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Uncle Tom's Cabin: Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Contents, Criticism (Norton Critical Editions)

Uncle Tom's Cabin: Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Contents, Criticism (Norton Critical Editions) by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Elizabeth Ammons (Editor)

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Summary

From the Publisher

In the nineteenth century Uncle Tom's Cabin sold more copies than any other book in the world except the Bible. It was quickly translated into thirty-seven languages and has never gone out of print. The book had a far-reaching impact and deeply affected the national conscience of antebellum America.

The Norton Critical Edition text is that of the 1852 book edition, published in two volumes by John P. Jewett and Company, Boston; original illustrations are included. Annotations are provided to assist the reader with obscure historical terms and biblical allusions.

Backgrounds and Contexts includes a wealth of historical material relevant to slavery and abolitionism.

Among the documents presented are Josiah Henson's 1849 slave narrative (named by Stowe as one of the sources for the novel); Solomon Northup's eyewitness account of an 1841 slave auction; Harriet Jacobs's narrative of her life as a fifteen-year-old slave; two epistolary accounts by ex-slave and abolitionist William Wells Brown, which document events in Uncle Tom's Cabin; two crucial excerpts from Stowe's Key to "Uncle Tom's Cabin " which provide the real-life basis for characters and events in the novel; and accounts of Tom-Shows and the anti-Uncle Tom literature that sprang up in response to the novel's publication.

Illustrative material includes slave advertisements, runaway slave posters, and illustrations for the first British edition of Uncle Tom's Cabin by Britain's premier illustrator, George Cruikshank, as well as popular illustrations from American editions of the novel.

Criticism is arranged under two headings. "Nineteenth-Century Reviews and Reception" includes critiques by George Sand, William G. Allen and Ethiop (both from Frederick Douglass' Paper), George F. Holmes, and Paul Laurence Dunbar, among others.

Twentieth-Century Criticism collects five of the best critical assessments of the novel's continuing impact on American society. With the exception of James Baldwin's groundbreaking essay, "Everybody's Protest Novel," the critical essays date from the years 1985 to 1992. Jane P. Tompkins investigates why the text was excluded from the canon for most of the twentieth century. Robert S. Levine provides an overview of the text's popular reception and influence since publication, including current critical schools and critics. Hortense J. Spillers takes a textual/linguistic view in her comparison between Stowe and Ishmael Reed as "impression points in the literary imagination of slavery." And Christina Zwarg traces the influence Stowe's feminism had on her treatment of fatherhood and its effect on the home.

A Chronology of Stowe's life and work and a Selected Bibliography are also included.

Contemporary and Early Reviews

Review from the October 16, 1852 edition of Littell's Living Age

"Recent Literature" notice of a "new" edition from the March 1879 issue of The Atlantic Monthly

Review from the October 1853 issue of The North American Review

Reviews

5 out of 5 stars This is definitely the one to buy!, March 15, 2002

By Kimberly Wells (Shreveport, LA USA) (REAL NAME)    

This version of Stowe's classic text includes reproductions of orginal historical documents at the back, literary criticism of the text, and some of the original illustrations. The book is well-made, stands up to the stress of reading (paper is thin but not too thin, like some anthologies).

As for the text-- this is the book that some say caused Abraham Lincoln to write the Emancipation Proclamation. An "Uncle Tom" has come to mean a black person who sells out to the white system-- but in so many ways, that is not at all what Uncle Tom does in the book. Stowe wrote the book to change what she saw as an unjust system, an evil system-- and at times, the text is very didactic (teacherly) and very preachy about religion. It's a fine "sentimental" book-- and a fine historical document. It's also a pretty good story. Yes, there are some places where we could just get a tooth ache from the syrup of the overly dramatized scenes (you'll see when you read about Little Eva). But it's a certain style of writing that accomplished Stowe's goal of getting the women who may not have owned slaves but who benefitted from the system (white, northern, wealthy ones) to realize the problems and move to CHANGE them.

Much of what people think about Uncle Tom's Cabin actually comes from the later "Tom shows" that travelled the country-- the minstrel reviews that were not very flattering either to blacks or to Stowe's original texts. Read the book that has everyone all stirred up and make your own judgements. You might not like it-- but don't let someone else make the decision for you.

5 out of 5 stars A central text in American Literature and History, January 7, 2005

By Tony Thomas (SUNNY ISLES BEACH, FL USA) (TOP 500 REVIEWER)    

Uncle Tom is probably the most important single book written in the United States of America. No one is really familiar with American culture, literature, relgion, and history if she or he has not read Uncle Tom.

To understand this book, I would urge people to consult Eric J. Sundquist's book New Essays on Uncle Tom's Cabin (The American Novel) and Jane Tompkin's Sensational Designs. The 19th Century world and reader that Stowe aimed at read and understood things so differently, that you will miss much without knowing how to look at this book the way Stowe wrote to them and the way they read.

