Uncle Tom
From Martyr to Traitor
Adena Spingarn, Foreword by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.



Literature may be viewed in two aspects—as an expression of life, past and present, and as a force directly affecting the conduct of life, present and future. . . . History is instructive, and may warn or admonish; but to this quality literature adds the faculty of persuasion, by which men’s hearts are reached, the springs of action touched, and the currents of life directed.

Charles Chesnutt, “Literature in Its Relation to Life” (1899)1

In the fall of 1967, a young man wearing a black leather jacket and a black beret parked his motorcycle outside of a party at Iowa’s Grinnell College and went inside to talk with Ralph Ellison about Invisible Man (1952). The conversation became heated, and before long the young man shouted, “You’re an Uncle Tom, man! You’re a sell-out. You’re a disgrace to your race.” For the moment, Ellison maintained his cool, but once the young man rode away, he broke down, sobbing, “I’m not a Tom, I’m not a Tom.”2 How could a century-old literary character provoke such a response? Even now, more than 165 years after the publication of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852), those words still pack a punch. Far from an esoteric literary allusion, Uncle Tom is, as Henry Louis Gates Jr. aptly describes, “the ultimate instrument of black-on-black derogation.”3 Stowe’s character, written as a Christ-like martyr who refuses to divulge the whereabouts of two fugitive slaves, has taken on a uniquely dynamic cultural life beyond the pages of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, becoming a widely recognized epithet for a black person deemed so subservient to whites that he betrays his race.

Today, this conception of Uncle Tom as a submissive race traitor has largely eclipsed Stowe’s character, becoming a powerful political and cultural symbol to many who have never read, or even heard of, the novel. The situation is neatly summed up in a scene between two black characters in a 2007 episode of the critically acclaimed television show 30 Rock. Tracy, a famous actor who grew up in the projects, and Toofer, a preppy, Harvard-educated television writer, butt heads over racial representation.4 (In an edgy joke, Toofer’s nickname comes out of his “two-for-one” value as both a Harvard graduate and an African American.) When Tracy and Toofer are told to work out their differences by writing a scene together, their opposing views on appropriate behavior and language make it seem as if they don’t even speak the same language. (“Yeah, that’s right,” says Toofer, “I’m speaking English.”) Each man sees the other as bad for the race: Toofer tells Tracy that his comic skit in drag is the modern equivalent of minstrelsy, while Tracy criticizes Toofer for acting white. “Who raised you?” he asks. “Look at you, standing there with your pants that fit, using a wallet, drinking Starbucks. . . . Come on, where’s your heritage, my brother, my homeboy, my n——”—the N-word is drowned out by the convenient drone of a vacuum cleaner. The implication is that Toofer, by embracing mainstream white fashion and habits, has lost connection to his race.

When the two are forced to address their conflict in sensitivity training, Tracy again criticizes Toofer for his lack of racial solidarity, calling to the group, “Dude wears khakis. Uncle Tom, party of one! Uncle Tom, party of one!” Tracy’s comment underscores the tangling of racial authenticity and solidarity embodied in the Uncle Tom figure. Wearing khaki pants rather than street fashion is not simply a sartorial choice but a symbol of complicity with white—and therefore anti-black—values. Khakis make him stand apart from his race as a “party of one” working for his personal advancement rather than the collective interest. But Toofer is exasperated by Tracy’s reference to Uncle Tom. “You can’t call someone that if you’ve never read the book,” he sneers, asserting his own authority by way of education. Still, Toofer’s objection doesn’t make much of an impact on the group: in a sly punchline to the scene, an onlooker calls out, “What book?”

What book, indeed. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the best-selling book of the nineteenth century after the Bible, selling 300,000 copies in the United States in its first year alone and a million copies between the United States and Britain. Translated into more than a dozen languages, it was a sensation all over the world. Yet even the huge popularity of Stowe’s novel was eclipsed by the vast and enduring network of responses the novel and its protagonist inspired. Continuing into the present day, these responses have taken shape in virtually every medium imaginable, from children’s playing cards to lavish theater productions, from radical black political movements to minstrel song-and-dance numbers, from Limoges figurines to rap music.5 And they have taken substantial freedoms with Stowe’s original text, sometimes expanding upon it, sometimes contradicting it, and sometimes altogether ignoring its existence. Somewhere along the way, the brawny, martyred hero of Stowe’s novel came to be known as a submissive, old race traitor.

Early critics of the novel described Uncle Tom as a character whose “rich[] spiritual beauty” and “loft[y] moral grandeur” was unmatched in literature.6 As Stowe introduces the character, Tom, “the hero of our story,” is a deeply Christian man who is confident in himself even as he is humble before God, “his whole air self-respecting and dignified, yet united with a confiding and humble simplicity.”7 His humility does not stop him from asserting himself verbally, especially when it comes to his Christian faith. To mid-nineteenth-century African Americans, Uncle Tom connoted a pious Christian whose Christ-like submission merited respect, even if not, for some, emulation as a protest strategy. Frederick Douglass rejected this character as a personal model but also expressed appreciation for him in his second and third autobiographies, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855) and The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (1892). In both, he described the beloved “spiritual father” of his youth, Father Lawson, as “in christian [sic] graces, the very counterpart of ‘Uncle’ Tom. The resemblance is so perfect, that he might have been the original of Mrs. Stowe’s christian [sic] hero.”8 Although Uncle Tom was a fictional creation, for Douglass he was quite real, and he had made a lasting impact: Lawson’s message of liberty through faith in God influenced Douglass’ thoughts so deeply that, he admitted, “they have never entirely diverged.”9 To Douglass, as to many other black activists of his time, the community was enriched both by those who survived by religious faith and by those who survived by resistance. One could disagree with Uncle Tom’s patient, self-sacrificing Christianity, and at times one could even mock it—and Douglass did both—but one could not deny its fundamental role in the survival of the race.10

Uncle Tom’s modern connotation turns his original identity on its head: where Stowe’s Christ-like hero sacrifices himself in the process of protecting two escaped slaves, the contemporary Uncle Tom sacrifices his race for his own interests. The figure has also undergone an enormous physical transformation, from the broad-shouldered “behemoth,” as the novel’s Marie St. Clare describes Tom when she first sees him, to a doddering, white-haired geriatric with a cane. Critics have long pondered this dramatic change, wondering “how a book whose avowed and successful purpose was to champion an oppressed people came to stand as a major symbol of that oppression.”11 The most convenient, if largely unexplored, explanation has been that the transformation was the result of the myriad theatrical adaptations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin staged virtually without pause from 1852 through the 1930s and appearing intermittently ever since.12 These adaptations, critics have almost universally assumed, turned Stowe’s Christ-like hero into a submissive old fool.13

The contemporary force of the Uncle Tom slur has veiled the complicated story of this figure and thus of an important through-line of American racial politics. The dominant narrative of the Uncle Tom’s Cabin dramas holds that they quickly lost their progressive political power, becoming a debased, retrograde spectacle of happy plantation scenes and minstrel comedy. One scholar has even gone so far as to argue that the plays “did more to hamper than to help the cause of the blacks in the United States.”14 This explanation posits an Uncle Tom figure created, like Aunt Jemima, entirely “in the fantasy world of whiteness, the only place where they were possible.”15 And it requires a marked shift in the way we think about Uncle Tom’s Cabin in relation to American culture and politics. If we understand the novel and the plays of the 1850s as agents of social change, as works with the power to transform a nation’s attitude toward a longtime institution and to demand recognition of the humanity, if not the equality, of a race that some had classed with animals, then it doesn’t quite make sense to think of the continuing tradition as simply receiving and then reifying American racial prejudices. And as I show in this book, the historical record reveals a far more progressive assessment of the Uncle Tom’s Cabin dramas than scholars have assumed.

