- Uncle Tom Mania: Slavery, Minstrelsy, and Transatlantic Culture in the 1850s
In this impeccably researched, absorbing book, Sarah Meer impressively turns her critical lens on the waves made by Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin as it crossed the Atlantic [End Page 96] Ocean. She examines the many manifestations of "Tom-mania," the term coined by a London newspaper to describe what Meer calls "the extraordinary public interest Stowe's book aroused on both sides of the Atlantic, its unprecedented sales, and the volume of ink spent in responding to it" (1). Building upon such critics as Paul Gilroy and Paul Giles who view literary formation in a transatlantic context, Meer convincingly argues that Uncle Tom's Cabin should be read as a transatlantic text. She centers her fascinating study of the mania surrounding Uncle Tom's Cabin on the prevalence of minstrelsy and abolitionism in the U.S. and U.K.
Arguing that "critics have missed the political diversity as well as the formal variety of minstrel commentary on Uncle Tom's Cabin," Meer devotes several chapters to exploring the complicated and sometimes compromising ways Stowe made use of blackface theatrics in her novel and how minstrelsy in turn adapted her novel for its own ends (14). Meer explains, "Some of the book's characterizations had been borrowed from blackface, blackface in turn incurred debts to Uncle Tom, and minstrelsy not only played into Uncle Tom's Cabin but out of it too. Minstrel shows staged their own Uncle Toms—of varying fidelity to the original but often self-consciously offering to answer it" (59). Despite the fact that Stowe, as a genteel woman, most likely never attended a minstrel production, Meer claims that she nonetheless borrowed profusely from the blackface tradition for many scenes in her novel. For example, rereading Sam's malapropisms in light of minstrel signifying, Meer argues that Stowe is not ridiculing Sam, but is transforming his language "from a sign of ignorance into a sign of his power" (35). Through this analysis, Meer shows readers that Sam's comic inability to speak correctly actually reveals his complex and sophisticated performative skills designed to deceive whites. Chloe's misspeaking also draws on the minstrelsy tradition, yet in this case Stowe "conscript[s]" the blackface convention "to assist the sentiment in the novel" (36). Meer ultimately goes beyond her readings of individual scenes to argue that "[i]n fact, Uncle Tom's Cabin was a symptom of the extent to which blackface imagery and humor were available to Americans outside the minstrel hall, and it would demonstrate how the ambiguities and ironies minstrelsy applied to racial politics could be equally useful off the stage" (23).
In subsequent chapters, Meer offers a careful study of minstrelsy's response to Uncle Tom's Cabin, in both the United States and the United Kingdom. She lucidly discusses the numerous theatrical adaptations of the novel and many anti-Tom responses as well. Stage versions of the novel were a success in London, she explains, with many parts rewritten: "The diversity and class fragmentation of British theatre was thus reflected in London Uncle Toms, as it was in British theatrical conventions. These plays, like other British melodramas, avoided religious references, promoted patriotic themes, and at the same time thrilled to 'foreign' spectacles of 'Americanness'" (133). Staging an anti-slavery play in England carried overtones of anti-American sentiment, however, for to be against slavery implied being against the current American system. Therefore, Meer argues, the transportation of Uncle Tom "across the Atlantic and onto the British stage also became a kind of translation, and Stowe's tale was read with an English imagination as well as from an ostentatiously British (and even antagonistic) perspective" (142).
In another fascinating chapter, Meer discusses how the mania surrounding Uncle Tom's Cabin affected some British citizens' views of African American abolitionists: some black American antislavery lecturers received more attention because of their audience's knowledge of Uncle Tom's...