Jo-Ann Morgan. The Journal of American Culture. Volume 27, Issue 1. March 2004.
Uncle Tom was 150 years old in 2002. From coast to coast, the sesquicentennial publishing anniversary of Uncle Tom’s Cabin became an occasion to reassess what impact Harriet Beecher Stowe’s popular novel has had on American arts and attitudes. In California, the Huntington Library was the site of a two-day conference, with noted speakers exploring “the broad social legacy” of the 1852 book. An exhibition at the New York Historical Society, “Reading Uncle Tom’s Image: The 150-Year Legacy of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Character Reconsidered,” featured book engravings along with work by contemporary visual artists. Writing for Black Issues in Higher Education, Kendra Hamilton applauded scholars for reflecting on the “legacy of the groundbreaking novel,” its author, and especially on the central character, Uncle Tom. Without a doubt, Tom and his story are worthy of study, but perhaps “legacy” may not be the right framework within which to analyze these phenomena.
Historians frequently speak in terms of “legacy,” what Webster’s II defines as “something handed down from an ancestor or from the past.” The phrase “legacy of slavery” is invoked to explain social situations, such as the persistence of African American poverty or a disparity in achievement test scores between the South and the rest of the nation. These result, explain sociologists, from slavery’s legacy. The notion is alarming, as if poverty and low scholastic marks are inevitable. As legacy, the story of Uncle Tom’s Cabin becomes a cyclical narrative frozen in time, with Tom reliving a relationship from generation to generation wherein the African man is slave and the European his master.
Spawned as sentimental fiction, Uncle Tom’s story was never solely a literary legacy. From the outset, there were pictures. One of the most beloved and one of the most maligned characters in all of America’s democratic arts, Uncle Tom is an enduring icon because his image has been drawn, painted, inscribed, acted out, photographed, and continually refitted to social, political, economic strategies of the (powerful? white? male?) people, for (seeking to affect the thinking of) the (less powerful, white) people. This article is not about a fictional character from a written text, but the Uncle Tom of visual culture.
Who Was Uncle Tom?
Few today have actually read Stowe’s sentimental bestseller to encounter its eponymous hero firsthand. Yet his name has long been evoked with tacit expectations. During the civil rights movement, to be called “Uncle Tom” was perhaps the most severe insult one could receive from a fellow African American, derogatory shorthand for a fawning sycophant, “yassuh-ing” the (white) man at the expense of his own dignity. Looking askance back to Tuskegee Institute educator Booker T. Washington and his seeming readiness to accommodate turn-of-the-century white southerners, students of the 1960s era of Black Power/Black Pride asked, “Was he a Tom?” In the 1980s when the African American mayor of Los Angeles was viewed by some as too chummy with “the man” and his corporate interests, he was called “Uncle Tom” Bradley. Amidst allegations of police sexual misconduct in the Tawanna Brawley incident some years back, a New York minister came to prominence as the spokesperson for the young woman. He was dubbed “Uncle Sharp-Tom.” Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas becomes “Uncle Thomas” if his opinion echoes fellow justice Antonin Scalia. The sobriquet reverberates.
Obsequious servant, accommodating politician, opportunist-these were not Stowe’s character. For antebellum readers, Tom “was a noble character, a self-sacrificing father. “Sold down the river,” he willingly joined the slave coffle to save his family and community from a similar fate. Captive Tom was a heroic figure, a devout Christian who would not be swayed from his faith even at the peril of bodily harm and eventual death. He was a man of pious beliefs, which he ultimately died upholding. Within the context of the novel, he stood up to and triumphed over his captor Simon Legree. Tom did not kowtow to the man.
Uncle Tom does not so much pass on a legacy as embark upon a changeling journey all his own. The descent of Tom from noble hero into “an Uncle Tom” is a complex interweaving of fictions, fabricated decade by decade to fit social and political strategies. “[A] strong, powerfully built man,” wrote Stowe. Thousands of books were published over the years, with ever-present illustrations. Then came the plays, freely adapted from the text, recreating Tom on playbills and posters. As motion pictures came into being, Tom took form in a new visual medium embodied by actors. Many, like their minstrel show predecessors, were white men with burnt-cork-darkened faces. Uncle Tom, as he has become known, was not created by Harriet Beecher Stowe alone but by legions of popular artists hacking out images for commercial purposes. Visual texts made Uncle Tom an “Uncle Tom.”
