A letter I wrote to The New Yorker in the fall of 2006 after reading John Updike’s review of a new edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It was published in the December 25, 2006 issue. The observations in my letter are greatly indebted to my undergrad studies at Denison University with Professor Mark Evans Bryan, in which we read George Aiken’s adaptation of Beecher Stowe’s novel. -DL
John Updike rightly appraises Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, noting that, unlike Twain’s Huckleberry Finn, “it never makes light of slavery.” But he fails to account for the contradictory resonances which the work has taken on in the hundred and fifty-plus years since its publication. Uncle Tom’s Cabin was in fact more famous throughout the nineteenth century as drama than as a work of novelized fiction. Due to bowdlerization by anonymous authors, it became a racial melodrama, performed across the country in a form agreeing with the blackface conventions then adorning the stage. The episode of Eliza crossing the iced-over Kentucky River into Ohio, which Updike notes for its “humor” and “physical comedy,” became in performance a spectacle of racial persecution for the entertainment of the exclusively white audience. Live dogs were sometimes added in order to enhance the visceral sense of the hunt. Twain was certainly no stranger to minstrel shows, and his playful depiction of blackness may offend contemporary notions of racial tolerance, but as a writer he shuns Stowe’s earnest, rapturously sentimental tone, a tone which was consequently exploited for purposes opposite to her evangelical and abolitionist intentions. Both Uncle Tom’s Cabin and Huckleberry Finn court nostalgia with their evocations of a youthful America, but Stowe trades in platitudes and stereotypes which ultimately privilege emotion over thought. American culture in general is drowning in the former, while suffering from a dearth of the latter.