- Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Reading Revolution: Race, Literacy, Childhood, and Fiction, 1851–1911 by Barbara Hochman
If any novel deserved its own biography, surely Uncle Tom’s Cabin merits one. Best seller, war instigator, progenitor of stage shows and anti-Tom novels, kick starter of mass commodification of popular culture, beloved in the North and reviled in the South, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s masterpiece stands as a yardstick by which we measure nineteenth-century culture. And indeed the novel has had significant biographies written about it: E. Bruce Kirkham’s The Building of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1977), Thomas Gossett’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture (1985), Claire Parfait’s The Publishing History of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (2007),Jo-Ann Morgan’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin as Visual Culture (2007), and David S. Reynolds’ Mightier Than The Sword: Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Battle for America (2012).
With Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Reading Revolution, Barbara Hochman proves that yet another cultural biography of the novel is not only warranted but essential: she makes an important contribution to the scholarly study of this novel in specific, and to nineteenth-century reading practices in general. Hochman differentiates her study from others by focusing on the numerous contexts and practices (or what she calls “protocols”) of reading, both inside and outside the novel. As Hochman investigates scenes of characters reading and of Victorian-era reading habits, she teaches the reader how to (re)read the very novel under consideration.
Hochman argues persuasively that Uncle Tom’s Cabin helped legitimize the novel as a respectable and meaningful genre at the same time that it advocated for the respectability and meaning of black American lives and souls. The novel changed people’s views on what fiction reading could do, and simultaneously changed people’s views on slavery, particularly as Stowe made a case for black literacy. Hochman rightly demonstrates how “the moral and religious earnestness” of Uncle Tom’s Cabin proved that novels were not frivolous, intellectually sub-par, distractingly dangerous, or immoral, and that by “relying heavily on citations from the Bible and discussions of Bible-reading, Stowe differentiates between interpretive practices worth emulating and others that should be resisted.”
One of Hochman’s strongest chapters smartly juxtaposes the 1852 edition illustrated by Hammet Billings with the 1891 edition illustrated by E. W. Kemble. By comparing these two versions, Hochman makes astute observations about the role of visual imagery in the novels’ reception, [End Page 281] particularly that Billings’ illustrations of slaves reading suggest that he “understood Stowe’s emphasis on slave literacy as an assertion of African American spirituality, interiority, and agency.” Hochman notes that Kemble, the post-Reconstruction illustrator, did not choose to draw any scenes of slaves engaged in the activity of reading. Instead, Kemble pictures slavery in a nostalgic light; the 1890s edition thus manifested how “Stowe’s abolitionist text came to serve the cause of segregation and the ongoing subordination of African Americans.”
The final chapter smartly considers African American reading practices and interpretations of the novel between the Plessy decision (1896) that legalized segregation and the Brown v. Board decision (1954) that reversed it. Again, Hochman provides brilliant insights as she conducts archival research on black scrapbooks and reading journals and how Uncle Tom’s Cabin often was the only source of information about slavery that young black Americans had access to. Reading the novel amounted to a historical lesson for a generation of readers, including James Baldwin, who read it “obsessively” and “compulsively,” despite his later famous inflammatory essay against the novel. This final chapter is in overall consonance with Hochman’s strategy throughout her book of reading Uncle Tom’s Cabin as constituting and participating in a veritable “reading revolution.” [End Page 282]