Compelling this study is what W. J. T. Mitchell has identified as “the conviction that the tensions between visual and verbal representations are inseparable from struggles in cultural politics and political culture” (3). Why Stowe wrote Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the effect it had on political events of its time have been documented. When Stowe met President Abraham Lincoln privately in 1862, he allegedly remarked, “So this is the little lady who made this great war” (Gossett 314). What is less studied is how imagery generated by the story remains a viable cultural force influencing perceptions about African Americans.
Hammatt Billings’s Tom
From the wood engravings for the original 1852 novel, through scores of reissues with appropriated pictures, then banners for stage plays, posters for movies, all manner of souvenirs, promotions, gew gaws and gimcracks, there may be no segment of American visual culture that has not been visited by Uncle Tom. In the beginning, of course, were the words, interpreted by the modest drawings of a local Boston illustrator whom publisher John P. Jewett had employed in the past. It was probably Jewett, not author Stowe, who engaged Hammatt Billings to provide the “six elegant designs,” plus title page vignette and gilt embossed cover, touted in advertisements, an enticement to compensate for the extra costly two-volume book (O’Gorman 47).
How instrumental Stowe was in selecting images cannot be firmly established, but there are indications that she was sensitive to their effect. She was herself an amateur artist. When she first approached Gamaliel Bailey, editor of the National Era, with the idea for her serial about slave life (what soon became Uncle Tom’s Cabin), she claimed that her vocation was “simply that of a painter.” Her objective in writing the story was “to hold up in the most lifelike and graphic manner possible Slavery, its reverses, changes, and the negro character …” As she stated, “There is no arguing with pictures and everybody is impressed with them, whether they mean to be or not” (Wilson 260). Intriguing use of metaphor aside, there is no conclusive proof that the first-time novelist played a part in choosing Billings.
Billings had begun as chief illustrator of Gleason’s (later called Ballou’s) Pictorial Drawing-Room Companion, an illustrated monthly with 100,000 circulation by the mid-1850s. His ten-year career boasted antislavery credentials. In 1850, he had designed the third masthead for Boston-based abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper, The Liberator, allegedly free of charge (O’Gorman 12, 17). For that he had reworked the paper’s second masthead by David claypool Johnston, an image of slavery present, a slave auction, and slavery’s future, freed slaves gathered around their humble cabin door. To these, Billings added a central circle in which Christ stands triumphant between a kneeling slave and a fleeing slave holder. With this he proved an adept promoter of Christian evangelicalism, which many believe is the heart of Stowe’s novel. Stowe does seem to have found his work acceptable, for she used him again for later books (O’Gorman 47-48).
Neither is it known how scenes from Uncle Tom’s Cabin were selected to become the illustrated “pictures.” For some, Billings revamped the kneeling slaves, imperiled families, and Christian messages of antislavery iconography. When The Liberator debuted in 1831, its masthead had borne the image of a gentle mother and children at a slave market. In his first full page engraving, “Eliza comes to tell Uncle Tom that he is sold, and that she is running away to save her child,” Billings reprised the gentle slave mother cradling a child in her arms. The fulllength figure of Billings ‘s barefoot Eliza standing outside Tom’s cabin conjures themes of Christian mothers in flight. Her covered head, for example, recalls European paintings of the Madonna. And although Harry is described as “a small quadroon boy, between four and five years of age,” the child Eliza clutches seems a mere infant-or babe in swaddling clothes, perhaps?
Engraving number two presented another ploy from antislavery prints, “The Auction Sale.” Pitiable slaves huddle on the ground, white men in top hats casually convene, watching an auctioneer point his gavel toward one ill-fated young man. Scenes of slave sales with their subtext of family separation, the Liberator masthead as example, were abolitionist mainstays. Billings continued the practice.
