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"Uncle Tom's Cabin" and the Reading Revolution

Race, Literacy, Childhood and Fiction, 1851–1911

Barbara Hochman

Publication Year: 2011

“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” and the Reading Revolution explores a transformation in the cultural meaning of Stowe’s influential book by addressing changes in reading practices and a shift in widely shared cultural as-sumptions. These changes reshaped interpretive conventions and generated new meanings for Stowe’s text in the wake of the Civil War. During the 1850s, men, women, and children avidly devoured Stowe’s novel. White adults wept and could not put the book down, neglecting work and other obligations to complete it. African Americans both celebrated and denounced the book. By the 1890s, readers understood Uncle Tom’s Cabin in new ways. Prefaces and retrospectives celebrated Stowe’s novel as a historical event that led directly to emancipation and national unity. Commentaries played down the evangelical and polemical messages of the book. Illustrations and children’s editions projected images of entertaining and devoted servants into an open-ended future. In the course of the 1890s, Uncle Tom’s Cabin became both a more viciously racialized book than it had been and a less compelling one. White readers no longer consumed the book at one sitting; Uncle Tom’s Cabin was now more widely known than read. However, in the growing silence surrounding slavery at the turn of the century, Stowe’s book became an increasingly important source of ideas, facts, and images that the children of ex-slaves and other free-black readers could use to make sense of their position in U.S. culture.

Published by: University of Massachusetts Press

Title Page

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Copyright Page

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Table of Contents

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List of Illustrations

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pp. ix-x

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Preface: On Readers

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pp. xi-xv

When I began working on the project that became this book I thought that illustrations of Uncle Tom's Cabin would help me interpret one specific textual feature: scenes of reading. But dramatic differences between illustrations before and after the Civil War soon led me to think about a transformation in the reception of Stowe's book, and about ongoing changes in reading habits...

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Introduction: The Afterlife of a Book

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pp. 1-25

Between 1851 and the centenary of Stowe's birth in 1911 Uncle Tom's Cabin was adapted for disparate ends by editors, publishers, and illustrators as well as other readers—men and women, Northerners and Southerners, adults and children, black and white. This study explores a transformation in the cultural meaning of one book. It contributes to a history of reading in the United States by tracing...

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1. Uncle Tom’s Cabin in the National Era: Recasting Sentimental Images

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pp. 26-50

Surprisingly little attention has been paid to the interplay between Uncle Tom's Cabin and the material that surrounded it when it first appeared as a series of installments in the free-soil weekly the National Era. Publishing in that context, Stowe faced a formidable challenge: how to shape an account of slavery that would have a greater impact than the discourse already typical of...

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2. Imagining Black Literacy: Early Abolitionist Texts and Stowe’s Rhetoric of Containment

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pp. 51-77

This chapter examines Harriet Beecher Stowe's depiction of literacy against the background of widely shared antebellum assumptions about African American readers, and about literacy as a social practice. In Uncle Tom's Cabin Stowe revised several well-known images of literate slaves. Her representation of Uncle Tom's Bible-reading, George Harris's conversion to Christian and...

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3. Legitimizing Fiction: Protocols of Reading in Uncle Tom’s Cabin

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pp. 78-103

This chapter argues that throughout Uncle Tom's Cabin Stowe employed scenes of reading not only to make a case for black literacy but also to disarm a resistance to fiction that was still widespread in literary culture of the period. Although fiction-reading had become an extremely popular activity by midcentury, it was still regarded as problematic by many people. On the one...

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4. Beyond Piety and Social Conscience: Uncle Tom’s Cabin as an Antebellum Children’s Book

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pp. 104-130

When the last installment of Uncle Tom's Cabin appeared in the National Era, on April 1, 1852, Stowe directly addressed the "dear little children who have followed her story" and from whom she now must part. Her concluding words to children were deleted when the novel came out in book form, but Uncle Tom's Cabin featured children, spoke to children, and positioned both children and...

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5. Sentiment without Tears: Uncle Tom’s Cabin as History in the Wake of the Civil War

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pp. 131-168

This chapter explores the renewed appeal of Stowe's novel for commentators, editors, and publishers toward the end of the century. It also sharpens my focus on two methodological questions that consistently inform this study: How can the paratextual material of individual editions (prefaces, introductions, illustrations) serve as a basis for general claims about the way a text was...

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6. Imagining the Past as the Future: Illustrating Uncle Tom’s Cabin for the 1890s

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pp. 169-204

The Stowe display in the Woman's Building Library at the Columbian Exposition of 1893 included two American editions of Uncle Tom's Cabin: the first edition, published by John P. Jewett in 1852, and the most recent edition at the time of the fair, published by Houghton Mifflin in 1891. This chapter examines the illustrations of these two editions, both issued by Stowe's...

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7. Sparing the White Child: The Lessons of Uncle Tom’s Cabin for Children in an Age of Segregation

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pp. 205-230

Harriet Beecher Stowe died in 1896, the year that the court decision Plessy vs. Ferguson made segregation a legal and widespread social practice in the United States. After her death publishers found it both timely and profitable to reissue Uncle Tom's Cabin, often with fresh introductions and visual accompaniments. Adaptations for children and youth also proliferated in this...

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Epilogue. Devouring Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Black Readers between Plessy vs. Ferguson and Brown vs. Board of Education

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pp. 231-251

Throughout this study we have seen the complex interplay of personal and cultural history in shaping reader response, the pitfalls of taking readers' testimony at face value, the highly charged politics of literacy, and the frequent gaps between the public consensus and individual experiences of reading. I want to end this book by pursuing the unique meaning of...


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pp. 253-330


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pp. 331-361


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pp. 363-377

Back Cover

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E-ISBN-13: 9781613760048
E-ISBN-10: 1613760043
Print-ISBN-13: 9781558498938
Print-ISBN-10: 1558498931

Page Count: 352
Illustrations: 40 halftones
Publication Year: 2011