Refuting Uncle Tom’s Cabin The impact of Stowe's novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, is evident from the sheer
volume of responses that it garnered shortly after publication. One of many response novels, Mary H. Eastman's Aunt Phillis's Cabin; or, Southern Life As It Is, particularly illustrated the success of Stowe's ability to tie literary prose to abolitionist social sentiment, consequently elevating the novel and rendering the pro-slavery response of Eastman, negligible at best. This paper aims to compare both novels and prove that Stowe’s literary suggestions are not only more powerful because of her brilliant use of sentimentalism, but also land the work in a position that renders it unapproachable by Eastman’s response. . As a writer, Stowe made great use of iconography, visual images that held within them narrative elements. Her most famous characters and their most memorable scenes, Topsy's breakdown dance, Eva's death scene, Eliza crossing the river, or Tom being whipped to death by Legree, were striking representations which illustrated essential arguments from the novel. Eva's angelic nature, Eliza's bravery, or Tom's Christian transcendence were all masterfully illustrated by these icons. When these icons entered the popular vocabulary, they were attached to Stowe's larger narrative. For example, at least initially, Legree was not just a figure of brutality; he was an illustration of the brutality associated with slavery. By basing her novel around these pictures, Stowe created a work which was both visual and powerfully moving. The character of Eva illustrates this phenomenon. Eva was by far Stowe's most iconic and relatable figure. Through Eva, the image of the child who died before her time was articulated with Christian sacrifice on behalf of abolition. The ironic significance of Eva is precisely that she is not original; as a character type she plays a representative function. Stowe admits this when she writes, "Has there ever been a child like Eva? Yes, there have been; but their names are always on gravestones"
(UTC 283). Eva is an icon, a powerful and stoic archetype who comes to stand in for all children who have died young, and her death implicitly argues for the inspirational potential of such a sacrifice. How would any author be able to duplicate or refute Stowe’s use of such powerful and heartfelt aesthetics? Eastman chose to take Stowe’s brilliant archetypes and iconography and attempted to retort their relevance with her own novel based on pro-slavery sentiment. The main plot of Aunt Phillis's Cabin involves the love life of Alice Weston, altruistic belle of an established Virginia plantation. Weston’s mission is to promote the Southern ideals of slavery and through her response, to challenge the ideals and perceived ugliness that Stowe’s novel promulgated amongst pro-slavery readers. A subplot involves a married slave couple named Bacchus and Aunt Phillis, focusing on Phillis's trials and tribulations with her never do well, alcoholic husband, who was clearly meant to be a subtle repudiation of Stowe's Uncle Tom. It is never clearly stated as a direct parallel; however it is intended for the reader to be able to contrast the faithful and patient man as he engages in several trials with alcoholism. Though the novel is intended as a rebuttal to Stowe, and is wrought with character associations, it fails to provide a ringing endorsement of slavery. The plantation patriarch Mr. Weston (in a voice much like Stowe's St. Clare) claims, "I have thought a great deal on the condition of the negroes in our country, of late. I would like to see every man and woman that God had made, free, could it be accomplished to their advantage. I see the evils of slavery, it is sometimes a curse on the master as well as the slave."(APC 107). Eastman later concludes, through the character of Weston, that abolition is not possible when she states, "Could they be colonized from Virginia, I would willingly consent to it, as in our climate, white labor would answer; but farther South, only the negro can labor, and this is an unanswerable objection to our Southern States becoming free" (APC 234). This highly geographical defense does little to address the moral and religious
arguments raised by Stowe, and in fact, by suggesting climate as the primary justification for slavery, puts damning rhetorical limits on Eastman’s pro-slavery agenda. Eastman’s arguments never approach an extreme call for the necessary continuation of slavery, nor do her arguments address Stowe’s sentiments on any level. Eastman's novel makes few attempts to directly criticize Stowe for having created powerful archetypes to facilitate Stowe’s abolitionist agenda. However, as opposed as Eastman is to Stowe's abolitionist message, she is unable to avoid the appeal of Stowe's use of sentimental tropes or Stowe's feminist perspective on gender and power relations. For instance, Eastman cannot repudiate the emotional magnitude of the separation of slave families that Stowe so masterfully constructed. In Eastman's novel, one character, a slave named Lucy, tells of having her children sold from under her on a plantation in the past. Her white mistress, showcasing her ignorance and attempting to down-play the severity of Stowe’s sentimental portrayals, innocently remarks "'This is the first time Lucy . . . that I have ever known children to be sold away from their mother, and I look upon the crime with as great a horror as you do" (APC 44). It is as if Eastman is attempting to address Stowe’s claims through the use of mirror-like, opposite archetypes and accept a position of ignorance as to the events that Stowe described. Stowe herself tells of a familiar woman also aptly named, Lucy in Uncle Tom's Cabin. Stowe's Lucy is a passenger on the boat going downriver with Tom. Sold without her knowledge by her master, who also happens to be the father of her child, Lucy has her child taken from her and sold while she is resting. Lucy throws herself off the side of the boat and drowns, unlike the Lucy of Eastman's novel that is seemingly consoled and embraced by her