Ever since the publication of Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom has been a central figure in American conversations about race and racial representation. This book tells the story of how these changing conversations transformed Stowe’s character into a widely known derogatory slur. By tracking this transformation, I shed light on a history of American debates about the reality and legacy of slavery, the viability of various strategies for racial progress, and the appropriate attributes of black characters in literature, theater, and film. I argue that the figure’s derogatory meaning did not emerge on the stage, where in fact black audiences received the Uncle Tom’s Cabin dramas as works with radical political potential some years into the twentieth century. Rather, Uncle Tom became a slur within the black political rhetoric of the 1910s because the figure encapsulated a traumatic slavery past that reverberated through twentieth-century American race relations. Developing in the context of unjust and inhumane structures of oppression, this transformation was shaped by demographic, educational, cultural, and political shifts that made a younger generation of New Negroes increasingly assertive in its resistance to Jim Crow as well as more disparaging of the “old Negroes” who came before them. Uncle Tom, I suggest, is as much a product of black discourse as of the white imagination, a figure drawn upon and shaped by fundamental debates within the black community over who should represent the race and how it should be represented.

Blurring the lines between fiction and fact, Americans received Stowe’s character as both a representation by a creative writer and a representative of the people enslaved in the South. This dual status ultimately produced two different cultural manifestations of Uncle Tom. One was the character as featured in literature, theater, and film, often though not always tied to Stowe’s novel. The second was an approximation of a living, breathing person, a political, moral, and behavioral type to be embraced or critiqued. In both politics and cultural production, the derogatory denotation of this figure developed in the context of systematic racial injustices, through a particular kind of intraracial critique of an older generation by a younger one. Uncle Tom became a slur at the moment when the past was no longer seen as the building block of future progress nor as something to be ignored, but instead as a powerful contemporary adversary.

Race and Racism in American Culture

Although Uncle Tom has long been a slur, this book is the first to investigate Uncle Tom not just as a character within the cultural history of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, or even within the many works “descended” from Stowe’s novel, but also as a figure with an active life outside of expressive culture.16 By integrating cultural and political analysis of this figure in the American imagination, Uncle Tom: From Martyr to Traitor fills a longtime gap in the scholarship on the political and social impact of what John William DeForest famously called the nation’s nearest prospect for a “Great American Novel.”17 Covering a vast span of media and movements, the story of Uncle Tom enables a holistic analysis of what it means to “represent” a race in creative and sociopolitical terms. Critical race theory has shown us that race is socially constructed in complex and historically contingent ways. As the story of Uncle Tom makes clear, so, too, is racism. We often think of a stereotypical character as a static figure; indeed, repetition of sameness is fundamental to what makes a character a stereotype in the first place. Yet the changing responses of readers and critics to Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the shifting rhetoric of Uncle Tom highlight the historical contingency of the concept of stereotype itself. Not only did attitudes toward this character and type change, so did the grounds for approval or objection.

Part of the attraction and the challenge of making a definitive assessment of Uncle Tom and Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the American imagination is the broad extent of the character’s cultural penetration. This is especially the case when it comes to the dramatic adaptations, which have been staged tens of thousands of times in an astounding variety of theatrical forms (including minstrelsy, melodrama, farce, opera, burlesque, vaudeville, and variety) by hundreds of theatrical companies, using an untold variety of scripts and sometimes nothing more than memory. As one critic observed in 1896, “If there is any one play in existence that has been abused, mutilated, and presented in every conceivable shape, it is ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin.’18 If you follow the life of Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the American stage, you get something pretty close to a history of the American popular theater.

My account of Uncle Tom’s transformation relies on significant archival research in library and museum collections, where I have located previously undiscussed adaptations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin by African Americans, as well as in digitized historical newspapers and periodicals.19 The recent digitization of many historical American newspapers from cities large and small enables a more thorough historical tracking of the Uncle Tom’s Cabin plays through contemporaneous accounts and advertisements. Providing access to an enormous trove of previously unexplored documents that substantially expand the already large amount of source material (playbills, posters, scripts, etc.) in library and museum archives, these digitized collections are especially useful for performance studies scholars who have in recent years paid increasing attention to the multiplicity of any given work in what is ultimately an ephemeral art form. Historical newspapers illuminate not just where and when the plays were performed or how they were marketed, but also, and perhaps more suggestively, how critics and audiences received them. Research in black periodicals is particularly relevant to this story because the black press was a key arena for the debate and creation of a common black culture. Spending hundreds of hours combing through references to Uncle Tom and Uncle Tom’s Cabin in digital collections, I’ve created a database of thousands of significant mentions and used them as empirical evidence of sometimes surprising cultural attitudes. Of course, the archive is always partial. Many newspapers and books have not been digitized, and many if not most shows were never memorialized in print. Even so, the collection of thousands of digital records enables a fuller picture of what Uncle Tom and Uncle Tom’s Cabin have meant to Americans than previous scholarship has provided.

Stage adaptations of Stowe’s novel are overdue for a fresh investigation using these new resources. Until recently, scholarly discussion of the Uncle Tom stage shows relied heavily on the 1947 account of Harry Birdoff, an amateur historian and collector of Uncle Tom show paraphernalia. Birdoff’s account is a useful starting point for research, but it is, as the author subtitles one section of the book, “An Informal and Affectionate History of America’s Folk Play,” and it has significant limitations as scholarship.20 John Frick’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” on the Stage and Screen (2012) has partially addressed the need for a replacement for Birdoff’s book by situating Uncle Tom’s Cabin in theater history, but his account neither connects this tradition to the Uncle Tom character’s enduring incorporation into American politics nor makes use of new digital research methods that would more fully address its performance and reception history.21 David Reynolds’ Mightier Than the Sword: “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and the Battle for America (2011), on the other hand, offers a more progressive reading of the Uncle Tom’s Cabin plays and films. While my account shares with his an attention to the liberatory politics of this stage tradition, I am interested here in the ways that these plays both challenged and participated in the cultural forces that enabled and perpetuated Jim Crow. Moreover, I show how the cultural history of Uncle Tom’s Cabin contributed to the African American political conversations that turned Uncle Tom into a slur.

My archival methodology charts the transformation of Uncle Tom primarily through the words and actions of the readers, writers, artists, and everyday people who found meaning, whether positive or negative, in this figure. Some of these responses are extremely discomfiting from a twenty-first-century perspective. For example, the many Uncle Tom’s Cabin playbills that advertise a lavish “great plantation scene” and, in the case of an 1877 performance in Boston, trumpet the involvement of “100 Genuine Southern Colored People who were slaves before the War. . . . Illustrating in a most realistic manner Life in the South Twenty Years Ago,” strike a contemporary scholar as obscenely racist.22 By framing black performance within a supposedly “realistic” plantation celebration, these scenes clearly reflect and participate in the racist structures that delimited black life in the United States. At the same time, however, newspapers such as the Indianapolis Freeman regularly published reports on the successes of members of various Uncle Tom’s Cabin companies, showing an obvious pride in their accomplishments. For example, the paper reported of Stetson’s Big Double Uncle Tom’s Cabin Company that “Mr. Gus Collins is receiving lots of compliments and numerous press notices for his wonderfully natural portrayal of the famous part of Uncle Tom.”23 To be sure, the plays reinforced elements of a racist social order and damaging notions of racial difference. Yet here, as in the blackface minstrel shows of the nineteenth century, there were “contradictory racial impulses at work.”24 However offensive such performances are in our eyes, they meant something to those who had few opportunities to see the creative talents of black artists recognized and compensated.25 As is clear from the stories of these performers and their audiences, human beings find ways to experience pride and dignity within horrifically unjust systems. When we dismiss these performances as nothing more than harmful capitulation to racist white standards, we deny black performers and audiences these feelings, rob them of their agency, and do a kind of violence to their memory.