Perhaps the most long-lived icon of the antislavery movement was the kneeling supplicant figure. A kneeling slave much like one Billings added to his Liberator masthead had come from England in the late eighteenth century, first as a medallion and later used in prints. An 1838 antislavery token with the caption “Am I Not a Woman and a Sister?” is an example. The kneeling posture was understood as a pose of Christian supplication. During the Italian Renaissance, for example, donors paying for church altarpieces would have the artist include their portrayals, in profile, looking devout as they kneeled to pray on the side panels. A slave kneeling in prayer reinscribed the centuries-old tradition from European art.
George and Eliza Harris became kneeling supplicants in Billings’s “The fugitives are safe in a free land.” Safely in Canada, they fall to their knees thanking God for their deliverance. Harry is noticeably older here and wears a broad round hat easily read as a halo.
Two of Billings’s remaining three prints, “The Freeman’s Defence” and “Cassy ministering to Uncle Tom after his whipping,” would rarely be conscripted for book covers or posters. Not surprisingly, gun-toting escaped slaves were less inspiring abolitionist propaganda than demure mothers or praying families. And the wild-haired Gassy, strongwilled and shrewd, not to mention sexually tainted, would prove a difficult femininity for women to reconcile. However, even with this degraded woman, slave concubine of Simon Legree, Billings found a Biblical connection. With her hair down, as she bends over and tends to the wounded Tom, Gassy recalls several women who cared for Christ at various times. In Billings’s design she evokes Mary Magdalene.
Of the initial engravings, “Little Eva reading the Bible to Uncle Tom in the arbor” became, according to Billings’s biographer James F. O’Gorman, “without doubt the most important image of the first edition.” Unlike the abolitionist’s imperiled slave family or kneeling supplicant, there was no visual precedent for a grown black man in the prime of life cozied up with a tiny white girl, alone within a nature setting. Viewed outside the context of the novel, Tom and Eva in the arbor would seem to have been a remarkable sight. Nonetheless, of all of Billings’s scenes, this one most captivated viewers. Within the first year, it inspired a painting, songs, sheet music covers, several fine art prints, and all manner of ephemera. Forever after, if a book included illustrations, there among the pages would be Tom and Eva in a garden. Frequently they also graced the cover. Theaters were festooned with their likeness (Birdoff 140). Actors playing Tom and actresses costumed as Eva sold photo cards of themselves together. From scores of scenes in the story, generated for over 150 years, Tom and Eva together have been the most reproduced.
O’Gorman poses a possible answer to people’s initial reaction: “It would be difficult for the reader to overlook the fact that Little Eva is depicted by Billings with a wasp waist and developed breasts. Nor would the reader in the 1850s fail to remark Tom’s attractive features and fine clothing” (54). But was that what viewers saw in 1852? O’Gorman imagines readers excited by the idea of a relationship between a young woman with “developed breasts” and an “attractive” black man. Yet at that time, to intend the implication of physical intimacy between them would have been highly incendiary. Although widely known to exist, sexual contact (likely exploitative) between males of the master class and female slaves was not acknowledged publicly. Billings could not have presumed to broach the subject of “amalgamation,” as interracial sex was called, between a male slave and the tiny mistress.
What, then, did viewers see that they liked so well? The black man together with the white girl had no precedent in antislavery (or proslavery, for that matter) propaganda. That they read a Bible and thus were Christian devotees was all that linked them with abolition ploys. O’Gorman suggests that “Billings emphasized the equality between child and man in this intimate moment” (54). Is it equality because the child and the slave share a love of Christianity? Billings captions the image: “Little Eva reading the Bible to Uncle Tom in the arbor.” Significantly, it is Eva who reads the book, a teacher and her pupil, a little mistress fondly sharing her Bible with a slave.
