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  • The Schooldays of Topsy and Friday:Edward Everett Hale’s Revision of Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Robinson Crusoe
  • Allison Speicher (bio)

At the center of Uncle Tom’s Cabin appear two chapters titled “Miss Ophelia’s Experiences and Opinions.” These pivotal chapters set the stage for the novel’s great experiment: Topsy’s education and, just as important and difficult to effect, Ophelia’s re-education. The serial version’s ending confirms education’s centrality in the novel. The narrator charges her child readers in particular to never let “a colored child be shut out of school,” hoping that they will “remember and pity the poor and oppressed” in the future.1 The novel ends by envisioning interracial schooling, which, if not possible immediately, will emerge when the next generation matures. Though Stowe removed this ending from the book version, it accords with the novel’s considerable emphasis on education, as well as with its mission of schooling readers. The burning question Augustine St. Clare poses to Ophelia—“If we emancipate, are you willing to educate?”—animates the entire text, but Uncle Tom’s Cabin leaves this question largely unanswered, calling readers to action.2 Ophelia’s transformation inspires hope that white Americans will accept this challenge, but Harriet Beecher Stowe (infamously) has trouble imagining an American future for African Americans. [End Page 319]

In Mrs. Merriam’s Scholars (1878), written a generation after Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Edward Everett Hale, a Unitarian minister best known as the author of “The Man Without a Country,” sought to answer this question, to envision how collaboration between Northern whites and Southern blacks could ensure African Americans educational opportunity.3 The novel reimagines the Topsy-Ophelia relationship through its portrait of Rachel Fredet, a white freedmen’s teacher, and her student and ward Tirah Gardner, a recently escaped slave. Hale was well-poised to craft such a portrait, having served as the first chairman of the Boston Educational Commission, which supported the Port Royal experiment, an early effort to educate former slaves. The commission aimed, as Hale explained, to teach the recently emancipated “everything which it is proper for free men to know.”4 Hale lent his support as both a minister and a writer, inspiring parishioners to enlist as teachers and coauthoring two articles about Port Royal for The North American Review.5 These articles enlighten readers as to the freedmen’s true condition and the necessity of Northern whites’ cooperation. Summing up the experiment’s results in 1865, three years after its commencement, Hale and his coauthor, William Gannett, concluded: “For ourselves, we are satisfied with the progress made here. Yet, as the sympathy which overlooks facts only prepares a triumph for the prejudice which arms itself with those facts, it is wise to estimate the obstacles in the path at their full size.”6 This passage reflects two concerns that also motivate Mrs. Merriam’s Scholars: the fear that Northerners overestimate the progress made in freedmen’s education while underestimating the opposition and obstacles to that progress. Published shortly after the end of Reconstruction, the symbolic close of Northern intervention in the South, Hale’s novel dramatizes the antagonism that blacks seeking schooling faced, demonstrating the need for continued white support. In 1878, the New York Times “chastised the old abolitionists” for “not learning how to forget”; that same [End Page 320] year, Hale wrote Mrs. Merriam’s Scholars, urging readers to remember.7

To persuade his readers, Hale assures us that the novel reflects authentic life-experiences, averring that “nothing of importance” that Rachel does has not been done “under similar circumstances by ladies well known to me.”8 Although this claim immediately recalls Hale’s connection to Port Royal, the teachers employed there were not the only ones he knew who had committed themselves to African American education. In fact, the novel’s climactic scene, in which a group of Southern whites burns down Rachel’s schoolhouse, mirrors the biography of another important woman in his life: Stowe herself, whose own interracial school in Mandarin, Florida met a similar fiery fate.9 While it would be difficult to imagine a man of letters in nineteenth-century America...


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pp. 319-353
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