Uncle Tom in the American Imagination: A Cultural Biography

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Uncle Tom in the American Imagination: A Cultural Biography

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Title: Uncle Tom in the American Imagination: A Cultural Biography
Author: Spingarn, Adena Tamar
Citation: Spingarn, Adena Tamar. 2012. Uncle Tom in the American Imagination: A Cultural Biography. Doctoral dissertation, Harvard University.
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Abstract: This dissertation charts the dramatic cultural transformation of Uncle Tom, the heroic Christian martyr of Harriet Beecher Stowe's antislavery novel Uncle Tom's Cabin (1852), into a commonly known slur for a submissive race traitor. As many scholars have noted, the hero of Stowe's novel is not what we would today call an "Uncle Tom." Some have put the blame for the figure's drastic transformation on the many popular stage adaptations of Stowe's novel that blanketed the nation during the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. However, relying on extensive archival work in both traditional archives and digitized historical periodicals, which have been unexamined on this topic until now, this dissertation reveals that Uncle Tom's transformation did not occur in the theater. Not only did the Uncle Tom character often retain his dignity in these postbellum shows, but the Uncle Tom's Cabin dramas remained politically relevant to many African Americans--and for that reason deeply threatening to many white Southerners--into the twentieth century. Significant objections to Uncle Tom as a racial representation in popular culture did not emerge until the late 1930s, but Uncle Tom became a detested political model two decades before that. The Christ-like qualities that made him a hero in Stowe's novel and to many nineteenth-century Americans, black and white, became increasingly undesirable to a new generation that embraced a more assertive understanding of masculinity and were less interested in heaven's salvation than in earthly progress. This turn-of-the-century transformation in cultural values set the stage for a more pointed critique of Uncle Tom as a political model in the 1910s, a decade of turmoil not only because of growing racial injustice, but also because of major political, educational, and geographical shifts within the race. While Uncle Tom's Cabin retained progressive meanings to many African Americans, Uncle Tom became a slur in the black political rhetoric of the 1910s, when a younger generation of leaders responded to the deteriorating racial climate by attacking the values and strategies of the older generation for seriously jeopardizing racial progress.
Citable link to this page: http://nrs.harvard.edu/urn-3:HUL.InstRepos:10288452
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