The not-so-subtle visual strategy of making Eva active, the one doing the reading, and seemingly also the instructing, guaranteed, as Susan Grubar has observed, that “authority accrues to whiteness”:
From youthful Huck accompanied by Nigger Jim to the adolescent Scarlet O’Hara costumed by her Mammy, the white youth attended by the black adult spells out a number of disturbing ideological lessons. Not only are blacks somehow childlike in their fawning dependency, but authority accrues to whiteness, which even at its most vulnerable and ignorant masters blackness. (204)
Between Tom and Eva there is no question who is the authority. In his simple devotion, his fledgling literacy, his attentiveness, Tom is the uninitiated of the pair. Not to mention, he is also a slave.
As well as being a passive listener in his seated posture, the large male is compositionally reduced to the level of the diminutive girl. Robyn Wiegman has observed that black men are repeatedly positioned within textual discourses into “feminine” roles, occupying the same positions that women typically occupy:
In aligning representations of black men with the constructed position of -women, dominant discourses routinely neutralized black male images, exchanging potential claims for patriarchal inclusion for a structurally passive or literally castrated realm of sexual objectification and denigration. (116-17)
As a favorite slave, Tom is a cloistered being, dressed in finery, dolled up by the child and placed not on a pedestal exactly but on a little perch in the cultivated garden. Any threat of sexual potency is effectively neutralized by visual placement. He is objectified in a manner familiar to the nineteenth-century female viewer, for he inhabits her realm in a space not unlike the hallowed steel engraving world of a Godey’s Lady’s Book. Perhaps it is no coincidence that Stowe’s early literary career included stories for Godey’s in 1839 (Hedrick viii).
If popularity can be measured by the number of reproductions and the list of imitators, Tom and Eva in the arbor was an immediate success. Billings’s engraving was used to front sheet music that year for a song, “Little Eva: Uncle Tom’s Guardian Angel,” set to words by John Greenleaf Whittier. His scene was copied as an oil painting by African American artist Robert Scott Duncanson for a commission from James Francis Conover, editor of the Detroit Tribune in 1853 (Parry 99; McElroy 14).
In these early renditions, Tom looked like Stowe’s description of “Mr. Shelby’s best hand.” “He was a large, broad-chested, powerfully built man,” she wrote. Tom was tall, dark, with a broad-shouldered, robust physique in an engraving by F. L. Jones from a painting by A. Hunt made in 1856; “especially for the Ladies’ Repository,” read the caption. On the shore of a lake in a lovely garden, the grown man sat listening to tiny Eva, her pale skin and bleached dress exuding whiteness. He sat passively, his vitality (and his virility) effectively held in check by her active gestures and her hand resting on his thigh.
“Little Eva reading the Bible to Uncle Tom in the arbor” should not be confused with a scene of Tom and Eva in a courtyard, which Billings drafted later that year. Although only brief interludes in the book, Tom and Eva’s moments together became among the most cherished scenes, widely reproduced and therefore worthy of study.
With Uncle Tom’s Cabin a runaway bestseller, Jewett commissioned Billings for upwards of 100 additional cuts to combine with new renditions of the premiering six for a Christmas (1852) gift book, publisher’s date 1853 (O’Gorman 47). He expanded some familiar themes. Slave market scenes that dwelt on feminine misery had proved persuasive in antislavery propaganda. “The Sale of Emmeline” featuring a young mulatto became the definitive auction sale to be copied by others. Once he had exhausted the abolitionist prototypes, Billings looked to the written text for archetypes upon which other artists would depend: Eliza has a near-death escape across the iced Ohio, Uncle Tom rescues Little Eva from drowning in the Mississippi, Topsy clowns in “Miss Feeley’s” duds, and, perhaps based on popular demand, an added outing for Tom and Eva in yet another garden spot. Eva placing a wreath of flowers around Tom’s neck first appeared in this second Billings project (O’Gorman 50-52).
If the scene in the arbor seemed to bring the black man and the white girl into close proximity, if anything, Billings’s courtyard pairing is even chummier, recalling instances of courtship. O’Gorman observes of the second rendition, “Eva who seems to have lost some but not all of the anatomical maturity she possessed in the 1852 illustration, sits on Tom’s knee and throws arms and flowers around his neck” (54). Flowers traditionally announce fertility, youthful ardor in bloom, and Eva has twice presented Tom with gifts of these.
