One author who stands out in the abolitionist literary canon is Harriet Beecher Stowe who wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1851. Stowe decided to publish her novel as a series of weekly articles in a newspaper entitled the National Era. This magazine appealed to men, women and sometimes even children. The Era’s format included four large pages with about seven columns on each page. The fiction section of the paper was located in the back but was not specifically marked and news and other advertisements could sometimes appear on that page as well.
The National Era focused on abolitionist articles nd featured authors who were participating in the abolitionist movements. “Within the abolitionist press generally, fiction played only a minor role in addressing the problem of slavery. In the Era itself, as we shall see, fiction assiduously avoided the subject- until installments of Uncle Tom’s Cabin began to appear” (Hochman 145). Usually the fiction section was meant to be “light” and enjoyable. Readers wanted to be informed however, they always wanted to read something enjoyable at the end of a hard day.
Stowe was well aware that neither her facts nor her arguments would be new to readers of the Era. Indeed, in a sense they were all too familiar. By 1851 every edition of the National Era included images of fugitives as well as political discussions, religious appeals, and other well- rehearsed attacks on slave culture” (Hochman 143). It made perfect sense that Harriet decided to include her writing in this particular magazine. The readers would definitely identify with her subject matter and she was in hopes that her work would be well received.
At one point Stowe thought her story may have been one that had already been told but she was still animate that her version was necessary for the American people to read and understand. Stowe wanted her readers to see slavery with “new eyes. ” We might say that she tried to do for her readers what Eva does for Ophelia and what Tom begins to do for St. Clare: She offers them a new way of seeing” (Hochman 145). Even though the abolitionist tale had been told before, Stowe knew that she could shed a new light on the subject by employing both sentimentality and brutality alike.
The Era also employed many stories of fugitive slaves by incorporating poetry in the newspaper. “Well before 1851, poetry had become a forum for rendering imaginary scenarios that involved fugitives as well as slave-catchers and other representatives of he white community. The poetry of the Era was often flowery, didactic, and pious as installment fiction; yet the subject matter of poetry was broader” (Hochman 158). Subject matters that seemed fictitious or unimaginable were usually reserved for poetry and could be discussed freely. Uncle Tom’s Cabin challenged the type of fiction that was traditionally published in the Era.
However, it did so in a way that pulled on peoples sentimental feelings while also conveying a very strong message. Harriet Beecher Stowe meticulously planned out her novel and chose to incorporate every day themes and haracters that the “normal” person could relate to. Topics such as the death of a child, the role of the slave mother and becoming a runaway slave all are present in her epic novel. She chose some of these topics for two reasons. The first being that even if the reader was not a black runaway slave, they were able to relate on a personal level, such as, being a mother or losing a child.
Second, Stowe wanted the non-African American reader to understand and sympathize with the slave characters in the novel. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was not just written to increase black literacy but Stowe also had visions of changing what fiction eant. As stated earlier, fiction was commonly read by women and children as recreation however, Stowe had much bigger visions. She wanted to make fiction a legitimate genre. “Southerners saw Stowe’s use of fiction as “unscrupulous” precisely because of its power to captivate readers.
Men of letters regarded fiction as aesthetically inferior to such literary forms as poetry, history, and classical texts” (Hochman 79). Some members of society were fearful that fiction could fill the mind with untruthful thoughts and young minds may be misshaped. Stowe wanted to remove this stigma of fiction being an inferior genre. By the end of the 1850’s fiction was indeed starting to swell. Although concerns about selection, authority, and control were still present, many people (even men) were ready to dive into a genre they may not have been familiar with and those that weren’t necessarily fiction fans were make an exception for Stowe.
However, obtaining a copy of the actual novel (after the newspaper publication) was no easy task. Uncle Tom’s Cabin had been condemned in many Sothern states and it was hard to buy. Rosalie Roos of South Carolina write in a letter on May 4, 1853, “In Charlston this book cannot be bought.. We have been able to borrow it from Mrs. Peronneau’s sister and Eliza read it through in a day and has halfway become an abolitionist from it” (Hochman 84). Uncle Tom’s Cabin was offered to the public on familiar terms: part sentimental tale, part reform tract, part abolitionist appeal” (Hochman 88).
