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  • Word Become FleshLiteracy, Anti-literacy, and Illiteracy in Uncle Tom’s Cabin
  • Faye Halpern

[P]rofessional, academic reading is only one kind of reading and a relatively specialized one at that, and as such, it cannot be used simply and in unqualified fashion as a model for all other forms of reading or as a stand-in for the acts of reading it wishes to reconstruct. (291)

Janice Radway, “Beyond Mary Bailey and Old Maid Librarians: Reimagining Readers and Rethinking Reading,” 1994

This is an essay about how Uncle Tom’s Cabin teaches us to read.1 It opens the novel to new avenues of inquiry by situating it within the history of reading in the United States. For Stowe, the abolition of slavery is intimately tied not just, as Stowe says at the end of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, to “feel[ing] right” but also to reading right (404). Seeing the novel in this way clarifies the reading practices of both secular and religious antebellum readers. Yet it also illuminates something I imagine this essay’s audience might tend to take for granted: the reading practices of contemporary literary critics. Modern critics, even feminist ones, are often bewildered about how Uncle Tom’s Cabin reached such a wide audience in the antebellum United States. In answering that question, we can gain insight into why it leaves so many contemporary readers, especially professors of literature, unaffected. Although the novel is directed at certain people (everyone, really, who was living in the United States in 1851) and uses a particular strategy (sentimental identification) to persuade them of its abolitionist message, it also assumes that many readers taking up the book do not know how to read it. It is the novel’s job to teach them how.2

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is deeply concerned with literacy. While Sarah Robbins reads the novel within the tradition of nineteenth-century domestic literacy narratives, my argument attends to the novel’s iconoclasm, specifically how the [End Page 253] reading practices it teaches its readers undermine antebellum notions of literacy. Rather than inculcating among its readers the secular reading practices ascendant in the antebellum period, Uncle Tom’s Cabin teaches what I call anti-literacy. For Stowe, conventional reading practices lead to moral illiteracy. For modern literary critics, however, it is Stowe’s prescribed reading practices that compromise literacy. This relationship between Stowe’s moral literacy project and present-day analyses of how her most famous novel actually degrades literacy can explain the immense, uneven power of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, both across time and for different readers. The novel’s presupposition that its potential readers will not know how to read it (and that the novel itself will teach them) levels and potentially enlarges its intended audience to encompass everyone. Not all of its readers, however, are equally susceptible pupils.

reading in uncle tom’s cabin

Uncle Tom’s Cabin depicts many scenes of reading occurring in many locales, featuring diverse people, and involving different kinds of media. Genteel white men spend time in their parlors reading the newspaper; the slave catcher Marks reads a list in a tavern; the son of Tom’s master teaches Tom how to read in Tom and Chloe’s cabin; and many, many characters read the Bible. Despite its seeming variety, reading in the novel can be grouped into two categories: good ways of reading and bad ones. Yet the practices associated with these categories are not what we might expect. Just as Jane Tompkins has identified the revolutionary way that Uncle Tom’s Cabin reverses the political values of its time, so the novel reverses the practices that most of Stowe’s contemporaries (and almost all modern readers) associate with each of these categories.

The novel effects this reversal gradually. It begins by meeting its white readers where they are and gradually working on them.3 Thus in an early chapter the narrator invites “us,” her white readers, to spend “An Evening in Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” But if Stowe lures “us” in with a frisson of the taboo, she also assuages her potentially anxious white readers by keeping them apart from and above such...


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pp. 253-277
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