- Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Reading Revolution: Race, Literacy, Childhood, and Fiction, 1851–1911 by Barbara Hochman
At the turn of the twentieth century, readers of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s bestselling 1852 novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, encountered a very different book than their antebellum counterparts had devoured. As Barbara Hochman explores in her fascinating Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Reading Revolution, this novel’s remarkable transformation from an intensely read work of fiction widely credited with (or condemned for) helping to bring on the Civil War and the abolition of slavery to a dated American classic that affirmed Jim Crow racial hierarchies was the result of broader cultural changes in how Americans thought not only about race but also about childhood, literacy, and fiction. Hochman shows how “an old book met changing cultural needs” not only for black and white adult readers, but also for children (p. 8). Sustained attention to children’s editions is a welcome intervention of this book, for children were, as she notes, important among Stowe’s intended and actual audience. Although Stowe’s novel is famous for the enormity of adaptations and appropriations it inspired across media, this book focuses on Uncle Tom’s Cabin as fiction. One of its major projects is to use the lens of Uncle Tom’s Cabin to track a history of reading in the United States during the second half of the nineteenth century, when the novel gained cultural authority and played an increasingly important role in accounts of American history.
The first half of the book explores the rhetorical strategies of Stowe’s novel, its original illustrations, and an early children’s book, Pictures and Stories from Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1853). In the 1850s, Stowe’s novel and its children’s adaptations advanced an antislavery agenda by adapting sentimental literary conventions to the representation of slavery and, intriguingly, by representing emotions that antebellum literature usually ignored. These strategies encouraged white readers to identify with black characters. In Gamaliel Bailey’s National Era, where Uncle Tom’s Cabin first appeared in serial form, fiction and [End Page 171] antislavery politics had been largely separate, according to Hochman, but in combining the two, Stowe “established emotional identification as a widespread reading practice for consuming the story of slavery” (p. 26). Hochman also insightfully argues that the novel encouraged cross-racial identification by representing parents’ grief and pain over the loss, or prospect of loss, of a child—feelings that were all too common in an era of high child mortality but rarely mentioned in literature. The children’s book Pictures and Stories from Uncle Tom’s Cabin deployed similar rhetorical strategies by featuring Eliza’s son, Harry, as an imperiled boy much like the typical fairy tale protagonist. In addition to incorporating fairy tale motifs, Picture and Stories encouraged white children to recognize black subjectivity by filling a gap in the era’s didactic children’s literary culture, which generally avoided portraying naughty behavior, and certainly not with understanding. Here, however, Topsy’s desire to play and her struggles to be good are sympathetically portrayed in ways that young white readers likely would have found relatable.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Reading Revolution also highlights the importance of reading and literacy themes in Stowe’s novel and its illustrations. Hochman argues that depictions of black literacy were central to the political project of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which reframed slave literacy not as a tool of escape or rebellion but as “a ‘civilizing’ practice that would serve the cause of faith and domesticity” (p. 51), as well as in illustrations by Hammatt Billings, whom the author rightly describes as “Stowe’s ideal reader” (p. 52), that accompanied the 1852 John P. Jewett edition. In privileging scenes of black literacy, Billings’s images advance the novel’s antislavery politics by suggesting black inferiority, morality, and feeling.
Hochman’s book gains momentum in its later chapters, as it uses an exciting range...