One of the main reasons Stowe’s book was so accepted was because people thought that some kind of “good” would come from it. Even though the story was fictional, real results (such as the abolition of slavery) were feasible. There was a newfound purpose in reading fiction. And people were racing through this magnetic tale. Carrol Norcross describes reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin in August of 1852 such as thus: “This morning… I took up a volume of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Soon as I was all absorb(ed) in its interesting pages and was bound down captive by this ingenious production.
Eagerly I devoured the first volume regardless of the presence of those to whom at any other time I should have been happy to have tendered my whole attention. I disregarded all the rules of Ettiquit” (Hochman 83). All of a sudden rules were being thrown out of the window and Stowe’s writing was being devoured at astounding rate. Norcross also describes reading the second egment (since the text was only being published weekly) with similar vigor and reading “until nearly midnight” (Hochman 83). With all of these protocols of reading set aside, Stowe had her own way approach to reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin.
She wanted people to approach the novel as Tom and Eva read Scripture- as an engaged, thoughtful, imaginative way, as if it were true (Hochman 88). There are so many different references to the Bible and Scripture and Stowe wanted the public to take this text seriously as they would a religious text. Stowe includes many scenes where the Bible is being read by numerous characters. Intertextuality can be seen when those characters employ the same protocols of reading that Stowe expected of her readers. Stowe set out to reform typical fiction reading practices such as speedily consumed and rapidly forgotten.
Although difficult, this novel should be savored and deliberated. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin asserts a recurrent analogy between readers who fail to engage actively with the Bible and those who fail to engage seriously with the realities of slavery” (Hochman 94). One of the reasons Stowe used religion and the Bible was to appeal to her more conservative readers. One of the most famous depictions of religion in Uncle Tom’s Cabin is when Eva is reading the Bible to Uncle Tom. This scene demonstrates the love between a slave and a young white girl.
These two characters use the Bible to bond and it is a shared interest of them both. “At first, she read to please her humble friend; but soon her own earnest nature threw out its tendrils, and wound itself around the majestic book; and Eva loved it, because it woke in her strange yearnings, and strong, dim emotions, such as impassioned, imaginative children love to feel” (Stowe 301). Stowe not only shows this unique relationship between two unlikely people but she shows how much the Bible as influenced both of these characters. She refers to it as a “majestic book” and depicts different feelings that it evokes in Eva.
Eva even has specific parts of the Bible that please her most yet she also questions some of the meanings. Stowe unquestionably utilizes the Bible so much to connect with readers and to reassure readers that even though she may have these abolitionist tendencies she is a still a devout Christian. Similarly, Eva loves a black slave, she is a pure Christian child. Another tactic that Stowe utilizes is that of sentimentality. As discussed earlier, sentimentality could be used to “pull on the eartstrings” of those dedicated women readers and possibly involve other readers who would not have normally picked up a book of fiction.
The principal theme of the sentimental text is the desire for bonding, and it is affiliation on the plane of emotion, sympathy, nurturance, or similar moral or spiritual inclination for which sentimental writers and readers yearn” (Dobson 267). Sentimentality was used to form a bond between reader, writer and the text. Feelings such as empathy and concern were crucial to captivate the reader. “We can recognize sentimental literature by its concern with subject atter that privileges affectional ties, and by conventions and tropes designed to convey the primary vision of human connection in a dehumanized world” (Dobson 268).
Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin certainly exemplifies a human connection to a dehumanized world. Two different moments in Uncle Tom’s Cabin stand out as particularly sentimental. The first being the loss of children exhibited by both Eliza and Mrs. Bird and the second being the character of Eva. Both scenes are tremendously sentimental and specifically appeal to the female reader. The point of the sentimental character or sentimental scene is to hook the eader and urge them to continue with the story, even if there is a different intended meaning in the text.
In Uncle Tom’s Cabin, sentimentality was used to fascinate readers however the real message was how horrible slavery was and that is should be abolished. The first scene of sentimentality occurs in Chapter 7 which is entitled “The Mother’s Struggle”. The very first line of the chapter reads, “It is impossible to conceive of a human creature more wholly desolate and forlorn than Eliza, when she turned her footsteps from Uncle Tom’s cabin” (Stowe 94). This scene is when Eliza is escaping in order to save her child. She risks both of their lives in order to get away from the evil slave traders.
