American Icons: Uncle Tom's Cabin


Friday, October 25, 2013

Uncle Tom's Cabin American Icons Studio 360

This is the novel that gave slavery a bad name.

Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin to promote the abolitionist cause, basing some of her novel on the testimony of an escaped slave. Her central character was a man of dignity, a good Christian, who suffered the abuses of slavery nobly and died protecting others. So how did Uncle Tom become the byword for a race traitor — a “shuffling, kowtowing, sniveling coward”? A scholar traces Tom’s unfortunate journey through pop culture, and a controversial writer who’s been called an Uncle Tom decides to own it: “He was a transformative figure for the people around him. He was very powerful, even though he seemingly had no power.”

Excerpts from Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin used in this story are from the Blackstone Audio and Trout Lake Media audiobooks.

Special thanks to Carver Clark Gayton and Adena Spingarn who each took time from their own research on Uncle Tom’s Cabin to contribute to this piece.


Slideshow: Uncle Tom in popular culture

Uncle Tom's Cabin American Icons Studio 360

Uncle Tom sits next to Eva, the child he cares for and tends as she falls ill in Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel. This illustration by Hammatt Billings appears in the first edition of Uncle Tom's Cabin. Here Tom is portrayed as a younger man of healthy stature.

Uncle Tom's Cabin American Icons Studio 360

This illustration comes from an 1853 British edition of Uncle Tom's Cabin. This edition was reprinted in the United States in 1888 and shows Tom as a young man standing up to his final master, the slave trader Simon Legree. Tom refused Legree's order to flog another slave, and later defies Legree again, refusing to tell him how to find two runaway slaves. This strong, resilient image of Tom is at odds with how the character came to be perceived. 

Uncle Tom's Cabin American Icons Studio 360

Legree threatens Tom as he is about to order Tom's fatal beating, depicted in this scene on a colored glass lantern plate. Magic lantern shows — where images were projected from glass slides in a theater — became increasingly popular to share Uncle Tom's story outside of a traditional stage play. This lantern slide dates from 1881 and is no. 11 in a set of 12. These slides were widely reproduced, some for at home use, and frequently mirrored the original illustrations in the novel drawn by Hammatt Billings.

Uncle Tom's Cabin American Icons Studio 360

This scene depicts Eva, the child Tom cares for, dying from tuberculosis. This scene also appears on a glass plate from a magic lantern show, and dates from the 1880s. This slide in particular is a departure from the novel's original illustrations and shows the slaves in a more stereotypical fashion — perhaps in response to the Uncle Tom theater shows that increased in popularity through the 1870s.

Uncle Tom's Cabin American Icons Studio 360

A promotional card from the 1880s advertises the most dramatic moments in a theatrical version of Uncle Tom's Cabin. The character of Tom is portrayed as feeble and elderly and the content of the novel is sensationalized to draw in an audience.

Uncle Tom's Cabin American Icons Studio 360

By 1900, Uncle Tom had become a recognizable figure in popular culture. His image appeared in advertising campaigns and became increasingly stereotyped. Here he appears in an ad for tobacco. His character lacks the gravity he displays in the novel, and instead appears as a simple buffoon. 

Uncle Tom's Cabin American Icons Studio 360

A photograph of an early 1900s theatrical production of Uncle Tom's Cabin. The sets were very lavish for the era, and the stills were shot to give a heightened sense of drama to the performance. From left to right we see the characters of Simon Legree, Tom and Emmeline. By this time we can see Tom has transformed into an old, feeble character that is at odds with the courage he displayed in Beecher Stowe's novel. Legree publicly degraded Tom and Emmeline at an auction before deciding to purchase them both. Emmeline is one of two women whom Tom later helps escape — which he pays for with his life.

Uncle Tom's Cabin American Icons Studio 360

This advertisement from 1921 shows Uncle Tom as he remains in public perception today: doddering, old, and feeble. 