owner, who was unaware that such things happened to slave families. Eastman failed to capture the emotional sentiment of Stowe’s Lucy by marginalizing the sale of her Lucy’s children. Although Eastman does make feeble attempts to reject Stowe's anti-slavery politics, she struggles to completely address Stowe’s anti-patriarchal views that emerge continually through her work. Eastman attempts to engage the gender-based stance of Stowe in her subplot regarding the slaves. In Eastman’s plot, the white male figures are all idealized as individual archetypes. At the end of a chapter dealing with Aunt Phillis's problems with Bacchus, Eastman goes as far as directly quoting Stowe, when she rhetorically asks, "is man ever a creature to be trusted with wholly irresponsible power?" Eastman replies that although Stowe "is speaking of slavery politically, can you not apply it to matrimony in this miserable country of ours?" (APC 111). Eastman then proceeds to prescribe a remodeling of husbands in line with the novel's chief concerns of Bacchus's drinking and Phillis's endless efforts to get him to quit. For Stowe, Slavery is a multi-faceted evil that is inter-twined with societal issues that relate to gender, faith, economics and social progress. Eastman in her attempts to appeal these views does little but substantiate Stowe’s insights as to the complexity of issues concerning slavery. The problems of Eastman's retort arise in her attempts to dismiss Stowe from an inferior literature stance. For instance, by positioning Aunt Phillis as the title figure of the novel, Eastman moves Phillis from caricature to character. In fact, the novel ends with the passing of its title character in a poor attempt of a deathbed scene resembling the one Stowe created for precious little Eva. Eva's famous deathbed scene, for some an infamous tearjerker, portrays her in a serene state as she passes into the afterlife with "a bright, glorious smile" on her face (UTC 319). Eastman attempts to recreate the emotional sentiment of a dying, enlightened woman for a greater cause, yet fails to address the symbolic importance of the relationship between Eva and
Tom. Phillis just passes; she has no great moment of regard or enlightenment. Phillis’s death pales in comparison to little Eva’s. Nothing is gained for the reader, it is absent of any ideal other than the loyalty of the slaves who had an unquestioning loyalty and devotion to Phillis. Phillis faced a precession of every humble and loyal slave and servant she met as they each engaged and acknowledged her for being a strong matron and pious woman, for knowing how to appropriately assume the burden that is being a slave master. Eastman fails to provide the reader with any trace of love or humility, only of loyalty, devotion, obligation and ignorance. Eastman does make a small departure from Stowe when she depicts these slaves living in a modest cottage, as opposed to the crude cabin of Tom, as if Eastman was trying to elevate the socioeconomic status of real Southern slaves. Eastman’s small tweak of domestic geography does denote a significant difference between Eastman and Stowe, but it does not necessarily make a lasting argument for the continuation of slavery. The type of abode a slave lives in does little to change the opinion of slavery for the reader and contributes nothing to Eastman’s so-called response. Eastman is incapable of capturing any meaningful reprise to her response and achieves nothing to effect the reader’s position on slavery, and does nothing more than expand on what the reader perceives as ignorance to Stowe’s heartfelt illuminations. Eastman's attempted response to Stowe within the themes in Uncle Tom’s Cabin compromised and marginalized her pro-slavery position. Eastman’s representations of slaves as full-fledged characters with intentions that supported her often unclear literary designs were at odds with the rhetorical arguments highlighted by Stowe, Eastman does not write as well as Stowe, nor does she develop her characters to represent anything more than simple archetypes. By failing to develop these characters under the guise of a pro-slavery suggestion, Eastman was obligated her to state her case from a position that had to legitimize Stowe’s arguments before
she could effectively dismantle them. Eastman found success in substantiating Stowe’s position, yet failed miserably to present any reform or action to the sentiments of her own. She merely attempted to showcase an alternative point of view that was void of feeling, and emotion and burgeoning with ignorance and apocryphal pro-slavery sensitivities, such as pious Aunt Phillis, or should have known better Lucy. Eastman's failed response to Stowe's novel attempted to adopt not only the tropes of Uncle Tom's Cabin, but the logic underlying these tropes. This lead to Eastman’s failure, try as she may she could not re-produce the reader’s sentiment for Phillis as Stowe so magically did with Eva. Eastman endeavored to untangle the symbolism and tropes from Stowe’s logic in an attempt to present a contradiction to Stowe. Evidence of this is in the death scene where there is little concern paid to the future of the loyal slaves, that they are expected to be loyal and know their station. Whereas, little Eva has no purpose in this world but to litigate them a pardon of man’s sins. Eastman’s book was doomed from the start, not only was she unsuccessful at dismantling Stowe’s claims, but Eastman did nothing more than confuse the pro-slavery position thereby enforcing the sentiments of Stowe and displaying how Stowe’s position provided a solid background to act as a catalyst towards progress of slavery reform.
Avery, Tex. "Tex Avery - Uncle Tom's Cabana (1947). MGM, 1947. Web. 10 Feb.
Camfield, Gregg. "The Moral Aesthetics of Sentimentality: A Missing Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin." Nineteenth-Century Literature 43.3 (1988): 319-45. Print. Coleman, D. "The Unsentimental Woman Preacher of Uncle Tom's Cabin." American Literature 80.2 (2008): 265-92. Print. Donovan, Josephine. Uncle Tom's Cabin: Evil, Affliction, and Redemptive Love. Boston: Twayne, 1991. Print. Eastman, Mary. Aunt Philli's Cabin ; Southern Life as It Is... ... Philadelphia: Lippincott, Grambo, 1852. Print. Stowe, Harriet Beecher, and Elizabeth Ammons. Uncle Tom's Cabin: Authoritative Text, Backgrounds and Contexts, Criticism. New York: W.W. Norton, 1994. Print. Stowe, Harriet Beecher. Uncle Tom's Cabin, Or, Life among the Lowly. New York: Modern Library, 2001. Print. "Uncle Tom's Cabin & American Culture." Uncle Tom's Cabin & American Culture. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Feb. 2013. "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Uncle Tom's Cabin. N.p., n.d. Web. 10 Feb. 2013. Wallace, Michele. "Uncle Tom's Cabin: Before and After the Jim Crow Era." TDR/The Drama Review 44.1 (2000): 136-56. Print.