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Many African American 19th Century critics saw Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin as a ray of hope and a means out of oppression. Critics praised the dialogue, the interjected sentimental stories, as well as the characterization. In fact, many considered the novel to be a gift from God. Uncle Tom's Cabin was the only popularized writing at the time that touched upon slavery as negative. The novel was popular in general but more importantly to African Americans. However, the response to the book was limited considering the scarcity of African American newspapers and writers. Much of the African American population at the time was held down by slavery, illiteracy, and/or a lack of places to publish.
One of the few venues for African American reaction was Frederick Douglass' Paper. William G. Allen, a free black teacher, comments on a particular scene of dialogue in Uncle Tom's Cabin in his letter to this publication: "The religious conversation between the slave-tenders . . . is a capital thing . . . . How it tells upon the miserable spittle-licking religionists of the present day, who, as Tom Stoker has it, are running up a bill all their lives with the devil, calculating to sneak out when pay time comes" (Allen). This discussion between Tom Stoker, Mr. Marks, and Mr. Haley is about whether the slave trade is a Christian business. Mr Haley says, "I b'lieve in religion, and one of these days, when I've got matters tight and snug, I calculates to tend to my soul and them ar matters; and so what's the use of doin' any more wickedness than 's re'lly necessary?--it don't seem to me it's 't all prudent" (Stowe 57). Tom Stoker replies that Mr. Haley is just trying to do evil things all his life with slavery, only to sneak out in the end and go to heaven. William G. Allen, in reference to this scene, commends Stowe's comparison and the relationship between Christianity and slavery.
Allen also praises the touching story of the Quadroon girl in Volume II, Chapter XXXIV. He writes, "The story of the Quadroon girl . . . exceeds anything that I have ever read, in all that is soul-searching and thrilling" (Allen). In the story of Cassy, the Quadroon girl, she helps nurse Uncle Tom back to health after having been beaten and tells him that there is no God.
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The African-American critics also praised the different characterizations in the novel. Gamaliel Bailey, one of these editorialists, writes about the wonderful characterization in the novel in his article in The National Era. ". . . [I]ts characters are strongly drawn, refreshingly peculiar and original, yet wondrously true to nature and to many a reader's experience of life" (Bailey). He specifically comments on the characters of Uncle Tom and Eva. He writes, "There are two characters in this work which will live as long as our literature - - Tom and little Eva - - the ebony statue of Christlike patience - - the rose of love blossoming with immortal sweetness at its base. No human heart can receive these two visitants . . . without taking in with them the . . . Spririt of humanity, and the stern Angel of justice" (Bailey). Allen commends the characterization of the different slaveholders. "What delineations of character - St. Clare and Legree, extremes of slaveholders. While the latter is a fit representative of the system of the pit, the former shows that not even slaveholding itself can blot out every whit of whatsoever is good in the human heart" (Allen).
Some critics discussed the novel as more than a good work but as a work blessed by God. Bailey writes, "The God of Freedom inspired the thought - - the spirit of his love and wisdom guided the pen of the writer, so her words shall sink into the softened and repentant heart of the wrong-doer, and spring up into a harvest of good, for the poor and the oppressed" (Bailey). In a letter to Harriet Beecher Stowe, Frederick Douglass discusses the novel as praised by God. He writes, "I believe you have . . . the higher reward which comes to the soul in the smiles of our merciful Heavenly father, whose ear is ever open to the cries of the oppressed" (Douglass).
Overall, the contemporary, 19th century, African American critics favored the novel even though their numbers were small. The small population of these critics praised the book as almost a breath of fresh air in that a book discussing the horrors and wrongs of slavery had finally surfaced. The contemporary African American critics tended to favor the novel rather than find fault in it.
On the other hand, some 19th century African American critics found fault in Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin. The negative critiques mainly focused on the issue of colonization that is addressed in Volume II, Chapter XLIII of Stowe's novel. The chapter entitled "Results" centers on Eliza and George's escape to Canada in route to Liberia, Africa to colonize and start a new life. Colonization involved African Americans moving out of America back to Africa to a colony named Liberia. This concept was usually discussed as a means for white northerners to rid America of African Americans. However, these whites felt this was not a racist concept. The African American critics who panned Uncle Tom's Cabin had courage in taking a negative approach to a novel that was considered the anti-slavery novel. The debate about colonization was a large enough issue that it would turn out to be the most critiqued of all parts of the novel.
In Provincial Freeman, an African American newspaper, C.V.S. disparages Stowe's portrayal of George Harris, noting that Stowe seems to advocate colonization. "One of the most manly specimens of oppressed human nature, in Uncle Tom's Cabin, is George Harris. The manner in which Mrs. Stowe disposes of him, and the words she puts into his mouth, as reasons for his going to Liberia, always struck us as a piece of needless and hurtful encouragement of the vile spirit of Yankee Colonization"
Works Cited and Consulted:
Allen, William G. "Letter to Frederick Douglass." 6 May 1852. Frederick Douglass
Paper. 20 May 1852, unpaged.
Bailey, Gamaliel. "Literary Notices." The National Era. 22 Apr. 1852, unpaged.
Baldwin, James. "Everybody's Protest Novel." The Norton Anthology of African
American Literature. Ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Nellie Y. McKay. New
York: Norton, 1997. 1654-59.
C. V. S. "George Harris." Provincial Freeman. 22 Jul. 1854, unpaged.
Douglass, Frederick. "Letter to Mrs. Stowe." 8 Mar. 1853. Frederick Douglass' Paper. 2 Dec. 1853, unpaged.
Ethiop. "Review of Uncle Tom's Cabin." Frederick Douglass' Paper. 17 June 1852,
Harriet Beecher Stowe Center. 24 Mar. 2002
< http://www.harrietbeecherstowecenter.org/. >
Levine, Robert S. "Uncle Tom's Cabin in Frederick Douglass' Paper: An Analysis of Reception." Uncle Tom's Cabin: A Norton Critical Edition. Ed. Elizabeth
Ammons. New York: Norton, 1994. 523-542.
Railton, Stephen. Uncle Tom's Cabin and American Culture: A Multi-Media Archive.
24 Mar. 2002 < http://jefferson.village.virginia.edu/utc/. >