The Representation of Race in Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin

Seminar Paper, 1997

12 Pages, Grade: very good


Table of contents

I. Introduction

II.1. The idea of ‘race’ in the nineteenth century
II.2. Race attitudes in Uncle Tom’s Cabin
II.2.a. Harriet Beecher Stowe as a racist?
II.2.b. Stowe and the idea of colonization

III. Conclusion


I. Introduction

Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, which was first published in book form in 1852, is a work with a unique history of reception. In the nineteenth century it sold more copies than any book in the world except the Bible and became "the most cussed and discussed book of its time"[1].

While in the 1850s slavery opponents hailed Stowe's novel as "the greatest weapon ever brought to bear in the abolitionist battle"[2], it was a hundred years later exposed to immense criticism, especially on the part of the blacks.

Like Edmund Wilson reports, "it was still possible at the beginning of this century for a South Carolina teacher to make his pupils hold up their right hands and swear that they would never read Uncle Tom"[3].

This research paper is intended to focus on why the reactions to this novel were so contradictory. After going into the general ideas of ‘race’ at Stowe's time, it will give an account of which attitudes towards this topic the writer herself expresses in Uncle Tom's Cabin and how these reply to the view of her contemporaries. This leads to the question whether one might, as it has often been the case, reproach Stowe for being a racist and whether her novel should still be discussed in today's classroom.

II.1. The idea of ‘race’ in the nineteenth century

That people think about the differences between races is nothing that began to occur with slavery. Articulated views about what distinguishes people of different cultures from one another can be found even in the earliest human writings[4].

What people refer to when using the term ‘race’, however, has changed throughout the centuries. In the middle of the nineteenth century, at the time Harriet Beecher Stowe published her novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a new way of thinking about racial differences spread throughout England and North America. While these differences had in former times often been explained by environmental circumstances only, they were then considered as biologically heritable characteristics. Moral and intellectual capacities were seen as innate and predetermined in one’s character. Kwame Anthony Appiah speaks of a “new theory of race“[5], which became widely accepted at Stowe’s time: “Unlike the Greeks and Hebrews, racialists believed that the racial essence accounted for more than the obvious visible characteristics“. Even literary genius, intelligence and honesty were believed to be inherited along with a person’s racial essence.

This view, which sharply contrasts with modern ways of thinking, is not allowed in terms of scientific evidence. Scientists have rejected that racial essence can explain a person’s moral, intellectual or literary skills. Despite the unreality of their existence, however, races have had, particularly during the nineteenth century, an important impact on how people looked at each other. “Races“, states Kwame Anthony Appiah, „are like witches: however unreal witches are, belief in witches, like belief in races, has had - and in many communities continues to have - profound consequences for human social life“[6].

Both in Europe and in North America, scientists undertook at Stowe’s time immense efforts to group and to classify human races. As far as the United States are concerned, a closer look at the historical background may show the connection between economic interests and the conception of race. For southern planters, slaves generally were much cheaper to afford than other workers, and surely contributed to maximize the profits of many a cotton farm. Inhabitants of the Northern States, which often criticized the South for not abolishing slavery, profited themselves from the cheap cotton needed for their industry, and since 1850 were bound to the Fugitive Slave Act, which obliged them to return escaped slaves to their southern owners. So the aim to justify the system of slavery was, to a large extent, related to economic needs. As Nuernberg says, “The assertion that racial differences were innate and not the product of environment gave proslavery advocates a scientific basis for viewing blacks as members of separate and permanently inferior races“[7].

By the middle of the nineteenth century a hierarchy of races had been built up, picturing the Indo-European stock, from which the Germanic peoples emerged, as highest among the white races. In England and North America, the Anglo-Saxons were considered the favored offshoot of the Germanic stock - a view inseparably connected with imperialism and westward expansion. “Notions of white or Anglo-Saxon superiority“, however, were according to Fredrickson “common even among critics of the slave system“[8].

Being exposed to the strong criticism of the abolitionist movement, the southerners felt pressured to explain the sharp contradiction between the Declaration of Independence, which since 1776 postulated equal rights for all human beings, and the system of slavery. From this conflict resulted the attempts to completely expel the blacks from the field of humans and to degrade them to creatures not higher than animals. “The intellectual community“, Reginald Horsman is quoted by Nuernberg, “provided the evidence they needed“[9].


[1] Langston Huges, quoted in Richard Yarborough, “Strategies of Black Characterization in Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Early Afro-American Novel,“New Essays on Uncle Tom’s Cabin, ed. Eric. J. Sundquist (Cambridge, 1986), 57.

[2] Yarborough, 68

[3] Yarborough, 66

[4] Kwame Anthony Appiah, “Race“. Critical Terms for Literary Study, ed. Eric J. Sundquist (Cambridge, 1986), 57

[5] Appiah, 274 f.

[6] Appiah, 277

[7] Susan Marie Nuernberg, “The Rhetoric of Race,“The Stowe Debate: Rhetorical Strategies in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, ed. Mason I. Lowance, Jr. Et al. (Amherst, 1994) 256 f.

[8] George M. Fredrickson, The Black Image in the White Mind: the Debate on Afro-American Character and Destiny, 1817-1914 (Hanover, 1987) 431.

[9] Nuernberg, 256

Excerpt out of 12 pages


The Representation of Race in Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin
University of Münster  (English Seminar)
very good
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ISBN (eBook)
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494 KB
Representation, Race, Harriet, Beecher, Stowe, Uncle, Cabin
Quote paper
Kristin Hammer (Author), 1997, The Representation of Race in Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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