We all know that Uncle Tom died a martyr. No -- wait -- he died a traitor to his race. Was Tom a strong, admirable father who sacrificed himself in a Christ-like fashion to prevent his wife and children from being sold, or was he a shuffling, subservient sell-out of black Americans whose "yes massa" talk reinforced ideas of black inferiority? This bifurcated view of Harriet Beecher Stowe's most famous character has a long and complicated history. Adena Spingarn makes a valuable contribution to our understanding of both the character and the slur "Uncle Tom" in her beautifully argued and thoroughly researched study of the literary and political reception of Stowe's eponymous figure.
Up until Spingarn's study, the shift in interpretation of Uncle Tom was blamed on unauthorized stage versions of Uncle Tom's Cabin. That is, Tom's metamorphosis "from martyr to traitor" (the subtitle of Spingarn's book) was imputed to the so-called Tom shows that proliferated after the novel was published in 1852. According to many literary studies, the absence of copyright allowed dramatists and theatrical producers to create their own stage versions of the novel, and by converting Tom into a minstrel figure, these performances made his name signify submission to whites. In fact, when I was preparing my Routledge Sourcebook edition of Uncle Tom's Cabin, all of the critics I consulted held staged versions of the novel responsible for degrading Tom, and for converting a heroic symbol of resistance into a symbol of subservience to oppression.
But Spingarn's meticulous research challenges this thesis, which I too endorsed in my essay for the Routledge Sourcebook. According to Spingarn, Tom's "derogatory meaning did not emerge on the stage, where in fact black audiences received the Uncle Tom's Cabin dramas as works with radical political potential some years into the twentieth century. Rather, Uncle Tom became a slur within the black political rhetoric of the 1910s because the figure encapsulated a traumatic slavery past that reverberated through twentieth-century American race relations" (5). Uncle Tom, Spingarn argues, "is as much a product of black discourse as of the white imagination, a figure drawn upon and shaped by fundamental debates within the black community over who should represent the race and how it should be represented" (5).
To make her case, Spingarn thoroughly investigates how the plays about Uncle Tom were reviewed in newspapers and how his character was discussed by both black and white writers. The first Chapter is particularly useful for readers and scholars unfamiliar with debates around the life and afterlife of Uncle Tom. Among other studies, Spingarn reconsiders Elizabeth Ammons's influential argument that Tom is a "feminine" hero who models an alternate form of masculinity and heroism, and George Frederickson's foundational book on romantic racialism and blacks as "natural" Christians.
Besides recalling notable interpretations of the novel, Spingarn re-examines the novel itself. To help explain why Tom has long been construed as both as a hero and a martyr, she reminds readers that the Quaker Simeon Halliday also stands ready to sacrifice himself for his family. If Christ-like subservience speaks well for Simeon, she implicitly asks, why should it not also speak well for Tom? Furthermore, Spingarn reminds us that Tom endorses Eliza's "right" to flee. "Tom's refusal to escape," writes Spingarn, hardly means that he believes that slaves inherently belong under the rule of their master; far from that, he argues that it is Eliza's 'right' to escape" (44). Tom's "religious observance and racial solidarity," Spingarn shows, are both "rooted in selfless devotion to a community" (47).
While re-reading the novel, Spingarn also re-reads the Uncle Tom plays, "which until now," she writes, "have not been investigated in comprehensive detail" (52). Rather than finding Tom portrayed as simply weak, she finds, contemporary accounts of the plays note their "sympathetic and respectable representations of black people" (52). Analyzing archival material that other scholars have overlooked, Spingarn shows how both the novel and the plays moved white audiences to sympathize with enslaved people. In also examining adaptations and performances by black theater troupes, Spingarn finds that black audiences held varied opinions of Uncle Tom--as revealed by contradictory reviews of the plays.
Turning to twentieth-century reception of the novel, Spingarn argues that black Americans themselves have recast Uncle Tom over time: "Increasing calls for American literature to address modern black life," she writes, "would challenge and finally topple black critical appreciation of Uncle Tom and Uncle Tom's Cabin" (111). With the rise of literary and artistic talent during the Harlem Renaissance, many black intellectuals believed that "Uncle Tom became a problem when the past was seen neither as the building block of future progress nor as something that could be safely ignored but as a powerful contemporary adversary" (131). Since Uncle Tom embodied the old Southern slave, he became less useful for "more assertive and educated younger folks looking to attack the older generation" (133). Especially as the New Negro developed, the character of Uncle Tom "transformed from an unthreatening old slave to an active danger to the race" (134) and "a dangerously old-fashioned leader who reproduced the dynamics of slavery" (135).
Spingarn's chapters on Uncle Tom's reception among the New Negroes are particularly original and informative. To explain, for instance, why modern blacks turned against Stowe's hero, she argues that "Uncle Tom's forced subjection to cruelty made black audiences regard him with scorn. It was as if, in being the repeated victim of racial violence, the character became complicit with it" (172). She concludes by considering how Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison re-examined and rewrote Uncle Tom.
Overall, the book demonstrates how careful re-reading of contemporary materials can make us rethink the received interpretation of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Spingarn's book is extremely useful for scholars who wish to know how Uncle Tom turned from martyr into traitor and how a new generation of black intellectual leaders reshaped the meaning of an iconic literary character.
Debra J. Rosenthal is Professor and Chair of English at John Carroll University in Cleveland, Ohio.