    Music Playlist
  1. Uncle Tom's Cabin
    Album: Music from the film
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  2. Old Folks at Home
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  3. Jeux D'Eau
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  4. The Violet Hour
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  5. Blue Caravan
    Artist: Vienna Teng
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  6. Jeanie with the Light Brown Hair
    Artist: Jascha Heifetz
    Album: It Ain't necessarily So
    Label: Deutsche Grammophon
    Purchase: Amazon


Carver Gayton, Sakara Remmu, David Reynolds and Adena Spingarn

Produced by:

Phyllis Fletcher


David Krasnow


Josh Rogosin

Comments [12]

Hi George,

Sorry for the delay in getting back to you! Unfortunately, we don't make transcripts. But thank you so much for listening!



Nov. 06 2013 12:10 PM
George Ekel

I've already left you a comment, actually a question/request if is possible to get transcript of the program.

It is important to me.

Please, be so kind to answer it.

Nov. 05 2013 09:00 AM
Betty Jean Steinshouer from Florida

I have portrayed Harriet Beecher Stowe on the Chautauqua stage since 2000, and it always surprises people to learn that Uncle Tom was a Christian martyr. Uncle Tom's Cabin has got to be the least read million-seller in history.

Oct. 30 2013 08:02 AM
Samantha jouin from Pennsylvania

I just read the book in the past few weeks and was wondering how the term Uncle Tom had gotten so derailed from the character in the novel. This segment was timely for me and she'd light on the evolution of this story in popular culture.

Oct. 29 2013 10:25 PM
Oliver Yourke from Brooklyn

Excellent segment. I had never thought about the term "Uncle Tom" in this way.

Oct. 27 2013 11:28 AM

I am pleased that you selected this book. I have always intended to read this book but never made time. All my life I have heard many negative things about the book. I like to read books for myself and come to my own conclusions. It was nice to hear this perspective on the book. People often think that self sacrifice is cowardly, I believe the opposite is true. I look forward to reading the book and making my own discoveries.

Oct. 27 2013 11:28 AM
Jan from Maryland

The podcast was just downloaded- I thought the title of the program meant Jeffery Wright was going to discuss Uncle Tom's Cabin. Maybe it was my hope.

Oct. 27 2013 11:07 AM
Arthur Dallas from Bronx, NY

RE: people who comment about book not read; how stupid. "The Ugly American," a true American with a heroic American spirit has been lambasted for decades by people know nothing about the novel.

Oct. 26 2013 04:41 PM
Gary Denton from Boston

Great story: 2 quibbles. First of all Simon Legree was a Vermonter so it is unlikely he had a heavy southern drawl. Secondly, it is untrue that he did not know the names of the two runaway slave women. In fact he was trying to ascertain their whereabouts. Otherwise the notion that Uncle Tom was not in fact an "Uncle Tom" is an idea well worth emphasizing. Read the book before you criticize it.

Oct. 26 2013 03:24 PM
Neil from Austin

I think some American icons are unknown to Americans themselves. For example, if you ask an Iranian for an American icon, he might say Morgan Shuster or Howard Baskerville:

This is from the Wiki entry for Baskerville:

"Many Iranian nationalists revere Baskerville. Schools and streets in Iran have been named for him. Tourists and ordinary people can visit his grave freely. A "mysterious admirer" is reported "regularly" to place "yellow roses" on his grave."

Folks like Baskerville created a reservoir of goodwill for America inside Iran that was so deep it has withstood all the other things that America did to Iran in the ensuing decades.


Oct. 26 2013 02:36 PM
Mavis from Maryland

I listened to the piece and was surprised that the point was not raised that Uncle Tom's Cabin was written by a White person for the consumption of other White people. Is there any surprise that Black people would not embrace this notion of appeasing Black masculinity?

Oct. 26 2013 02:23 PM
Mary Ellen White from 77 Forest Street, Hartford, CT

Interested in how Uncle Tom became a racial slur? The Harriet Beecher Stowe Center in Hartford presents two companion exhibits: "A Moral Battler Cry for Freedom" and "Who Is Uncle Tom?"

Oct. 25 2013 09:34 AM

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