Harriet Beecher Stowe (1811-1896)
Contributing Editor: Jane Tompkins
Classroom Issues and Strategies
The primary problems you are likely to encounter in teaching Stowe are (1) the assumption that she is not a first-rate author because she has only recently been recognized and has traditionally been classed as a "sentimental" author, whose works are of historical interest only; (2) by current standards, Stowe's portrayal of black people in Uncle Tom's Cabin is racist; and (3) a lack of understanding of the cultural context within which Stowe was working.
In dealing with the first problem, you need to discuss the way masterpieces have been selected and evaluated. Talk about the socioeconomic and gender categories that most literary critics, professors, and publishers have belonged to in this country until recently, explaining how class and gender bias have led to the selection of works by white male authors.
The second problem calls for an explanation of cultural assumptions about race, which would emphasize the way--historically-- scientific beliefs about race have changed in this country between the seventeenth century and our day. For her time, Stowe was fairly enlightened, although her writing perpetuates stereotypes that have since been completely discredited.
The third problem requires that the instructor fill the class in on the main tenets of evangelical Protestantism and the cult of domesticity, which were central to Stowe's outlook on life and to her work. Beliefs about the purpose of human life (salvation), the true nature of reality (i.e., that it is spiritual), the true nature of power (that it ultimately resides in Christian love), and in the power of sanctity, prayer, good deeds, and Christian nurture would be crucial here.
One useful device is to have different groups of students (three or four in each group) read some of the classic works of American criticism--e.g., F. O. Matthiessen, Richard Chase, R. W. B. Lewis, D. H. Lawrence--and then report to the class why the assumptions that underlie these works made it impossible for their authors to include Stowe or other women authors in their considerations. The purpose is to demonstrate how critical bias determines from the start what work will be thought important and valuable and which will be completely ignored or set at a discount. (The groups meet with me to plan their presentation to the class beforehand. Usually I encourage them to use an imaginative format--e.g., talk show, debate, allegorical dramatization.)
Students love to talk about Augustine St. Clair and to speculate whether Uncle Tom or George Harris is the real hero of Uncle Tom's Cabin.
Major Themes, Historical Perspectives, and Personal Issues
Two of the historical issues that are important have already been referred to: evangelical Christianity, and the cult of domesticity. To this should be added the abolitionist crusade in the 1850s, the furor over the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law, and the change in the temper of the country after the Civil War--a turn from moral to social reform, and from romanticism to realism in literature--which accounts for the change in the temper and tone of Stowe's writing in this period.
Significant Form, Style, or Artistic Conventions
The biblical overtones of much of Stowe's prose, the emotionalism of her rhetoric, her addresses to the reader, and the highly oratorical nature of her prose need to be discussed in relation to the predominance of sermons and religious writing in the 1850s and of the view of language which held that words should appeal to the feelings and make ideas accessible to as wide a range of people as possible. In other words, the ideology of Stowe's style is evangelical and democratic, rather than elitist and aestheticizing, aiming for clarity and force over formal innovation.
It should be stressed that Stowe was a brilliant writer of dialogue, one of the masters of American realism before realism became the dominant literary mode; she also had a powerful grasp of literary character. (It is no accident that three of the characters in Uncle Tom's Cabin have become bywords in American culture--little Eva, Uncle Tom, and Simon Legree). Stowe also exploited the philosophical possibilities of the novel as a genre, discussing and dramatizing in fictional form complex theological, moral, and political issues of her day.
The astounding popularity of Stowe's first novel is worth noting--she was probably the best-known American of her time throughout the world. Uncle Tom's Cabin appealed to people regardless of social class, although it was unpopular in the South, after its initial reception there (which was favorable in some quarters) and was met with only a qualified enthusiasm by black readers in the North. Changes in beliefs about race, gender, religion, and literary value have made Uncle Tom's Cabin somewhat less universally appealing today, though it still retains its power to move readers in a way that very few works of the period do.
Comparisons, Contrasts, Connections
Stowe can be usefully compared to Emerson, whose vision of ideal existence, as put forward in essays like "Self-Reliance" and "The American Scholar" is sharply at odds with hers. Emerson's emphasis on individual integrity and self-cultivation, envisioning a time when "man will deal with man as sovereign state with sovereign state" contrasts with Stowe's ideal of a community of co-workers, bound together by Christian love, mutual sympathy, and a common purpose (for instance, the Quaker kitchen scene in Uncle Tom's Cabin, and the circle of women around Miss Prissy in The Minister's Wooing ).
Hawthorne is another author whom it is interesting to compare with Stowe: His view of slavery was diametrically opposed to Stowe's-- he condoned it--and his approach to writing, as well as to life in general, is skeptical where hers is believing; self-doubting where hers is self-trusting; detached and withdrawn where hers is active and participatory.
Questions for Reading and Discussion/ Approaches to Writing
1. Topics for discussion
Discussion questions should depend on the interest of the instructor. But I would encourage people to use Stowe's work as an opportunity to discuss the issue of canon formation: What makes a literary work "good"? Can ideas of what is good change over time? Why in our own century was Stowe ignored in favor of writers like Hawthorne and Melville? Another approach might foreground students' emotional responses to Stowe's writing (it's helpful to ask students to write first about how they felt and use that as a basis for discussion). Some questions to ask: What's the role of emotion in understanding a work of literature? Is Stowe's writing too emotional?
2. Some students might want to compare Stowe to other authors, especially Hawthorne and Emerson. Others might want to think about the text in a more personal way, perhaps looking at issues of race in Uncle Tom's Cabin as a starting point for considering their own experience of race, or asking what contemporary issues they find comparable in importance to the issue of slavery in Stowe's day.