- Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin: A Casebook, and: The Cambridge Introduction to Harriet Beecher Stowe
Harriet Beecher Stowe has been celebrated, denigrated, recovered, and canonized, in roughly that order, as her reputation has experienced the ebb and flow of critical reception from the nineteenth century to today. Following the now-familiar trajectory of recovery, Stowe was initially championed by feminist critics who sought to counter the aesthetic judgment, political condemnation, or outright disregard she had suffered in preceding decades. While these scholars were successful at garnering a place in the canon for Stowe and her most famous novel, Uncle Tom's Cabin, they have been criticized for soft-pedaling both the author's and the novel's shortcomings. Subsequent criticism has acknowledged Stowe's racism, her investment in domestic idealism, and her exploitation of black suffering while arguing that these characteristics reveal her to be grappling with race and gender in more complex ways than previously acknowledged. In fact, much of the recent criticism has sought to divest Stowe of a binary status in the defining debates of her era (either for or against racial equality, African colonization, women's rights, and so forth) and instead to locate her in a middle ground of ambiguity, negotiation, and contradiction that more accurately reflects her relationship to a society in a state of combustion.
Two recent publications demonstrate that contemporary Stowe criticism, now well into its fourth decade, has achieved a status and stability rivaling that of other well-known authors. Elizabeth Ammons's Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin: A Casebook and Sarah Robbins's The Cambridge Introduction to Harriet Beecher Stowe join a growing body of criticism that testifies to Stowe's establishment as a canonical figure, including Approaches to Teaching Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin (2000), The Cambridge Companion to Harriet Beecher Stowe (2004), and Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin: A Sourcebook (2003), as well as previous but still influential works such as New Essays on Uncle Tom's Cabin (1986) and the Norton Critical Edition of Uncle Tom's Cabin (1993). While this impressive list reinforces the message that Stowe's time as a major American author has finally come, the number and quality of these publications means that readers, unlikely to consult or purchase them all, must distinguish among them in terms of substance, relevance, and usefulness. In [End Page 166] this regard, Robbins's Introduction can be viewed as a more rewarding resource than Ammons's Casebook.
The Casebook is a collection of primary and secondary materials pertaining to Uncle Tom's Cabin, including a handful of pieces by Stowe about the inspiration and intended purpose of her novel and ten twentieth-century critical essays on the novel. Despite its solid contents, the Casebook falls short as either an assembly of nineteenth-century contextual materials or a collection of contemporary literary criticism. The three letters by Stowe and two excerpts from her A Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin are inadequate to capture the multitude of influences and objectives that shaped the novel's composition and reception; the Norton Critical Edition of Uncle Tom's Cabin (which Ammons also edited) is a far more thorough resource that pairs Stowe's writings with excerpts from other nineteenth-century literary works, reviews, and readers' responses. At the same time, the small number of critical essays reprinted in the Casebook necessarily results in significant gaps. The Casebook contains three works that Ammons terms "classic[s] in Stowe scholarship" (12): James Baldwin's "Everybody's Protest Novel" (1949), excerpts from Leslie A. Fiedler's Love and Death in the American Novel (1960), and excerpts from Jane P. Tompkins's "Sentimental Power: Uncle Tom's Cabin and the Politics of Literary History" (1985). Ammons has selected an additional seven essays with...