Tom, Eliza, and Eva, all of whom play the roles of the typical hero or heroine of melodrama by demonstrating virtue and altruism (Nathans 15). "Melodrama may be recognized by its excess of pathos and the dichotomy of good and bad. Character and plot are secondary to dramatic situations which combine theatri­cal spectacle, scenographic realism and sensational action" (Herget 21). Usual­ly, a melodrama ends with a happy ending, but tragedies "that use much of the same technique" are also seen as melodramatic. That's the case with Uncle Tom's Cabin. The object of a melodrama is "to keep the audience thrilled by the arousal of strong feelings of pity, horror, orjoy" (Tennyson 317). Ina melo­drama, music plays a very important role. This can be seen in Aiken's play as well, in which many singing and dancing scenes with music are included. "G.


[1] An escaped slave who escaped to Ontario, Canada in 1830.

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Harriet Beecher Stowe´s Uncle Tom´s Cabin: The Creation and influence of a masterpiece
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Alexandra Griesing (Author), 2009, Harriet Beecher Stowe´s Uncle Tom´s Cabin: The Creation and influence of a masterpiece, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/197323


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