The actual passage in the novel is short and not really focused on Tom and Eva so much as it provides an opportunity for the Louisiana slaveholder Augustine St. Clare to chastise his Yankee relative about northern prejudices. “A gay laugh from the court rang through the silken curtains of the verandah,” causing St. Clare and his cousin Miss Ophelia to look down into the courtyard.
There sat Tom, on a little mossy seat in the court, every one of his button-holes stuck full of cape jessamines, and Eva, gayly laughing, was hanging a wreath of roses round his neck; and then she sat down on his knee, like a chip-sparrow, still laughing.
“O, Tom, you look so funny!”
Tom had a sober, benevolent smile, and seemed, in his quiet way, to be enjoying the fun quite as much as his little mistress. He lifted his eyes, when he saw his master, with a half-deprecating, apologetic air. (Stowe 256-57)
St. Clare chides Miss Ophelia for squirming at the sight of the child touching the black man: “You would think no harm in a child’s caressing a large dog, even if he was black; but a creature that can think, and reason, and feel, and is immortal, you shudder at.” The brief scene ends as Eva “tripped off, leading Tom with her” (257).
If the southern gentleman and his northern kin are the subject of this passage, why then did illustrator Billings not place them central in the image or, at the very least, observing from the upper railing as detailed in the text? Did readers disregard the flowers, the courtyard setting, and the playful touching that accompanied it as nothing more than a pleasant interlude between a privileged child and a pampered slave in a kind slaveholder’s idyllic home? Were they unconcerned that the hand of Billings’s Tom alights in a mild embrace across the back of his “mistress” as he looks dreamily into Eva’s eyes, all -it must be stressed-well away from the chaperoning gaze of St. Clare and Ophelia?
As a further paradox, for the 1853 version, Billings made subtle changes to his 1852 design of Tom and Eva in the arbor. The engraving was compacted into a slightly vertical format in order to fit a privileged space atop the text heading “Chapter XXII.” Tom appears darker in a dark coat, and Eva changed significantly, becoming flat-chested. But if Billings meant to nullify a nubile Eva, giving her a squat figure and blank stare, why did he keep her hand on Tom’s knee?
Billings may have hoped that Tom and Eva together in another friendly exchange would be as favorable to the gift book audience as his arbor from the first set of pictures had been, or this may simply have been one among the many new imprints. In any event, his courtyard was quickly a prototype that other artists copied. In addition to commercial uses, wood engravings in books, and lithographic prints on sheet music, there was a growing industry of printmaking for purely aesthetic appreciation. Lithographs were made to be enjoyed, framed, and mounted on the walls of homes. One lithograph of Tom and Eva published by E. C. Kellog (c. 1854) found Tom looking especially fit. With a caption recalling Eva’s response from the text, “Oh Uncle Tom, how funny you do look,” here she kneels before the seated Torn, pulling him forward as he grasps for a Bible at his side. She has draped him with flowers. Her right hand now rests on his breast. St. Clare and Miss Ophelia loom directly over Tom, perhaps aware that there was cause for concern.
Later artists made adjustments, O’Gorman reminds, reworking Billings’s image, “robbing it of its intimacy and Tom of his dignity” (54). In an undated lithograph by Nathaniel Currier, Tom no longer wore fine clothing as he had previously, despite the text describing him well-dressed, with button-holes for the posies, no less. “Thus began the transformation of the Stowe-Billings characterization of a shared humanity between the races into the white supremacist stereotype common in later decades,” suggests O’Gorman (54). Ragged clothing and hand-hewn straw hats of the lowly Tom were a readily understood demarcation from the fine fabric and bonnets of Eva’s leisure class.