By locating Uncle Tom’s transformation on the stage, scholars have posited essentially two iterations of the character: Stowe’s humble Christian and the boot-licking minstrel fool who hobbled onto American stages. This binary narrative does not adequately reflect the complexity of race in America. It does not explain why a number of white Southerners at the turn of the twentieth century responded to Uncle Tom’s Cabin plays as if they would violently unravel the social order, nor why black commentators interpreted those same productions as relevant to protests against lynching. Reliance on the category of racism has a tendency to cut off analysis precisely at the point at which it is most needed. We’ve seen this recently in the many deaths of unarmed black men and women at the hands of law enforcement. The binary of racism and, for lack of a better term, not-racism, in which racism is a clearly identifiable bad thing (a Confederate flag, for example, or use of the N-word) engaged in only by bad people, has helped create a society in which many, albeit not enough, Americans explicitly deny the existence of an innate racial hierarchy. Yet removing the Confederate flag from state buildings in Charleston is not, of course, the same thing as removing racism. The racist/nonracist category has discouraged Americans from acknowledging the unseen structures of racism that persist. In order to address these complicated structures, in this book identifying racism is not a conclusion but rather a starting point for investigating how race worked at a particular moment. I use Uncle Tom as a kind of Rorschach inkblot for American race relations: what this figure has meant tells us less about him than it does about those who have responded to him.

The Birth of Uncle Tom

If Uncle Tom had, like Sister Carrie or Huck Finn, remained safely inside the literary work that created him, his name probably would not have become a slur, and certainly not as widely known and referenced as it is today. But Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Tom was only the first of many, and his name permeated American culture with a breadth and frequency unmatched in American literary history. Stowe’s blockbuster novel had several popular characters, among them Eva, Topsy, and Eliza, whose ice-crossing became one of the most famous scenes in the adaptations. But it was Uncle Tom that came to stand in for everything the novel represented. Part of this may have been syntactic happenstance, a result of the English language’s unfriendliness to doubling up possessives. (“Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s popularity” sounds more awkward than “Uncle Tom’s popularity.”) When writing about the novel, critics often shortened its title to Uncle Tom in the service of more fluid prose.

But Uncle Tom was much more than a convenient abbreviation for a book title. He was also the most contentious character in a spectacularly well-known and controversial book, one that, as Jane P. Tompkins notes, deployed “the culture’s greatest religious myth, the story of the crucifixion,” and “its most cherished social beliefs—the sanctity of motherhood and the family” to encapsulate the greatest political and cultural conflict in American history.26 Slave narratives published before 1852 gave white readers a chance to consider the humanity of black people, but these sold in limited numbers, and generally to readers who already held abolitionist sympathies. Frederick Douglass’ 1845 Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, for example, sold 30,000 copies during the 1840s while aided by a vigorous lecture tour, a total that is just 3 percent of the first-year sales of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the United States and Britain. In an era in which slaves counted as three fifths of a person and the superiority of the white race over the black race was widely considered a fact, Uncle Tom was the first humanized, even glorified representation of a black person that many whites had encountered. (The light-skinned George Harris, who explicitly attributes many of his characteristics to his Anglo-Saxon ancestry, perhaps did not present the same challenges to white audiences.) In his strength and submissiveness, in his commitment to God above both himself and his master, Stowe’s Tom was the novel’s exemplar of Christian virtue. If the reader had any doubts about the character’s Christliness, Stowe made it explicit by titling the chapter in which he dies “The Martyr.”

With the spread of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, people from every walk of life and from all over the world wept in sympathy for the cruel plight of American slaves, from the working-class Frenchman who bought his bread at an Uncle Tom bakeshop to British royalty like the Earl of Shaftesbury, who announced himself a fan. George Sand’s breathless review of the novel proclaimed, “This book is in all hands and in all journals. It has, and will have, editions in every form; people devour it, they cover it with tears. It is no longer permissible to those who can read not to have read it.”27 Uncle Tom’s Cabin became the first great American success in the international cultural marketplace. The novel’s centrality to the coming of the Civil War and the abolition of slavery was suggested by none other than Abraham Lincoln, who was rumored to have said, upon meeting Stowe, “So this is the little lady who wrote the book that started this great war.”28 Although the Lincoln story is probably apocryphal, the sentiment was a common one. Many Americans—black and white, across regions and the political spectrum—believed that Stowe’s novel was a fundamental impetus for the Civil War.

The novel’s political impact also reached far beyond the issue of slavery, to the very humanity of black Americans. Although others had argued for the equality of the races, most notably Frederick Douglass, who presented himself as a prime example of black achievement, Uncle Tom was the first black hero in American literature to capture the minds and hearts of a large audience. George Eliot, for one, wrote that Stowe had “invented the Negro novel,” meaning not that Stowe was the first novelist to include black characters, but rather that she was the first one to reach a wide readership while taking blacks seriously as human beings.29 In what Philip Fisher identifies as a characteristic strategy of the sentimental novel, Stowe’s novel extends “normal states of primary feeling to people from whom they have been previously withheld.”30 Fueled by the revolutionary power of this novel, Uncle Tom became the center of the first major national conversation about the humanity of African Americans as well as a catalyzing figure in debates about abolitionist strategy.

From the moment Uncle Tom’s Cabin entered American culture, it inspired wave upon wave of political and material responses. Southern whites protested that Stowe’s book got both the institution of slavery and the character of slaves entirely wrong. They insisted that such horrors never (or rarely) happened, and that no black man could be as virtuous as Uncle Tom. Meanwhile, writers, artists, and entrepreneurs adapted Stowe’s work in virtually every medium, from literature and theater to card games and plates. Whether adaptors of Uncle Tom’s Cabin prioritized politics or profit, they could not help but grapple with the novel’s two most shocking notions: that the institution of slavery was unjust and unchristian and that black slaves were human beings. Stowe’s novel and its adaptations became a key arena in which Americans debated the fraught, twin issues of slavery and race, issues that would prove no less complicated or controversial once the question of slavery was legally settled.

One might have expected Uncle Tom’s Cabin to fade in popularity with the abolition of slavery and the end of the Civil War. It had once been about a pressing political issue, one for which hundreds of thousands of Americans were ultimately willing to die. But even when the nation was officially reunited and slavery was abolished, Uncle Tom’s Cabin didn’t disappear—far from it. The novel continued to be reprinted nearly every year through the 1920s and regularly even after that, with some libraries reporting that Stowe’s novel was one of the most popular items among patrons.31 Stage adaptations of Stowe’s story, which first appeared shortly after the novel’s initial serialization in the National Era, flooded the nation into the 1930s. So did film adaptations, as the technology developed. Stephen Railton counts nine cinematic versions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin between 1903 and 1927, from a one-reel Edison-Porter version that preceded even The Great Train Robbery to a big-budget thirteen-reel Universal film.32

If the abolition of slavery was the primary goal of Stowe’s novel and that goal had been achieved, why did Uncle Tom’s Cabin remain so prominent in American culture for so long after the Civil War? Certainly, Americans appreciated Stowe’s work as a good story, full of romance and violence, comedy and tragedy, happy families and those torn apart. It is doubtful that the novel or its many adaptations would have caught on or remained popular if they had not been a pleasure to read and watch. Indeed, Uncle Tom’s Cabin is not only genuinely moving—a feature that Leslie Fiedler was loathe to admit—but also a surprisingly funny book, filled with dry humor. Even so, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was never simply a work of fiction or drama, and Uncle Tom was never simply a character; Uncle Tom’s Cabin and its hero were verdicts, truthful or not, about the real nature of American chattel slavery, the South, and African Americans. Even once the passage of the Thirteenth Amendment settled the issue of slavery’s legality, the institution’s legacy remained open for discussion, as did the fate of the four million newly freed blacks. Stowe’s novel and the many adaptations it inspired served as a central, ever-contested site for the nation’s continuing racial and sectional debates, offering a space and vocabulary in which the nation could wrestle with the many cultural disruptions that had not been resolved with Appomattox. The persistent visibility of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and its many popular adaptations made Uncle Tom the one black person that virtually every nineteenth-century American “knew.”