This book has a broad purpose: literary to decide what is wrong with the entire world and present an answer. If you follow the sweep of the book you will find Stowe takes on everything from whether the issues of the 1848 revolutions can be resolved on the side of Democracy, to the question of marital relations amogn the free and the white. The issue of slavery is not the book's only focus. It is, in fact, the solution.

Stowe's real thesis here is that American Chattel slavery is the number one evil in the world, that this evil corrupts every institution in society North and South and corrupts far beyond the borders of the United States, and that no compromise with it or avoidance of it is possible.

To Stowe, slavery is an abomination not just because of the cruelty, savagery, exploitation, and degradation involved, but above all, it is an abomination against God, the most unChrist-like behavior possible.

Thus the relgious solution she offers is to become more Christlike in your opposition to slavery and to finally undergrow the Christic experience of dying for your sins and being reborn in Jesus Christ. That's right, in Stowe's time evangelical Christianity, rather than being a fob for right-wing politics, was practiced by some of the militant and serious opponents of slavery.

Stowe creates figures that are Christlike who like Christ die rather than yield to sin and influence the others in their faith. The supreme figure is of course Uncle Tom. Uncle Tom, as a a pejorative, comes not from this novel, but from the Tom shows that blossomed in the late 19th century which were a presentation of a mock version of this story with racist minstrel like charicatures of the African American characters.

In this book, Uncle Tom is a physically majestic, heroic, dignified person, whose faith and dignity are never corrupted, whose death is shown as a parallel to that of Christ in the resurrection of the souls of all around him required to eliminate Slavery. If he is passive, never disobeys his masters, and seems to have not much of a material interest of his own in life, it is because to Stowe this a reflection of his Christic nature.

No doubt at best Stowe sees him as a "noble savage" at Best. There is no doubt if one reads this book and even more clearly STowe's Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin which provided documentation for this book's depiction of slavery, that it is clear that Stowe did not believe African Americans were equal to whites. Her then-current immigrationist views are expressed in the way the one intelligent independently acting Black couple presented here leave the US for Canada once they escape slavery.

Yet, this book accomplished the purpose it had. It galvanized millions of Americans and more millions around the world to dramatically oppose slavery. Uncle Tom was one of the first true international best sellers. In a smaller country, where literacy was lower, and when many people bought books through private libraries where families shared books and the book was often read to family gatherings rather than by one person, Uncle Tom sold two hundred thousand copies in its first year and sold a million copies between its publication and the civil war.

Stowe was honest in her afterward and in other writings to say that her description of slavery in Uncle Tom is much prettier and more nicer than slavery was. She believed an accurate depiction of slavery--Stowe had lived in Cincinatti on the board with slaving Kentucky and traveled through the South--would be so revolting that her target audience of Northern whites would not read this book.

Her book launched a torrent of responses from white southerners as could be expected. However, the popularity of her book encouraged white authors, but especially Black authors to write antislavery books that responded to Stowe. Some of the foundations of Black American literature by authors like Frederick Douglass, William Wells Brown, Harriet Jacobs, and Martin Delany are essentially response to Uncle Tom.

Perhaps the most dramatic is Delany's Blake or the Huts of America whose character is a double to Uncle Tom. However, Delany's hero does not submit to being sold "down the river." He instead runs away and travels throughout the US following the same course as the travels in Uncle Tom showing how slave conditions are so much worse than Stowe showed. Finished with that business, Blake leaves the United States for Cuba where he becomes part of a group of Afro-Cubans unwilling to suffer like Christ and Uncle Tom. Like the current leaders of Cuba, they start to organize an international revolution of Slaves and the oppressed!

4 out of 5 stars A period piece, but what a period piece, May 19, 2007

By  Jonathan Groner (Silver Spring, MD) (REAL NAME)       

I realized recently that I had never read this important novel in my younger years, so I took it up as an adult.

This book should not be judged as a work of literature, but as an intensely political novel, a polemic against slavery. Stowe steps out of the novel from time to time, for example, to express her hatred of slavery and of the slave trade, and to call upon all Christians to act to abolish slavery. As a polemic, it is masterful, and its shortcomings as a novel (too many coincidences, excessive sentimentality, some fairly wooden characters) fade away in the reader's mind.

This is a period piece, a work of its time, and Stowe is not free from attitudes that we would term racist today. She holds many stereotypes of black people -- they are more emotional, more susceptible to religious belief, less cultured -- while at the same time declaring that slavery is the worst evil known to man. Interestingly, Stowe is as tough on Northerners who tolerate slavery or benefit from it as she is on Southerners who keep slaves.

Highly recommended to Americans of all ages and ethnic backgrounds.


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