This week, I've decided to post my thoughts on teaching an important but challenging text. I'm curious to know whether people have found other texts or approaches helpful, and also what approaches seem to work when two or more sessions can't be devoted to the novel.
In teaching Harriet Beecher Stowe’s
Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1852) in an
undergraduate survey of U.S. intellectual and cultural history, my immediate goals
are twofold: first, to use the novel to illuminate the complexities of slavery,
race, gender and religion in the antebellum United States; and second, to acquaint
students with the ways in which ideas and culture reflect, drive, and are
frequently outmoded by social and political change. I have found the book to be a remarkable tool
for conveying the importance of evaluating a work of art in its historical
context, and for inspiring students to consider how much or little of that
context remains relevant today.
In my experience, the novel demands
and warrants at least two course sessions.
Prior to discussing the novel, I deliver a fifteen-minute lecture on
Stowe and the tremendous impact of the novel, using as much contemporary visual
evidence as possible, such as illustrated editions and theatrical broadsides of
both the novel and the satires it inspired.
By looking at pro-slavery and abolitionist imagery (Kirk Savage’s Standing Soldiers, Kneeling Slaves: Race,
War, and Monument in Nineteenth-Century America is an excellent resource) students begin to think about how Stowe’s
novel challenged and reinforced antebellum whites’ ideas of Africans and
African slavery. This visual material efficiently
captures how the novel’s reception has changed over time, and gives students a
chance to think about the effects Stowe and her contemporaries anticipated the
novel having. That last question segues
gracefully into a discussion of the disagreements among gradual and “ultraist” abolitionists
so evident in the novel.
Despite having studied the period
and possibly having read the book in high school, students are usually confused
about how Stowe could be both against slavery, and yet racist; a celebrator of
African contributions to American life, who nevertheless supported Liberian colonization;
and an outspoken woman author who nevertheless endorsed a view of gender roles
extremely conservative by today’s standards.
To help students make sense of these issues, I prefer to expose them in
earlier sessions to short excerpts of texts illustrative of the novel’s social
context. Catherine Beecher’s debates
with Angelina Grimké concerning the Bible’s position on slavery helps students
make sense of the Protestant themes of the novel. Frederick Douglass’s “What to the Slave is the
Fourth of July?” cues students to the dilemma of Stowe’s uncertainty whether
slaves could ever be American. The Seneca Falls “Declaration of Sentiments,” published
just four years before the novel’s publication, helps introduce students to the
relationship between abolition and women’s rights, and positions Stowe’s work
on the continuum of the latter. Finally,
Thoreau’s opposition to the Mexican-American War in “Civil Disobedience” helps
students consider the colonialist implications of the novel. Having already read at least parts of these
texts, students are better prepared to appreciate the connections in the novel between
domesticity and slavery, race and nationhood, and other issues.
By the second session, students have
already begun to evaluate how challenging (or not) Stowe’s views were. At some point, I like to ask students to step
back and consider a more difficult question: to what extent does Stowe and her
contemporaries’ concept of “race” mean, in contemporary terms, “culture”? This question allows the discussion to pivot
to the present. To what extent does our
contemporary concept of culture still depend on race? Why is it that most
readers find Stowe’s use of dialect offensive, even as many Americans would
today insist on the equality of contemporary dialect? When do the politics of multiculturalism
become essentialist? These big questions
helps remind students of the intellectual barriers to conceptualizing
difference not only in Stowe’s time, but also in our own. They serve as a fitting conclusion for our discussion
of the novel, insofar as they help students think about the ways in which we
remain heirs to the ideas and problems of the 19th century.