If for whites Uncle Tom was a broad representative of blackness in America, black Americans more specifically saw this figure as the symbol of a traumatic collective history that many experienced as degrading, humiliating, and shameful. Unlike guilt, which develops from an individual’s belief that she has violated her own accepted standards of behavior, shame is an externally oriented affect, coming from a feeling of personal inadequacy according to accepted standards. Guilt allows the subject to maintain a distinction between the self and the violating behavior. Shame, however, collapses the two, such that the violation is the self, and it manifests as “fear of exposing one’s defective self to others.”33 Shame about slavery provoked some black Americans to approach the spirituals, and later the blues, as “part of a vernacular culture that needed to be left behind, an embarrassing remnant.”34 Even W. E. B. Du Bois, a firm believer in the importance of preserving the memory and cultural productions of slavery, described the period of the race’s enslavement as “The Valley of Humiliation” in his historical pageant, The Star of Ethiopia (1911). The figure of Uncle Tom allowed irrational but nevertheless deeply held feelings of shame about the slavery past and continued oppression to be translated into blame. This psychological function distinguishes Uncle Tom from other influential literary characters and help explains why other oppressed groups have adapted this figure for their own intraracial critiques: “Uncle Tomahawk” for Native Americans, “Uncle Chan” for Asian Americans, “Aunt Tom” for feminists.

A Literary Phenomenon

In order to explain how a nineteenth-century literary character took on such an active life of his own, it’s important to set out the technological advances, market changes, and national and international politics that pushed Stowe’s novel and its hero into nearly every facet of American culture. At the end of 1852, less than a year after the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, the New York Literary World described the novel’s instant and enormous popularity as “a phenomenon in the literary world, one of those phenomena which set at naught all previous experience and baffle all established and recognized principles.”35 In the first year of its publication, Uncle Tom’s Cabin sold a record-making 300,000 copies in the United States alone, the equivalent of close to seven million copies in today’s market. (The number becomes even more impressive when one considers that each copy is estimated to have had eight to ten readers.)36 First-year international sales were also staggering, reaching close to one million in the United States and Britain, with more copies sold all over the world as translations came out.

From the beginning, the astonishing success of Uncle Tom’s Cabin mystified critics, who often posed a version of the question asked by Christian Parlor Magazine a few months after the novel’s publication: “What is in it to make it so wonderful?”37 Explanations of the novel’s success have varied tremendously, but all have tended to be vague and not quite adequate, circling around the novel’s mysterious influence without arriving at any real conclusion about the origins of its immediate and lasting power. The New York Evangelist offered a typically inexact account, locating the novel’s indubitable popularity in either its subject, its spirit, or its readers:

Criticism may smile or frown, may dislike “the plot” and call the whole “absolute and audacious trash”; yet nothing can beat Uncle Tom in the art of finding readers. There is something in the book, in its theme, in the spirit with which it is executed, or in human nature, or in all these put together, that has given it an unprecedented popularity.38

Whether or not one liked the book or thought it was accurate about American slavery, there was no doubt that it excelled in “the art of finding readers.” With almost preternatural timing, Uncle Tom entered a world that was singularly poised for the massive circulation of his image and a society that had just become ready for him. The Uncle Tom’s Cabin phenomenon that made this character a household name came out of a perfect storm of factors both within and outside of the novel. With the recent passing of the Fugitive Slave Law, part of the Compromise of 1850, slavery had become a heightened concern in American politics. The law required all Americans, even those living in states where slavery was illegal, to help return fugitives to their masters. United States marshals and deputy marshals who refused to do everything in their power to capture a fugitive slave would be fined one thousand dollars, and if a fugitive escaped under their watch, marshals were liable for the full dollar value. Any person who obstructed the arrest of a fugitive or attempted to help one in any way, even by providing food or shelter, could be punished with a one-thousand-dollar fine and imprisonment for six months.39 Now Northerners who had been content to leave the slavery issue to the South were forced to become an active part of it.

Stowe was indignant about the Fugitive Slave Law, writing to her sister that it made her feel “almost choked sometimes with pent up wrath that does no good.”40 Shortly after the law’s passage, when another sister wrote urging Stowe to use her writing talent to help the nation understand the wrongness of slavery, Stowe realized that fiction could be a way for her to channel her righteous anger into something productive. Upon reading her sister’s letter in the parlor one evening, she stood up and declared to her children, “I will write something. I will if I live.”41 Fiction, she knew, had the power to influence people in a way that a political tract could not.

At the same time that Northerners were becoming more receptive to an anti-slavery message, new technologies promoted the unprecedentedly rapid spread and wide embrace of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Cost-saving technological advancements in printing made books available to an expanded readership. The steam-powered Adams Power Printing Press, patented in 1836, enabled much faster production of books and therefore drastically reduced their cost. With the invention of stereotyping in 1811 and electrotyping in 1841, new editions of books no longer required the resetting of type. Publishers could make permanent, relatively inexpensive metal plates and store them for subsequent editions. Other technologies that aided book production included two paper-making machines that came into widespread use in the 1830s: the belt-based Foudrinier (1799) and Thomas Gilpin’s cylinder (1816). By allowing the production of continuous rolls of paper in large widths, these machines offered a significant savings of time over sheet-by-sheet printing.42 Technological advancements outside of book production also promoted the wide circulation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Beginning in the 1830s and continuing until the Civil War, a railway boom spread railroad tracks across the United States, connecting what had been regional publishing networks into a growing national print culture. As Ronald J. Zboray points out, because the railroad network was clustered in the Northeast, publishers and authors could and did ignore the preferences of Southern readers in favor of Northern markets.43 Meanwhile, improved and cheaper domestic lighting and wider availability of eyeglasses expanded the hours for reading and made it easier for Americans to sit down with a book.

In its entrance to the growing American literary marketplace, Uncle Tom’s Cabin also benefited from the unusually canny and extensive promotional strategies of the novel’s first publisher, the small Boston firm John P. Jewett and Company. Boston’s leading publisher, Phillips, Sampson, had already rejected Stowe’s novel during its 1851–1852 serialization in the abolitionist journal The National Era, one partner holding that it “would not sell a thousand copies”—clearly a monumental misjudgment.44 But Jewett’s wife, who had started reading the serials in The National Era, urged her husband to publish it, insisting that it would sell well. Before even a third of the novel had been serialized, Jewett wrote to Stowe and secured a contract with her to print Uncle Tom’s Cabin, not knowing how long the novel would ultimately become. As Claire Parfait has documented, Jewett was an unusually savvy marketer who capitalized on existing publicity practices to promote Uncle Tom’s Cabin and developed effective new ones.45 With a prophetic understanding of the power of advertising, he ensured extensive coverage of Stowe’s novel before its publication by spending thousands of dollars sending advertisements and prepared notices about the novel to magazines and newspapers. Following the custom of the day, these publications would print Jewett’s notices as editorial matter with little or no amendment, as compensation for purchasing advertising.46 Though Jewett’s firm was small and had limited resources, he advertised as much as firms more than five times the size of his own, and he did so with greater acuity. While other publishers tended to advertise a different title in each issue of a journal, Jewett repeated the same advertisement in several issues, building interest over time.

