WOMEN’S HISTORY MYSTERY: Harriet Beecher Stowe

Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of "Uncle Tom's Cabin."

Harriet Beecher Stowe

Although February was Black History Month and March is Women’s History Month, it is almost impossible to find Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin among the works featured for study in schools throughout this country. Ironically, Hofstra’s curricular guide to “New York and Slavery” lists Henry W. Beecher, Harriet’s father, among those worthy of study, but not his daughter, the most important woman writer of the nineteenth century.

In the web site sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, which lists lesson plans for teachers looking for inspiration, Stowe is not listed among “Literature and Language Arts” or its other subject “Women Novelists.” Under women novelists, only four are listed: Jane Austen, Willa Cather, Kate Chopin and Zora Hurston. The fifth book recommended is History in Quilts, because many nineteenth century women expressed themselves through quilting (sic!). New York  City’s  curriculum guide recommends that seventh grade social studies classes, have students read only contrasting reviews of the book. They do not read even parts of it, nor see the play.

This is shocking.

President Abraham Lincoln

President Abraham Lincoln

Historic sources quote Abraham Lincoln asking Stowe upon meeting her, “So you’re the little woman who started this big war?” At the least, her work had a colossal impact on the development of anti-slavery sentiment in America, France and England. Her novel is credited with England’s decision to support the North in the Civil War. In the nineteenth century, sales of her book were topped only by The Bible. Moreover, after 1852, when the novel was dramatized, more people saw the play than ever read the book. This single play, which also began the development of American national theater, was “The World’s Greatest Hit” for seventy years. Due to its checkered history, it continues obliquely to pervade American thought today.

Uncle Tom and Simon Legree face off in "Uncle Tom's Cabin."Why has this desertion occurred? Recently, Mark Twain’s The Life of Huckleberry Finn, another American masterpiece, was bowdlerized because of its extensive use of the forbidden “n” word. Perhaps Stowe’s novel and influence are now being neglected partly because of her insensitive pervasive repetition of the phrase, “woolly-headed nigger.” James Baldwin’s influential 1949 article accused her of unconscious racism. Nevertheless, her portrayal of Uncle Tom, a Christian slave who died defying plantation owner Simon Legree’s cruelty, convinced the North that a Civil War was necessary.

Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Ph.D.

Prof. Henry Louis Gates, Jr.

In 2006, Dr. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. offered a strong rebuttal to Baldwin in his annotated edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Not one to mince words, Dr. Gates did acknowledge the racist elements in the original text. But he recognized them as artifacts of their era, while also recognizing the importance of the original Uncle Tom character as a powerful moral and spiritual leader, and of the novel overall for its overwhelmingly positive impact on American history. That its legacy became distorted over time, giving rise to shameful, damaging and enduring racial stereotypes, ironically makes its study as relevant and important today as ever before.

Slave Auction scene from our "Uncle Tom's Cabin" DVD.

Slave Auction from "Uncle Tom's Cabin" DVD

Granted, that the 500 page book is a difficult read for today’s students. But they respond deeply to this play version of the novel, in which, by the way, the “n” word hardly appears. In 2011 — Stowe’s bicentennial year (June 14, 1811) and the 160th anniversary of the novel’s first appearance in serialized print form (June 5, 1851) — it is certainly time to give Stowe and Uncle Tom their due.