- Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Reading Revolution: Race, Literacy, Childhood, and Fiction, 1851–1911 by Barbara Hochman, and: Racial Innocence: Performing American Childhood from Slavery to Civil Rights by Robin Bernstein
The “Uncle Tom” industry shows no signs of slowing down, with a steady stream of books and articles flowing off the production line. Perhaps that was inevitable [End Page 173] during the two hundredth anniversary of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s birth in 2011, a year which saw not only the publication of David S. Reynolds’s masterly Mightier than the Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America, and his introduction to the reissue of the “Splendid Edition” of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, but also the two substantial and stimulating volumes under review here.
In her preface, Barbara Hochman describes her volume as “first and last a book about reading in context” (xi). It explores the changes in the reception and the cultural meaning of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (UTC), and “ongoing changes in reading habits and print culture more broadly” (xi), between the appearance of its first installment in the abolitionist weekly, The National Era, in June 1851 and the centenary of Stowe’s birth in 1911. Hochman draws on a wide range of sources, including prefaces, reviews, letters, diaries, marginalia, advertisements, and illustrations, and examines the multiple forms in which Stowe’s novel appeared: as newspaper installments, illustrated volumes, and adaptations for children. Her book is an important contribution to the history of reading, a field of study that has flourished increasingly in recent decades.
Hochman explains in her introduction that in the early stages of this “return of the reader” in the 1970s and 1980s — a period which also saw a significant revival of interest in UTC — the “reader” was a theoretical construct “implied” by the text itself and requiring “neither historical specificity nor an interest in individual readers” (8). This changed with the advent of the “new historicism,” which “fueled a growing desire to reconstruct literary meanings and reading habits of the past” (8). However, as Hochman notes, there are tensions inherent in this juxtaposition of “text” and “reader” which raise questions regarding the autonomy of the reader and whether “meaning is a function of the reader or the text” (9) — perhaps “artifact” might be better than “text” here, since “meaning” and “reader response” involve not only the verbal text and illustrative material, but also the physical appearance of the artifact (size, layout, typography, binding, etc.). Incidentally, this underlines the importance of preserving such artifacts, so that texts may be studied in their original contexts; for while one welcomes wholeheartedly the wide accessibility of texts facilitated by the digital revolution, when it comes to digital copies versus original materials, the policy should most certainly be “both/and” and not “either/or” (see, for example, Tanselle).
Barbara Hochman’s approach is to combine an emphasis on both reader and text, mediating between them rather than choosing one over the other (9). In her first chapter, she indicates one of the reasons why UTC engendered passionate and profound emotions in its readers from the start1 by contrasting Stowe’s work with the general content of The National Era, the newspaper in which it first appeared [End Page 174] in installments. The Era was unusual amongst abolitionist periodicals in the prominence it gave to fiction. Ironically, that fiction provided respite for the paper’s readers by avoiding the subject of slavery. Furthermore, in the factual content of the newspaper, fugitive slaves tended to be described briefly in distant, abstract, stereotypical terms, rather than depicted in ways that would elicit sympathy. In contrast, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel facilitates an emotional identification by portraying black slaves in concrete terms as fully human with the same thoughts, feelings and desires as her white readers.
In her second chapter, Hochman focuses on one particular...