But Jewett’s real innovation came once the novel was in print, in his sophisticated understanding that the choice to buy something was as much a social decision as a personal one. In paid advertisements and prepared notices, the publisher went beyond the usual advertising practice of informing consumers about the content and quality of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. More crucially, he stressed the novel’s immense success, going into detail not only about its record sales figures but also the complicated logistical demands of printing so many copies. By handling the novel’s success as itself “an unprecedented event, a publishing phenomenon,” as Parfait suggests, Jewett’s advertising campaign built on its own success, using past sales to promote future ones.47 Consumers who read about all the excitement over Stowe’s novel could get swept up along with it. One of Jewett’s reports, reprinted in The Liberator and The Independent, among other periodicals, announced that his publishing firm was having trouble meeting the high demand for Uncle Tom’s Cabin, despite keeping three papers mills and three Adams power presses running twenty-four hours every day of the week except Sunday. Within three weeks of the novel’s publication, 20,000 copies had sold.48 By May, The Independent reported, 125 to 200 bookbinders were constantly at work binding 90,000 pounds of paper into 55 tons of bound volumes.49 And by June, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was in such high demand at New York’s Mercantile Library that the institution purchased forty-five copies, which remained in constant rotation among the city’s future merchants.50 A few copies of the novel even found their way across the country to California, where miners paid 25 cents to take their turn at reading it.51 Jewett, the first publisher to so heavily emphasize these kinds of facts and figures, anticipated what has become common knowledge in contemporary publishing, where magazines and mass-market trade books often trumpet numbers on their covers (“10 Ways to Cut Calories,” People magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People,” The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People) in order to increase sales. Though splashing numbers on the covers of magazines can produce a cluttered appearance, it is so effective in boosting newsstand sales that magazine publishers often embrace the tactic for copies sold from newsstands, while opting for a simpler version of the cover for the subscribers who have already purchased their copy in advance and therefore don’t need to be convinced.52

When sales of Uncle Tom’s Cabin began to level toward the end of 1852, Jewett responded by coming out with a cheaper “Edition for the Million,” which helped sell more copies of the novel after the upper end of the market had become saturated.53 And with sales of that edition calming by the end of 1853, the following year Jewett published Stowe’s Key to “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Although the Key was positioned as a defense of the novel’s account of slavery, it also helped keep Uncle Tom in the limelight. Moreover, Jewett understood the potential of finding new ways to expand the reach of the novel beyond Stowe’s text. For further promotion, he hired the poet John Green-leaf Whittier to write a poem, “Little Eva: Uncle Tom’s Guardian Angel,” and then had the composer Manuel Emilio set Whittier’s lyrics to music.

Even outside of Jewett’s savvy publicity tactics, Uncle Tom’s Cabin seemed to spur its own promotion, to an astounding extent. Jewett’s effort at selling branded products—what has come to be called “merchandising” in contemporary parlance—ultimately constituted a small portion of what became a massive proliferation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin spin-offs produced without his or Stowe’s knowledge or consent. Indeed, within months of the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, J. S. Dwight’s prominent music journal grumbled that every music publisher had to make his own “Little Eva” song, with composers paying more attention to song titles than to the quality of the music: “[A]ll the minor composers are as busy on this theme, as if it were the one point of contact for the time being with the popular sympathies.”54 If not the only point of contact with the popular sympathies, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was certainly one of the more efficient means of accessing them. It was infinitely adaptable, providing a foundation of ready popularity on which any other creator or manufacturer could build.

Figure 1a. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Vision of Uncle Tom,” commemorative plate. Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, Hartford, CT.

Perhaps most important, the novel’s fast-moving, multi-threaded plot, its archetypal characters, and its panoramic scope made it a uniquely rich source for adaptation and translation, suited to any genre and attractive to all audiences. Those interested in riding the wave of the novel’s popularity found that it offered a treasure trove of source material: romance and violence, comedy and tragedy, happy families and those torn apart, angels and demons, convention and radicalism. And these elements could be selectively plucked and reimagined in a vast number of ways: moral theater for church groups, pro-slavery “anti-Tom” novels, playing cards for children, porcelain figurines and plates for display in parlors, fine paintings and sculptures for art collectors. (See figures 1a and 1b.) The easy adaptability of Uncle Tom’s Cabin found a convenient complement in the mid-nineteenth century’s rising middle class and consumer culture. As the popularity of Stowe’s novel grew, artists and businesspeople capitalized on its success, using its basic premises and characters as the launching point for products across a variety of media and levels of cultural sophistication. Though these products were not approved by Stowe or her publisher and did not make them money directly, to some extent they fostered a mutually beneficial situation: Uncle Tom products sold well because of the novel’s popularity, but they also helped sell copies by contributing to the worldwide Uncle Tom frenzy.

Figure 1b. “Onkel Tom’s Hutte playing card #8,” ca. 1855. Harriet Beecher Stowe Center, Hartford, CT.

In an 1853 letter to Stowe, the English clergyman John Angell James called Uncle Tom’s Cabin “the literary phenomenon which has fallen on us like the manna in the camp of the Israelites, adapted to every taste, and relished by every palate.”55 The clergyman offered an apt analogy in comparing the novel to the Israelites’ manna, which is described so differently at various points in the Old Testament that, Biblical commentators concluded, its taste must have varied according to who ate it. Stowe’s novel, adapted into a seemingly infinite number of forms and genres, was similarly molded into whatever Americans were most eager to purchase. It is striking to note that, even while writing to the novel’s author, James described the creation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin as a kind of divine miracle—a notion that Stowe would also promote in her claim that “I didn’t write it, God did”—underscoring Stowe’s limited control over the creations her novel inspired. His sense of the novel’s unique versatility and adaptability anticipates the later observation of the novelist Henry James, who would describe Stowe’s novel as “much less a book than a state of vision, of feeling and of consciousness,” comparing it to “a wonderful ‘leaping’ fish” that had transcended the limits of the page and made itself at home wherever it landed, no matter the medium.56 Adaptations of Stowe’s novel varied significantly in their meaning and intent. At the same time that minstrel Uncle Toms cavorted on Bowery stages, Uncle Tom spin-offs purchased for display inside the home could be emphatically sentimental. In their numerous forms, these adaptations of Stowe’s novel both reflected and created the culture surrounding it.

Stowe’s story had a singularly active existence outside the pages of the text itself. Of course, the merchandising of popular works was not new; Dickens’ fiction was quite popular in this arena, as were products related to the fashionable opera singer Jenny Lind. However, the freedom with which adaptations of Stowe’s novel departed from the text was unique. Unlike the popular Little Nell merchandise from Dickens’ The Old Curiosity Shop, for example, Uncle Tom products were inspired by ideological as well as financial considerations. By their very subject matter, these products were plugged into deep and enduring issues of race in America, and they could not help but engage with the pressing question of racial difference.

The cultural power of Uncle Tom’s Cabin was immediately obvious to pro-slavery Americans, who worried that its instant popularity and sympathetic readership would help end slavery. To counter Stowe’s attacks, they created their own ideological breed of fiction. “In order to meet the fallacies of this abolition tale, it would be well if the friends of the Union would array fiction against fiction,” reasoned the Pittsburgh Gazette. “Meet the disunionists with their own chosen weapon, and they are foiled.”57 In an age before film or television, with a growing, increasingly literate middle class looking to spend its dollars on entertainment, fiction was, more than ever before, a means of reaching a large American audience. Within a few months of the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, a Southern writer hoping to set straight the record on slavery came out with Life at the South: Uncle Tom’s Cabin as It Is. Several more anti-Tom texts followed; The Independent counted eight within six months, noting that Stowe’s novel seemed to have produced a whole new school of literature from both sides of the slavery debate.58 Indeed, before Uncle Tom’s Cabin, as William R. Taylor notes, the Southern plantation novel (a genre that emerged in the 1830s) had concentrated on the lives of white planters, with slaves appearing only in bit parts. But Stowe’s novel lastingly expanded the focus from planter only to master and slave.59 The practice of giving significant attention to slave life and character continued for decades after the publication of Stowe’s novel, most notably in the fiction of Joel Chandler Harris and Thomas Nelson Page. Twain’s Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (1885), with its depiction of the interracial friendship between Huck Finn and Jim, might also be thought to descend from Stowe. With the popularity of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe had set up a cultural battleground upon which the nature of both the institution of slavery and of African Americans would be hotly contested for many years to come.

