It can be a challenge to grasp the full historical context of a novel, even one as well known as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

This is in spite of the fact that the novel is swollen with contextualized historical significance regarding race and slavery in antebellum America. After the Bible, in the 1850s it was the most widely read book in the United States. But by the turn of the century, it was much more widely known than read.

The same is true today. I asked a dozen friends if they’d ever read it. Only one had. The book is broadly dismissed now as overly sentimental and even racist for its stereotypical portrayal of African Americans. When the book came out, however, it shattered conventions of race — and interestingly, acceptable norms for reading fiction.

These themes are central to Barbara Hochman’s fascinating new book, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the Reading Revolution.” Hochman is a professor of literature and linguistics at Ben-Gurion University in Israel. Her book prompted me to finally read Stowe’s novel.

I was stunned to find myself immediately drawn into the narrative. Its opening chapters are fast-paced, lively and compelling. Yes, it is sentimental; and yes, its portrayals of African Americans strike modern sensibilities as racial stereotypes.

But Hochman’s insights opened new vistas I would never have otherwise seen or considered — such as why Stowe’s depictions of Uncle Tom, Eliza, George and Topsy were so radical for the time. And why, when combined with Stowe’s immense talents as a storyteller, the book so profoundly radicalized American sentiment against slavery.


Of equal interest in Hochman’s book is her analysis of how the avid popularity of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” when it was first published affected attitudes regarding the reading of fiction. This point gets to the heart of the “Reading Revolution.” Before Stowe’s book, fiction was largely viewed as frivolous and a danger, sermonized against by educators and ministers for its potential to breed laziness, passivity and even addiction. Poetry, the classics and the Bible were the only acceptable forms worthy of mental engagement.

Hochman convincingly posits that Stowe’s book was critical to putting fiction on a trajectory to becoming not only acceptable, but also being granted high esteem as literature.

Stowe makes the act of reading a central motif in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Throughout, slaves are depicted either reading, being read to or being taught to read. True, the Bible is always the focal point. But its selection is purposeful, according to Hochman, for it subtly conveys that literacy among slaves was not to be feared; that reading led to moral and intellectual edification.

And perhaps most radically, Hochman argues, Stowe uses it to imply that African Americans had an “interiority” — a conscious, invaluable life of the mind. This “enlightened” view enabled white readers to see beyond the stereotypes of the day that held that slaves were inferior and innately different from their pale brethren.

Hochman attributes the rapid fall from favor of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” after the Civil War to Americans wanting to look forward, not back. Paradoxically, Stowe’s book became popular for a time in the 1880s and 1890s among children and grandchildren of former slaves, for it provided them a glimpse of slavery that their parents and grandparents who’d suffered under it didn’t wish to revisit.

Although Hochman acknowledges the harsh attitudes that early 20th-century African-American writers such as James Weldon Johnson, James Baldwin and others expressed toward Stowe’s book, many also credited “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” with being a singular source of early insight to a taboo world.


Weldon said reading it was a turning point in his life. Baldwin wrote that he read it “obsessively” over and over, searching for something of “immense import for me . . . (that) I didn’t really understand.”

For anyone who loves literature, Hochman’s book illuminates the fluidity of attitudes toward a seminal fictional work, literacy and the very act of reading fiction itself. That Stowe wrote “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” in Brunswick while her husband taught at Bowdoin College adds further depth to the state’s rich literary heritage.

Frank O Smith is a Maine writer whose novel, “Dream Singer,” was a finalist for the Bellwether Prize.


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