A courtyard scene was one of ten full-page wood engravings carved by M. Jackson for another Jewett publication of January 1853. The 32-page soft-cover booklet, Pictures and Stories from “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” was designed, the foreword promised, “to adapt Mrs. Stowe’s touching narrative to the understanding of the youngest readers” (author uncredited, John P. Jewett publisher). This time, Eva looked as if she had Tom on a leash of flowers, while he gazed amiably back at her, much like the large black dog St. Clare alluded to. If Tom was Eva’s pupil in the arbor and lover (some might say) in Billings’s courtyard, here he was her pet.
Except for Billings’s original, subsequent artists almost always placed the couple under the watchful eyes of the adults from the window above. “Alternate versions of the scene in the St. Clare courtyard were created,” O’Gorman suspects, “probably to avoid the problem posed by showing an embrace between a delicate white girl and a ‘large, broad-chested, powerfully-made man’ of a ‘full glossy black’ color, the father we remember, of many small children” (54-55). With Tom and Eva poised at the threshold of intimacy, most Billings imitators were careful to place the couple under the surveillance of the slaveholder and the spinster.
One gets the idea that viewers enjoyed being teased, baited by the implication of what roses exchanged within a court(ing?) yard might foretell. Much as St. Clare toyed with Miss Ophelia’s northern sensibilities, artists pictured Tom and Eva touching each other, as their gazes penetrate yielding eyes. Readers could flirt with the couple and what their mingling might suggest, only to contain these errant fantasies by emasculating Tom and eulogizing Eva. This is comparable to how young boys will hang over alligator tanks, conquering their terror with bravura, humiliating the man-eaters by dropping coins on their backs.
In his survey of the blackfaced minstrel shows, mid-century mainstream entertainment where white northern men “play” as black slaves, Robert C. Toll concludes, “Most white Americans act out their need for racial subordination only when they feel their own interests and values are challenged” (87). In the 1850s, a “propaganda battle over slavery” put all that northerners held dear in jeopardy. In order for northern whites to retain a sense of control over their collective insecurities, the minstrel stage became a site where European Americans could exorcise their anxieties by performing the racial other, a process Eric Lott more recently terms “love and theft (Lott).” This took form on stage when white men performed their version of southern blacks.
Leonard Cassuto confirms Lott’s thesis that blackfaced minstrel shows were “a staged effort to contain conflicting emotions about blackness and black culture within the medium of performance” (155). Stowe, Billings, and all of the other visual artists performed Tom, enacting “racial subordination,” engaging in a form of “love and theft.” Anxiety about slavery and white accountability was displaced by first elevating the subjected one, identifying all of his fine traits, then ruling over the noble character. Authors, performers, and artists provided the escape valve, giving readers, audiences, and viewers the illusion that they cared deeply for these fellow beings, assuaging their own guilt, complicity, and responsibility for the peculiar institution. Tom was Stowe’s evangelical messenger, witnessing for the Lord and then dispensed with after his testifying was done, even his vile death by physical brutality made to seem a gift bestowed.
Tom with Eva on his lap may have been a successful image precisely because the sight was dangerous yet contained, courting the unmentionable and then so unequivocally squelching any chance that a dark, attractive African descendant man would ever live up to his masculine potential. Tom and Eva together, twice pictured in intimate moments, embodied as did their minstrel show contemporaries what Cassuto termed “a complex dialectic that condensed opposing emotions of fascination and dread, acceptance and rejection of blackness within the performing black body” (155). Tom the Christian, Tom who had saved the life of a drowning Evangeline, Tom whom slaveholder St. Clare called “the most wonderful Tom that ever wore a black skin”-was converted into Tom the plaything.
It must be remembered that Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a worldwide phenomenon. Whether studying the Bible in the arbor or engaged in playful dalliance in a garden court, pictures of Tom and Eva were known throughout much of the world. The novel was published in thirtyseven languages and reviewed by prominent writers all over Europe. At that moment in the history of the printed book, only the Bible had appeared in so many versions (Brooks 420-21).
Uncle Tom’s Cabin was an immediate success in England, where it appeared soon after the American debut. “Tom and Eva in the Arbour” and “Eva Dressing Uncle Tom” were among twenty-seven whole-page design wood engravings that the renowned English artist George Cruikshank created for one among the fourteen different publications issued there in 1852. Four more followed in 1853. These earliest examples set the standard for how Billings’s gift book illustrations would be plagiarized in Britain well into the 1880s (Kirkham 192).