“Uncle Sam Put to Open Shame by Uncle Tom”

Abroad, just as in the United States, Uncle Tom’s Cabin rippled across various media. In London, on Christmas night of 1852, stage versions of Uncle Tom’s Cabin played in no less than five theaters, with varying levels of faithfulness to Stowe’s novel. An “equestrian version” at Astley’s Amphitheatre ended not with Uncle Tom’s tragic death but with a sword scene between Cassy and Legree. Across the Thames, a show at Sadler’s Wells reached its peak with “a display of rival ‘Uncle Toms,’ each greater than the last.”60 At a Parisian cattle market’s Carnival promenade, where traditionally the largest ox was named after the celebrity of the year, the leading ox of 1853 was called Uncle Tom, with the two smaller oxen accompanying him named Shelby and St. Clare.61 Meanwhile, French choreographers composed a schottisch and a quadrille named after Uncle Tom, and licorice was now called “Uncle Tom candy”—as if Uncle Tom had come to define blackness.62

With the novel’s translation into a multitude of languages—not just French and German but also Chinese, Welsh, Armenian, Finnish, and Hungarian, among others—Uncle Tom became perhaps the most widely traveled ambassador of American culture. Anti-slavery publications such as Frederick Douglass’ Paper, The National Era, and The Liberator eagerly followed the novel’s success abroad, but American slavery advocates were incensed by its enormous international popularity. A writer for The Southern Literary Messenger protested that Stowe, with “shameless disregard to truth,” was slandering her own country to the world, “filling the minds of all who know nothing of slavery with hatred for that institution and those who uphold it.”63 By publicizing what many Southerners thought was a flagrantly unfair representation of slavery, Stowe was, they charged, giving foreigners an invitation to criticize the nation. Proslavery groups felt that Stowe’s novel went too far in airing America’s dirty laundry and complained that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was popular only because it offered an American travesty that allowed the English to divert attention from the oppressive labor system in their own country. The New York Herald charged that Europeans who sympathized with Uncle Tom and condemned his oppressors failed to realize “that they themselves are the Legrees and the Haleys upon whom retribution must fall.”64 To supporters of slavery, Uncle Tom was nothing less than a traitor to his nation. “How they rejoice to see Mrs. Stowe’s hand lifting up the veil, and exposing the nakedness of the republic—to see Uncle Sam put to open shame by Uncle Tom!” wailed one magazine.65

For those in favor of the institution of slavery, Uncle Tom was the most egregious fabrication in a book of slanderous lies, and his popularity in such a wide variety of media only made it worse. They described the Uncle Tom phenomenon as an uncontrollable disease that they were powerless to stop. Less than a year after Uncle Tom’s Cabin was published, the Democratic magazine Putnam’s reported that the entire world was becoming “Uncle Tomitized” by an “Uncle Tomific” that, “like the cholera, knows no distinction of climate or race.”66 In similar language, The Literary World complained that an “Uncle Tom epidemic” had swept the globe “with unabated violence,” seizing men, women, and children from every walk of life: “The prevailing affection is universal, and all have the Uncle Tom.”67 Spreading as fast as cholera, Uncle Tom’s Cabin brought together millions of people of different races and classes from all over the world in shared sympathy for slaves. In an age of international political revolution, the novel’s deep penetration across cultures threatened to do serious violence to an already-precarious status quo. In the middle of the controversy over American slavery, Uncle Tom was both the personification of a growing movement that recognized the humanity of black people and the body over which that humanity would continue to be debated.

Character and Culture

This book investigates what happens when a literary character exits a novel and takes on an independent life. While I would argue that Uncle Tom has had a uniquely dynamic and controversial cultural life, his story nevertheless provides a case study of the kind of cultural work a literary character can do. Stowe’s is not the only character who has enjoyed a life outside of the source text. Some characters have worked their way into common language: Miguel de Cervantes’ Don Quixote, for example, constructed the quixotic type. Others, such as Shakespeare’s Shylock, have become embodiments of ethnic and racial stereotypes. Still others have provided shorthand for personality types (Ebenezer Scrooge, Captain Ahab) or complex ideas (the monstrous creature in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, now popularly believed to be the novel’s title character rather than his inventor).68

Character, as John Frow and others have noted, is a crucial and yet strikingly undertheorized element of the novel, “both ontologically and methodologically ambivalent” because of its dual status as literary device, on the one hand, and cultural concept related to the individual or self, on the other.69 As Alex Woloch usefully articulates, “literary character is itself divided,” simultaneously pushing the novel to expand outward, toward an actual person who might exist in the world and who might think or do any number of things not represented in the novel (character’s referential function), and inward, to the finite set of descriptions and social interactions contained within a narrative’s structure (its structural function).70 Of course, character is hardly the only element of fiction that is both referential and structural. The same might be said of fictional settings: consider, for example, Huck Finn and Jim’s travel down the Ohio River; the river is both a geographical conduit between the slave South and ultimate freedom in the North and a liminal space in which the two characters can relate as human beings.

What ultimately distinguishes character from other novelistic devices is its three-pronged referentiality. Characters can represent human beings in three ways, all of which have social repercussions. One is through the amount of space they occupy in a given work of fiction. In the aggregate, if most black characters in fiction are minor, as was the case for many years in American literature, literature can imply the minimal importance of an entire race. The second mode of representation is at the individual level, in the personality traits and activities of a character. For example, a novel seriously portraying a black doctor might show a white reader that such types can and do exist, while one that pokes fun at such a character’s delusions of grandeur might suggest that there is no such thing as black progress. This mode can also work historically, suggesting a certain assessment of the past. The third aspect of representation is social: when fictional narratives frequently repeat a set of power relations between characters, they can create a cultural script that perpetuates that power dynamic in real life.

That literary characters help us imagine complex social relationships is a crucial feature of fiction’s cultural power that has received relatively little attention in the recent critical revival of character. This book builds on recent works including Deidre Lynch’s The Economy of Character, Woloch’s The One and the Many, and David Brewer’s The Afterlife of Character by offering a wider scale of analysis: the relationship between character and culture.71 Woloch’s scale of analysis is the finite structure of the realist novel, which he suggests is destabilized by its “dual impulses to bring in a multitude of characters and to bring out the interiority of a single protagonist.”72 Through the concepts of character-space and character-system, Woloch richly theorizes the competition between characters for narrative space as a mirror of the struggle for economic resources. While this Marxian interpretation halts at the boundaries of the individual novel, such a competition for space must be reexamined when characters become part of a broader social struggle for resources, rights, and recognition. To that end, Lynch’s scale of analysis extends to the imaginative space of the eighteenth-century British reader, who, she argues, used fictional characters as a “coping mechanism” in a rapidly changing, alienating society of complex class and gender divisions.73 While Lynch’s “pragmatics of character” identifies the individual psyche as character’s most resonant cultural space, David Brewer posits a more communal function for character in what he calls “imaginative expansion,” a practice in which communities of readers collaboratively envision extended lives for fictional characters. (Today we call this “fan fiction.”) Brewer sees imaginative expansion as a function of domestic stability, in which fictional characters become “a common object to rally around.”74 Yet the case of Uncle Tom’s Cabin offers a more complicated social alternative, in which a character becomes a common object over which to struggle. Indeed, Stowe’s Uncle Tom functioned as an imaginative space in which a heterogeneous nation negotiated the most fraught, contentious, and deeply imbricated issue in its history: race.

Fiction is not simply “about” something; as Joshua Landy observes, “[f]ictions also give form to this aboutness; they instigate a process . . . and they have an effect that goes far beyond the mere delivery of information.”75 The “formative” function that Landy identifies works not only for the individual reader, who develops new capacities for seeing the world, but also for a society facing a seemingly intractable problem. Among the many features of the novel that inform the choices readers make in their daily lives, character holds an especially rich capacity for activating the imagination as a useful political and social space, thereby helping readers imagine and make sense of social transformation. Characters derive some of this potential power from their simultaneous fictionality and referentiality: they reference people, the basic unit of society, but they are not actual people, for whom reality imposes certain limits on the imagination. A character can take on an independent life with a flexibility that a real person cannot. By and large, the characters that do this are of the sort that E. M. Forster called “flat”: sometimes called a “type,” they are “constructed around a single idea or quality” and thus both “easily recognized . . . by the reader’s emotional eye” and “easily remembered.”76 Sometimes, as Forster notes of Charles Dickens’ characters in particular, a flat character is so skillfully written that she is also immensely vital. But that vitality alone cannot account for the cultural penetration of a character like Uncle Tom. Importantly, Stowe’s character combined the easy classification of the type—the Christian martyr—with the previously unfathomable—a fully human black person featured in a widely read literary work—at a highly contentious cultural moment. At once familiar and radical, this flat character became ambiguous enough to invite multiple, opposing interpretations.