The adjectives that are used such as “desolate” and “forlorn” are used to show the reader just how desperate she was and to pull on the emotions of the readers. However, the more poignant scene occurs in Chapter 9 entitled “In Which It Appears That a Senator Is But a Man”. Even though Eliza is the character that usually gets most of the credit for demonstrating sentimentalities, Mrs. Bird is an immense contributor as well. The other character that absolutely evokes sentimental feelings in readers is that of Eva. Chapter 28 of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is entitled “Death” and this is obviously the chapter where Eva dies.
Eva also demonstrates the power of God and how Stowe uses both sentimentality and religion in the character of Eva. Eva is on her death bead and she pleads for everyone to listen to her. She says: “I want you to remember that there is a beautiful world, where Jesus is. I am going there, and you can go there. If is for you, as much as me. But, if you want to go there, you must not live idle, careless, thoughtless lives. You must be Christians. You must remember that each one of you can become angels, and be angels forever. If you want to be Christians, Jesus will help you.
You must pray to him; you must read—. The child checked herself, looked piteously at them, and said, sorrowfully, “O, dear! You can’t read, — poor souls! ‘” (Stowe 329-330). This chapter and passage evokes so many different emotions in the reader, which is exactly what Stowe had intended. Not only is Eva on her death bed but she is preaching about God, she is includes the slaves and she feels pity for them (not because they are slaves but because they can’t read). Eva is also seen as having a “pure” spirit and it is assumed that she will go right to heaven.
In the next chapter, the family is grieving Eva and Topsy cannot bear that Eva is gone. She cries out, “O, Miss Eva! oh, Miss Eva! I wish I’s dead, too,- I do! ” There was a piercing wildness in the cry; the blood flushed into St. Clare’s white, marble-like face, and the first tears he had shed since Eva died stood in his eyes” (Stowe 339). The character of Topsy is totally reformed and she now feels such agony over Miss Eva’s death. Not only does Stowe show Eva’s death the chapter before but she now devotes an entire chapter to show how the characters are tormented with Eva’s death.
There are numerous examples of sentimentality in this chapter with the first being that Mrs. Bird decides to take Eliza into her home in the first place. Mr. and Mrs. Bird were literally in the middle of a conversation about how they are not allowed to harbor any slaves anymore however Mrs. Bird states, “”Now, John, I don’t know anything about politics, but I can read my Bible; and there I see that I must feed the hungry, clothe the naked, and comfort the desolate; and that Bible I mean to follow” (Stowe 125) and then Eliza knocks on their door.
Mrs. Bird goes against her husband and state to help Eliza and Harry however, Eliza had to do some convincing once she woke up from her rest. Eliza decides to take a chance and use sentimentality on Mrs. Bird. “‘Ma’am,” she said, suddenly, “have you ever lost a child? ” The question was unexpected, and it was a thrust on a new wound; for it was only a month since a darling child of the family had been laid in the grave” (Stowe 129). Eliza had just struck sentimental gold. Not only does Mrs. Bird help Eliza and Harry but she goes up to her dead child’s room and retrieves some of his clothing to give to Harry.
Even Mr. Bird is convinced; he says, “Mary, I don’t know how you’d feel about it, but there’s that drawer full of things-of-of-poor little Henry’s. ” (Stowe 132). Eliza drew on Mr. and Mrs. Bird’s sentimentalities as well as Stowe drawing on her readers. Although female readers of the 19th century had different reading protocols, the fundamental purpose of reading stayed the same: to become enlightened. This was a time period where everyone, especially women, were looking to expand their minds and start exploring what the world was like outside of their homes.
The parallels between women’s rights movements and the anti-slavery campaigns were astounding. Harriett Beecher Stowe exhibits characteristics that pertain to both movements and she serves as a perfect case study. Her most famous literary work, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, provides us with an example of a feminine writing utilizing sentimentalities to get across a larger point, which in her case was the abolition of slavery. Women were reading vigorously as ever, however caution was always employed.