The History of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ and Modern Criticism

Harriet Beecher Stowe’s literary classic, ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ created racial stereotypes that continue to harm Black Americans almost two centuries later.

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Uncle Tom's Cabin book with candle against old paper background

A white abolitionist named Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote the famous novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin in 1852. Its popularity was so high that it is often referred to as “the first bestseller.” However praised it may have been in the nineteenth century, modern criticism of the novel, especially from the Black community in America, reveals more sinister interpretations of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Even though the novel was written over a century ago, it still has a relevant station in harmful racial stereotypes that continue to pervade America.

Author and Publication History

Harriet Beecher Stowe based Uncle Tom’s Cabin on a real enslaved person from Maryland. His name was Josiah Henson. She was inspired to write the novel highlighting the brutalities and injustices Henson suffered as an enslaved person when the Fugitive Slave Act was passed in 1850, which decreased the likelihood of fugitive enslaved people from the South being safely harbored by white Northerners and other fugitive or freed enslaved individuals. While Stowe intended for Uncle Tom’s Cabin to expose the horrors of slavery and rally Northern white people to the abolitionist cause, twentieth and twenty-first century interpretations have promoted harmful racial stereotypes about Black Americans.

Portrait of Harriet Beecher Stowe when she was young

Distortion of a Character

The most prevalent modern discourse surrounding Uncle Tom’s Cabin focuses primarily on the titular character. Uncle Tom is portrayed in the novel as a pious and loyal person who is deeply devoted to God, but more recently the character’s name has been used to accuse Black Americans of being too passive in the face of violence and subservient to white people. Stowe intended for the character to be a strong representation of faith despite adversity and the seeming lack of reward for it, but modern criticism, especially from the Black community of America, highlights the negative aspects of Tom’s character and his passivity in the fight for freedom of his people.


The Problem with Topsy

In addition to Uncle Tom, there are two other characters in the novel who represent harmful racial stereotypes. One of these is Little Eva, a young white girl who lives in the South with her father and both are surrounded by enslaved people. Eva, like Uncle Tom, is also incredibly dedicated to her faith and has strong Christian values. She also dies near the end of the novel and is presented as the epitome of Christian faith. However, an important distinction appears between white children and Black children in the novel and larger American popular culture.

While Eva is presented as the ideal child, a Black enslaved girl named Topsy is mischievous and often beaten or verbally abused as punishment for her frequent pranks. Topsy is the foundation for cartoon characters in modern America who are constantly mistreated by other characters for their clever tricks and schemes.

A further distortion of this character presents Topsy and other children of color as inherently more deviant than white children and therefore deserving of harsher punishment. Due to this harmful stereotype, Black children and other children of color are still disproportionately investigated by American child welfare services and placed into foster care where they do not have access to appropriate resources, leading to incarceration for 29% of these young Black people and leaving 23% of them homeless.

Uncle Tom's Cabin book cover by Harriet Beecher Stowe; Uncle Tom holding small white child

Uncle Tom’s Cabin in Modern America

Uncle Tom’s Cabin is still relevant in modern American culture due to the racial inequality that existed at the time of its publication and still exists in America. Distortions of characters such as Uncle Tom and Topsy have created harmful stereotypes about Black people that perpetuate verbal and physical violence against Black Americans.

An additional controversy in contemporary America surrounding Uncle Tom’s Cabin is that the intention of the novel was to initiate sympathy in white women for Black enslaved people to promote the abolitionist cause. This message may have achieved emancipation for enslaved individuals, but the novel was not arguing to end racism as a whole. Uncle Tom’s Cabin may have begun discourse about harmful racial stereotypes, but modern Americans can move forward by acknowledging the falsehood of these archetypes and engaging in literature that is more representative of the Black community.

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