Organized chronologically, this book begins by situating the hero of Uncle Tom’s Cabin in a nineteenth-century context of sentimentality and Christianity. In Chapter 1, I argue that Tom is both the novel’s model for Christian political reform and its universal masculine ideal, and that, for African Americans, this character embodied the tension between Christian submission and political protest. Of course, Stowe’s Uncle Tom was only the first of many. The next two chapters reveal Uncle Tom’s dignified representation on the antebellum American stage, which I argue disrupted existing minstrel stereotypes to incite the North against slavery, as well as the enduring ideological controversies around the Uncle Tom’s Cabin plays. Guided by records of the promotion and reception of these plays, in Chapter 3 I show that they remained politically relevant and inspiring to many black Americans and deeply threatening to some white Southerners well into the twentieth century. In Chapter 4, I return to the Uncle Tom literary character and its continuing presence in American literature. Here, I argue that pre–Harlem Renaissance black writers including Charles Chesnutt, Mary Church Terrell, and a young James Weldon Johnson saw Uncle Tom as a potential model of politically effective, emotionally powerful characterization that could be adapted to the injustices of modern black life.

To explain Uncle Tom’s transformation, then, we must look beyond the expressive arts. In Chapter 5, I show how Uncle Tom became a slur in the mainstream black political discourse of the 1910s and situate the figure’s transformation in the shifting rhetoric of the Old and New Negro at the turn of the century. Despite Uncle Tom’s pejorative meaning, protests by African Americans against Uncle Tom’s Cabin and its title character did not arise for another two decades. In Chapter 6, I suggest that while New Negro critics were confident that the days of Uncle Tom were over, during the 1930s research on the social and psychological impact of film made black Americans more alert to the complex ways that racial patterns in film and radio contributed to the continuing denial of rights to black people in America. An increasingly sophisticated critique of “Uncle Tom roles” in film developed, ultimately prompting widespread rejection of both Uncle Tom’s Cabin and its eponymous character. Finally, in the Epilogue, I address Uncle Tom’s cultural and political life after Stowe’s novel lost its progressive reputation, showing how authors and activists drew on the figure to explore the enduring legacies of slavery in the black community.

Characters endure not just because they are pleasurable but also because they are useful, whether to the individual reader who wants to enjoy getting lost in a book, groups of readers gathered in book clubs, or a complex society attempting to navigate its deepest anxieties. Uncle Tom has always, in a sense, been a mixed-race figure. Whether as a white author’s imagining of a black slave, or as a black person who submits to whites, this figure lives within the social space of the color line, an ever-present embodiment of perceived incompatibilities between the races. Despite significant advancements in civil rights and race relations, the fact that Uncle Tom is still so often referenced in popular culture suggests just how deeply drawn these racial divisions remain.


1. From a typescript of Chesnutt’s speech to the Bethel Literary and Historical Association in Washington, DC, November 21, 1899, in Charles W. Chesnutt: Essays and Speeches, ed. Joseph R. McElrath, Jr., Robert C. Leitz III, and Jesse S. Crisler (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999), 114.

2. Arnold Rampersad, Ralph Ellison: A Biography (New York: Knopf, 2007), 440.

3. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., “Cabin Fever,” New York Times, October 22, 2006.

4. “The Break-Up,” 30 Rock, season 1, episode 8 (2007).

5. For example, the Grammy-nominated rapper Nas references Uncle Tom in the “American Way” track from his platinum-selling album Street’s Disciple (2002). Criticizing black leaders for failing the race, Nas reserves special censure for Condoleeza Rice as “just another coon Uncle Tom fool.” And the rapper Ice Cube, in “True to the Game” (Death Certificate, 1992), viciously attacks those who abandon black neighborhoods as soon as they make money. He raps, “Stop being an Uncle Tom, you little sell-out / House nigga scum / Give something back to the place where you made it from.”

6. “Another Word about Uncle Tom,” unsigned reprint, The Independent, September 2, 1852, in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and American Culture, ed. Stephen Railton, accessed July 25, 2010, http://utc.iath.virginia.edu (henceforth UTCAC).

7. Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852; New York: Norton, 2010), 19.

8. Frederick Douglass, My Bondage and My Freedom (1855; repr., Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1987), 115; Frederick Douglass, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass (Boston: De Wolfe and Fisk, 1892), 124.

9. Douglass, My Bondage, 105–106. In his 1892 autobiography, however, Douglass described the influence of Lawson’s message somewhat more mildly: “This advice and these suggestions were not without their influence on my future character and destiny.” Douglass, Life and Times, 112.

10. Indeed, Uncle Tom would maintain his appeal for Douglass throughout his life. In 1893, Douglass was reported to have asked to pose as Uncle Tom in the Stowe exhibit at the World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago, opposite a bust of Stowe created for the occasion. “Fred Douglass as Uncle Tom,” Chicago Record, May 25, 1893; New York Times, May 26, 1893; Indianapolis Freeman, June 3, 1893.

11. Thomas P. Riggio, “Uncle Tom Reconstructed: A Neglected Chapter in the History of a Book,” American Quarterly 28.1 (1976): 57.

12. In 2010, the Metropolitan Playhouse in New York City’s East Village staged a minimalist presentation of George L. Aiken’s 1850s adaptation, to positive reviews. Rachel Saltz, covering the production for the New York Times, concluded her review by reflecting that Uncle Tom’s Cabin “shouldn’t be a stranger on our stages.” Rachel Saltz, “Familiar Americana, but Still Full of Life,” New York Times, November 29, 2010, C3.

13. According to David Reynolds, Uncle Tom “was often presented as a stooped, obedient old fool, the model image of a submissive black man preferred by post-Reconstruction, pre–civil rights America. It was this Uncle Tom, weakened both physically and spiritually, who became a synonym for a racial sellout by the mid-20th century.” David Reynolds, “Rescuing the Real Uncle Tom,” New York Times, June 13, 2011. This op-ed coincided with the publication of Reynolds’ Mightier Than the Sword: “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and the Battle for America (New York: Norton, 2011), which similarly argues that the Uncle Tom dramas stripped Stowe’s novel of its progressive politics.

14. Thomas F. Gossett, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and American Culture (Dallas: Southern Methodist University Press, 1985), 387.

15. M. M. Manring, Slave in a Box: The Strange Career of Aunt Jemima (Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1998), 16.

16. Leslie Fiedler describes Uncle Tom’s Cabin as the inaugural text in what became a “Popular Epic” created by multiple authors and across media. He argues that Thomas Dixon’s anti-Tom novels, Birth of a Nation, Gone with the Wind, and Roots all descend from Stowe’s novel and collectively form “a myth of our history unequalled in scope or resonance by any work of high literature.” Fiedler, The Inadvertent Epic (Toronto: CBC Merchandising, 1979), 17.

17. John William DeForest, “The Great American Novel,” The Nation 6.132 (1868): 28. On the enduring appeal of this concept, see Lawrence Buell, The Dream of the Great American Novel (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2014).

18. “Amusements,” Inter Ocean (Chicago), April 27, 1896.

19. Archives consulted include: American Antiquarian Society; Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University; Boston Athenaeum; Boston Public Library; Harry Ransom Center, University of Texas at Austin; Harriet Beecher Stowe Center; Houghton Library, Harvard University; Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, Howard University; Museum of the City of New York; New-York Historical Society; New York Public Library for the Performing Arts; and Stanford University Library’s Special Collections.

A set of such adaptations by Eslanda Robeson, the wife of movie star Paul Robeson, is not discussed in this book, but certainly invites further scholarly analysis. A 1932 revision, “Uncle Tom An’ His Cabin,” makes Tom the head of a touring Harlem jazz band. Robeson’s 1943 play, significantly revised in 1952, more faithfully adapts Stowe’s novel, adding scenes after each act in which Tom explains the relevance of the play’s themes for a modern day audience.

