Uncle Tom's Cabin


Uncle Tom's Cabin is written in the sentimental[43] and melodramatic style common to 19th century sentimental novels[8] and domestic fiction (also called women's fiction). These genres were the most popular novels of Stowe's time and tended to feature female main characters and a writing style which evoked a reader's sympathy and emotion.[44] Even though Stowe's novel differs from other sentimental novels by focusing on a large theme like slavery and by having a man as the main character, she still set out to elicit certain strong feelings from her readers.[45] The power in this type of writing can be seen in the reaction of contemporary readers. Georgiana May, a friend of Stowe's, wrote a letter to the author, saying: "I was up last night long after one o'clock, reading and finishing Uncle Tom's Cabin. I could not leave it any more than I could have left a dying child."[46] Another reader is described as obsessing on the book at all hours and having considered renaming her daughter Eva.[47] Evidently the death of Little Eva affected a lot of people at that time, because in 1852, 300 baby girls in Boston alone were given that name.[47]

Despite this positive reaction from readers, for decades literary critics dismissed the style found in Uncle Tom's Cabin and other sentimental novels because these books were written by women and so prominently featured "women's sloppy emotions."[48] One literary critic said that had the novel not been about slavery, "it would be just another sentimental novel,"[49] while another described the book as "primarily a derivative piece of hack work."[50] In The Literary History of the United States, George F. Whicher called Uncle Tom's Cabin "Sunday-school fiction", full of "broadly conceived melodrama, humor, and pathos."[51]

However, in 1985 Jane Tompkins expressed a different view of Uncle Tom's Cabin with her book In Sensational Designs: The Cultural Work of American Fiction.[48] Tompkins praised the style so many other critics had dismissed, writing that sentimental novels showed how women's emotions had the power to change the world for the better. She also said that the popular domestic novels of the 19th century, including Uncle Tom's Cabin, were remarkable for their "intellectual complexity, ambition, and resourcefulness"; and that Uncle Tom's Cabin offers a "critique of American society far more devastating than any delivered by better-known critics such as Hawthorne and Melville."[51]

This view remains the subject of dispute. Writing in 2001, legal scholar Richard Posner described Uncle Tom's Cabin as part of the mediocre list of canonical works that emerges when political criteria are imposed on literature.[52]

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