Cover to “Uncle Tom's Cabin,” 1892

Cover to “Uncle Tom's Cabin,” 1892

Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote “Uncle Tom's Cabin” to promote the abolitionist cause, basing some of her novel on the testimony of an escaped slave. Her central character was a man of dignity, a good Christian, who suffered the abuses of slavery nobly and died protecting others. So how did Uncle Tom become the byword for a race traitor — a “shuffling, kowtowing, sniveling coward”?

A scholar traces Tom’s unfortunate journey through pop culture, and a controversial writer who’s been called an Uncle Tom decides to own it: “He was a transformative figure for the people around him. He was very powerful, even though he seemingly had no power.”

Excerpts from Harriet Beecher Stowe's “Uncle Tom's Cabin” used in this story are from the Blackstone Audio and Trout Lake Media audiobooks.

Special thanks to Carver Clark Gayton and Adena Spingarn who each took time from their own research on “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” to contribute to this piece.

Legree threatens Tom as he is about to order Tom's fatal beating, depicted in this scene on a colored glass lantern plate. Magic lantern shows — where images were projected from glass slides in a theater — became increasingly popular to share Uncle Tom's story outside of a traditional stage play. This lantern slide dates from 1881 and is no. 11 in a set of 12. These slides were widely reproduced, some for at home use, and frequently mirrored the original illustrations in the novel drawn by Hammatt Billings.

Uncle Tom sits next to Eva, the child he cares for and tends as she falls ill in Harriet Beecher Stowe's novel. This illustration by Hammatt Billings appears in the first edition of "Uncle Tom's Cabin." Here Tom is portrayed as a younger man of healthy stature.

This scene depicts Eva, the child Tom cares for, dying from tuberculosis. This scene also appears on a glass plate from a magic lantern show, and dates from the 1880s. This slide in particular is a departure from the novel's original illustrations and shows the slaves in a more stereotypical fashion — perhaps in response to the Uncle Tom theater shows that increased in popularity through the 1870s.

By 1900, Uncle Tom had become a recognizable figure in popular culture. His image appeared in advertising campaigns and became increasingly stereotyped. Here he appears in an ad for tobacco. His character lacks the gravity he displays in the novel, and instead appears as a simple buffoon.

This advertisement from 1921 shows Uncle Tom as he remains in public perception today: doddering, old, and feeble.

(Originally aired October 25, 2013)

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