20. See Harry Birdoff, The World’s Greatest Hit (New York: S. F. Vanni, 1947).

21. Frick occasionally relies on Birdoff’s account despite its lack of citations or bibliography, and he argues that “much of [Birdoff’s] book is based upon primary materials currently housed in the archive of the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford, Connecticut.” My own research in this archive suggests that the Birdoff collection fails to back up a number of the claims in The World’s Greatest Hit. John W. Frick, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” on the American Stage and Screen (New York: Palgrave, 2012), xv.

22. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” (Globe Theatre, Boston, May 26, 1877), Uncle Tom’s Cabin Playbills, Harvard Theatre Collection, Houghton Library, Harvard University.

23. J. Harry Jackson, “The Stage,” The Freeman (Indianapolis), March 4, 1899.

24. Eric Lott, Love and Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 4.

25. Even Frederick Douglass, who publicly censured white blackface minstrels as “the filthy scum of white society” and criticized black minstrels for following in their stead, reflected that there was “something to be gained, when the colored man in any form can appear before a white audience,” and that such a company, “with industry, application, and a proper cultivation of their taste, may yet be instrumental in removing the prejudice against our race.” Lott, Love and Theft, 15, 37. I see a contemporary parallel with LGBTQ characters in popular culture. It was not all that long ago that, according to Hollywood, the LGBTQ community essentially did not exist; indeed, for many decades the regulations of the Production Code Administration made sure of that. Today, a viewer revisiting the LGBTQ characters who seemed revolutionary in the 1980s and 1990s is likely to find them disappointingly essentialist. But for a marginalized group, the very fact of representation means something. There’s a reason why, at least for my generation, the process of coming out often involves a personal movie marathon.

26. Jane P. Tompkins, “Sentimental Power: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Politics of Literary History,” in Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin”: A Casebook, ed. Elizabeth Ammons (New York: Oxford University Press, 2007), 73.

27. George Sand, “Review of Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” La Presse, December 17, 1852.

28. This anecdote is often repeated but is probably apocryphal, as there was no report of such an exchange until much later, in Charles Edward Stowe’s 1889 biography, A Life of Harriet Beecher Stowe. Nevertheless, Americans of all political affiliations frequently invoked the precipitous influence of Uncle Tom’s Cabin on the Civil War.

29. George Eliot, “Review of Dred” (1856), in Critical Essays on Harriet Beecher Stowe, ed. Elizabeth Ammons (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1980), 43.

30. Philip K. Fisher, Hard Facts: Setting and Form in the American Novel (New York: Oxford University Press, 1985), 98.

31. See Claire Parfait, The Publishing History of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” 1852–2002 (Aldershot, Hampshire, UK: Ashgate, 2007). The appendix offers an extensive list of the American editions.

32. Stephen Railton, “Readapting Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” in Nineteenth-Century American Fiction on Screen, ed. R. Barton Palmer (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 62. John Frick estimates that the total cost for the 1927 Universal picture was $2,600,000. Frick, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” on the American Stage and Screen, 209.

33. Ying Wong and Jeanne Tsai, “Cultural Models of Shame and Guilt,” in Handbook of Self-Conscious Emotions, ed. Jessica Tracy, Richard Robins, and June Tangney (New York: Guilford Press, 2007), 211.

34. Ron Eyerman, Cultural Trauma: Slavery and the Formation of African American Identity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2001), 120.

35. “The Uncle Tom Epidemic,” Literary World (New York), December 4, 1852, 355.

36. André Schiffrin, The Business of Books (London: Verso, 2001), 8.

37. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Christian Parlor Magazine, May 1, 1852, UTCAC.

38. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the London Times,” New York Evangelist, September 23, 1852, UTCAC.

39. For more on the enactment and enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Act, see Stanley Campbell, The Slave Catchers: Enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law, 1850–1860 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1968).

40. Joan D. Hedrick, Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 1994), 204.

41. Ibid., 207.

42. See Ronald J. Zboray, A Fictive People: Antebellum Economic Development and the American Reading Public (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993), 5–11.

43. Ibid., 13.

44. Claire Parfait, The Publishing History of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” 34.

45. See ibid., 47–66.

46. In the insider’s world of mid-nineteenth-century American publishing, magazines and newspapers usually gave positive notices to publishers and authors who had influence, paid for advertisements, or sent handsome review copies. Those who did not were punished with negative reviews or total silence. See William Charvat, “James T. Fields and the Beginnings of Book Promotion, 1840–1855,” in The Profession of Authorship in America, 1800–1870: The Papers of William Charvat, ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1968).

47. Parfait, The Publishing History of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” 53.

48. “Extraordinary Demand for ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’The Liberator, April 9, 1852, UTCAC.

49. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” The Independent, May 13, 1852, UTCAC.

50. “Literary,” The Independent, June 10, 1852, UTCAC.

51. “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” National Anti-Slavery Standard, August 19, 1852, UTCAC.

52. See Katharine Q. Seelye, “Lurid Numbers on Glossy Pages! (Magazines Exploit What Sells),” New York Times, February 10, 2006.

53. Parfait, The Publishing History of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” 80.

54. “Eva’s Parting,” Dwight’s Journal of Music, July 31, 1852, UTCAC.

55. “The Anti-Christian Influence of Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” repr. Frederick Douglass’ Paper, April 15, 1853, UTCAC.

56. Henry James, A Small Boy and Others (New York: Scribner’s, 1913), 159–160.

57. “Novels and Their Influences,” The Liberator, June 11, 1852, UTCAC. In this article The Liberator quotes and responds to an article from the New York Mirror, which in turn quotes an article from the Pittsburgh Gazette.

58. “Uncle Tom Literature,” The Independent, September 30, 1852, UTCAC.

59. William R. Taylor, Cavalier and Yankee: The Old South and the American National Character (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1979), 307.

60. “‘Uncle Tom’ on the Stage,” Illustrated News (New York), January 22, 1853, UTCAC.

61. “France,” New York Times, February 23, 1853.

62. The Liberator, March 4, 1853, UTCAC.

63. “Notices of New Works,” Southern Literary Messenger, October 1852, UTCAC.

64. Unsigned reprint, “The Effect of Uncle Tom in Europe,” Circular (Brooklyn), May 7, 1853, UTCAC. In truth, however, Stowe’s novel offers a critique of the English labor system: As St. Clare tells Ophelia, his travels in England convinced him of the truth of his pro-slavery brother Alfred’s claim that his slaves are better off than many English laborers.

65. “From the British Slave System,” Graham’s Magazine, March 1853, UTCAC. Using eerily similar language more than 150 years later, former presidential candidate Ralph Nader suggested to a Fox newscaster that the newly elected President Obama faced a choice between being “an Uncle Sam for the people of this country, or Uncle Tom for the giant corporations.” Nader seemed to think that there was nothing wrong with his choice of words, but the newscaster balked at the racially loaded term. FOX news, November 4, 2008, http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7IshiClQqCM, accessed May 6, 2012.

66. “Uncle Tomitudes,” Putnam’s Monthly Magazine, January 1853, 100.

67. “The Uncle Tom Epidemic,” 355.

68. On the cultural history of Frankenstein in the United States in relation to race and nation, see Elizabeth Young, Black Frankenstein: The Making of an American Metaphor (New York: New York University Press, 2008).

69. John Frow, “Spectacle Binding: On Character,” Poetics Today 7.2 (1986): 227. See also John Frow, Character and Person (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).

70. Alex Woloch, The One vs. the Many: Minor Characters and the Space of the Protagonist in the Novel (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2003), 17.

71. Deidre Lynch, The Economy of Character: Novels, Market Culture, and the Business of Inner Meaning (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998); Woloch, The One vs. the Many; David A. Brewer, The Afterlife of Character, 1726–1825 (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2005).

72. Woloch, The One vs. the Many, 30.

73. Lynch, The Economy of Character, 5.

74. Brewer, The Afterlife of Character, 14.

75. Joshua Landy, How to Do Things with Fictions (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012), 9.

76. E. M. Forster, Aspects of the Novel (1927), 103–105.