This column by American studies professor Ben Railton explores the connections between America’s past and present.
As historians and journalists such as Martha Jones, Anthea Butler, DeNeen Brown, and others have eloquently reminded us in recent weeks, one of the core practices of the American system of chattel slavery was the separation of children from their parents (among other purposeful and consistent family divisions). Even when parents and children were not sold away from each other (an all-too common way to achieve the separation), they were often kept apart so fully by their slave-owners that neither this foundational human relationship nor its crucial influences on the children’s identities and lives were allowed to develop or flourish.
In the opening chapter of his monumental Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An America Slave, Written by Himself (1845), escaped slave turned abolitionist activist Frederick Douglass recounts what such forced separations meant for his relationship with his mother: “I never saw my mother, to know her as such, more than four or five times in my life; and each of these times was very short in duration, and at night. … She died when I was about seven years old, on one of my master’s farms, near Lee’s Mill. I was not allowed to be present during her illness, at her death, or burial. She was gone long before I knew any thing about it. Never having enjoyed, to any considerable extent, her soothing presence, her tender and watchful care, I received the tidings of her death with much the same emotions I should have probably felt at the death of a stranger.”
Despite Douglass’s narrative and other contemporary depictions of such horrors of slavery, in 1850 most white Americans were either unaware of or indifferent to slavery’s inhumane practices and effects. For many white Americans, of course, African American slaves were more property than full fellow humans, an attitude enshrined in the Constitution’s 3/5th clause and legally reified by the Supreme Court’s 1857 Dred Scott v. Sandford decision. Even for those Americans who were inclined to see slaves as human, there were a number of widespread narratives and myths that made it more difficult for white Americans to understand or be outraged about the horrors: slavery was a regional issue and largely unfamiliar to the rest of the nation; slaves were generally well treated and stories of horror were rare and overstated; slaves had never known other circumstances and were unaffected by situations and emotions that might impact other communities or cultures.
One of the most popular and influential American cultural works of all time would soon change those myths and perspectives for many Americans, however. On June 5, 1851, the abolitionist newspaper The National Era began publishing in weekly installments Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin; after a 40-week serialization, the novel was published in book form on March 20, 1852. Over the course of its serialization Uncle Tom’s Cabin became a national phenomenon (on the few occasions when Stowe missed a weekly issue the newspaper was inundated with letters of protest), and the success carried over into its publication: the book sold 3,000 copies on the day of its release, sold out its first printing almost immediately, and went on to become the second best-selling American book in the 19th century (after only the Bible) and one of the nation’s most enduring and influential cultural works.
Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a sizeable novel with many characters and plotlines, but at its heart are the stories of three slaves whose lives are consistently defined by family separations and their profoundly human effects. The loving couple (who define themselves as husband and wife, although they cannot be legally married under slavery) Eliza and George Harris learn that their beloved young son Harry is going to be sold away from them and choose to run away instead, producing a series of harrowing sequences such as Eliza and Harry’s famous escape across the icy Ohio River. And the title character Tom Shelby is sold “down the river,” away from his wife and children, and spends the rest of the novel trying to survive the horrors of slavery and find a way to be reconnected with that family. His famous connection with young Evangeline “Little Eva” St. Clare, the angelic daughter of his second owner, clearly serves as a replacement parental relationship for the patient and paternal Tom.
Stowe’s success in creating these deeply human slave characters and stories is the novel’s greatest achievement, made all the more impressive by the fact that she had spent no time in the slave south prior to writing the book (which she largely completed while living in Maine). Stowe did live for a time in Cincinnati, just across the Ohio River from the slave state of Kentucky, and encountered escaped slaves there as part of the city’s Underground Railroad efforts. She highlighted those and other contemporary influences on the novel — including the slave narrative The Life of Josiah Henson (1849) and Theodore Weld’s edited collection American Slavery as It Is: Testimony of a Thousand Witnesses (1839) — in her follow-up book A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1854).
Yet while those works do complement and support Stowe’s book, biographers and historians have discovered that she read many of them only after completing Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The novel was instead primarily a work of imaginative empathy, of constructing African American slave characters — and many others, but especially these central characters — with multi-layered human identities and perspectives that contribute to believable and moving stories of the horrors of the system of slavery. And Stowe’s empathetic imagination clearly produced the same effect for thousands of her fellow Americans, readers across the country for whom this cultural representation of slaves and slavery opened up new ways of thinking about the lives and experiences of their fellow Americans in bondage. Eliza, George, Tom, and others came to vivid life for Stowe’s readers, and through them new images of slavery and its defining savagery became possible and widespread.
While the novel remains an important part of 21st century American society, we have other cultural forms today that more closely mirror the immediacy of the 19th century novel’s communal impact: photography and photojournalism, multi-media news features, and social media activism. As we are seeing every day, such cultural forms help Americans imagine and respond to unfolding horrors. Where we go from there is, as it was in Stowe’s era, an open and crucial question.