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The Timeless Influence of Art

When it was first published in 1852, Uncle Tom’s Cabin reached an array of audiences differently quite differently. Although only 1.5% of the non-slave population read the book, its influence was much further reaching. Reactions varied considerably, ranging from ridiculing the book for its inaccurate depiction of slavery to praising it for its message that was quite unpopular for the time. Especially considering that most slaves were illiterate, it took decades before Uncle Tom’s Cabin moved from its place in low or pop culture to the high culture it is treated as in the classroom now. 

Part of the reason the book might not have been as accepted during the time it was written is that it resonated positively with a small subset of the audience. As Hagood discusses, Stowe would have been able to reach a larger audience if she sympathized more with the plight of women. While this would have reached a wider audience and potentially received a more positive appraisal in the mid 19th century, it would have taken away from the purpose of Stowe’s writing. Humans construct their reality through storytelling, and although Stowe’s depiction of slavery illustrated “colors that make up the picture but not the world of ours,” it contributed to its overall reception, especially in the long-term. Stowe clearly did not want to accurately depict slavery because people already knew what it was like – they lived through it at the time. By exaggerating and focusing on the worst aspects, Uncle Tom’s Cabin was able to resonate more deeply with its readers, whether positively or negatively. 

The book struck the emotions of the nation. Some were outraged and some were moved to improve the world, but overall, there was a strong set of reactions, which Stowe was probably looking for. Any publicity is good publicity and Uncle Tom’s Cabin started a conversation that never ended and perhaps even influenced Abraham Lincoln’s movement towards abolition. Because of Stowe, I am even writing about her work today, nearly 150 years later. In my mind, that is a success and proves that the most influential works don’t have to be the most accurate. Digging into the purpose of a creation may take time to get the point across, but if you go deep enough, the answer lies within.

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3 Comments

  1. Katherine Fell Katherine Fell

    I think that you make very interesting observations about how “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” is received in terms of low and high culture. While it is indisputable that it was a work of pop culture at the time, there is a question of whether or not it would be received as high culture, today. Stowe’s depictions of slaves, and particularly the character of Uncle Tom, have fueled countless attacks on African Americans who advocate for racial equality and civil rights. For instance, MLK was constantly called an “Uncle Tom” because activists thought he behaved too submissively towards white lawmakers. Can a work be consisted high culture when it’s used as a reference to take down one of the great American statesmen?

  2. David Ataide David Ataide

    I like how you discussed the lasting effect of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” You are right when you say how the novel accomplished Stowe’s goal of inciting a reaction, whether positive or negative. Regardless of whether it was a reaction for or against slavery, the novel immediately became the number one talking point among the general American, and put the issue of slavery at the forefront of discussion.

  3. Sara Messervey Sara Messervey

    You’re spot on about the power of story-telling and the need to evoke feelings that promote conversation among the work’s audience. That said, I’m not sure that it’s a true claim that the work was exaggerated or inaccurate–at least in its depiction of what slavery was like. Those were the arguments made by Thompson, Holmes, and McCord in their reviews of the work (also informed by their privilege as white slave-owners). If you look at other accounts pointed to in the article, like that of “John” and the trafficker he lent the book to, it was reviewed as a very accurate portrait of what slavery was actually like. I think it’s important to recognize that all the accounts of slavery “not being that bad” or “only half as bad” were taken from white people who were also trying to cover their own asses and avoid feelings of guilt. And the black writers of that time had to write to appeal to those audiences as well. I think it’s fair to assume that it was *that bad*, and that stories that strike the pathos, particularly when it comes to slavery, aren’t as exaggerated as we might hope to assume.

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