In choosing some of the very same scenes that Billings had singled out from the story, the English Cruikshank took his lead from the American. Moreover, there are indications that Cruikshank may have literally drawn over the originals, then augmented these into his own interpretations. Printing, as everyone knows, is a process whereby reproductions result in reversals of the original drawings made on blocks, stones, or metal plates. Cruikshank’s positioning for “Tom and Eva in the arbour” is the reverse of Billings’s composition. He increased a distance between them ever so slightly, and removed Eva’s hand from Tom’s knee. A distinctly English setting, with tiled floor and peaked roof, Cruikshank’s was more manicured garden than the wild nature of the American setting. Eva perched primly on a bench next to Tom, big book on her lap, “M’lady’s” feet supported by a little stool.
Cruikshank’s courtyard also reversed Billings’s figures, here again with less overt touching from Eva. Where Billings’s Eva sat between Tom’s legs on his lap, Cruikshank’s little girl snuggled from the side, still draping flowers around a bemused man. Cruikshank appropriated the basic design of Billings’s prints, but tamed their sexually suggestive content. And, with Billings as his model, Cruikshank was not yet alerted to the need for chaperones as the next wave of draftsmen would be.
To determine how British audiences perceived Tom and Eva requires some knowledge of that society’s standards. Cruikshank notwithstanding, other artists certainly did offer titillating interpretations of the novel. English pictorial accounts from Uncle Tom’s Cabin could be outright lascivious compared to the American prints. In another 1852 rendition of Stowe’s novel, renamed Pictures of Slavery in the United States, no less than Eliza’s sister-in-law is shown naked from the waist up being whipped. Her frontal pose and full breasts ascertain that this image is intended to be erotic, further emphasized by the voyeur peeking through the doorway. An 1867 English reissue went to even greater lengths when the character Prue was shown being whipped “topless.” Prue, recall, was a pitiful old alcoholic who died after a whipping, left alone in a cellar. Yet she was drawn as young and shapely, watched by a leering crowd (Wood 184).
Marcus Wood suggests that the kinds of images from which Europeans have derived erotic stimulation has been an underresearched area of cultural study. Even English antislavery imagery had tended toward the salacious. The British penchant for images of frontally positioned, barebreasted slave “women being “whipped would have been unthinkable in American antislavery circles, where attracting women to the movement was a major goal. Scenes that showed the “flagellation of women and children,” Wood writes, “worked their way into the sexual fantasies of Europeans” (190). In fairness, slavery in England had been abolished two decades before Uncle Tom’s Cabin hit bookstores, so the English reader little knew the harsh reality of mid-nineteenth-century American chattel slavery. In part, artists capitalized on Uncle Tom’s Cabin as an opportunity to sate audience tastes for erotica.
English pictures of Tom and Eva were just as widely circulated as their American counterparts. Eithograph posters by the Jarrett and Palmer company especially wowed Londoners, prompting John Ruskin to mention them in Modern Painters:
Let it be considered, for instance, exactly how far in the commonest lithographs of some utterly popular subject -for instance, the teaching of Uncle Tom by Eva-the sentiment which is supposed to be excited by the exhibition of Christianity in youth, is complicated by Eva’s having a dainty foot and a well-made slipper. (Ruskin 5, 96-97; cited in Birdoff 242)
Because Ruskin spells out “the teaching of Uncle Tom by Eva,” it is assumedly the arbor scene in which the “dainty foot” registered as fetish. Wood concurs, calling this kind of image “sexually charged” to British eyes. “For Ruskin the popular enthusiasm for Uncle Tom’s Cabin was based in a vicarious and sexually charged emotionalism directed at the image of a small white girl cuddling with a big black man” (190). A lithograph for sheet music published in London in 1852 provides an example. Artist J. Brandard emphasizes Tom’s athletic physique and Eva’s delicacy. Sitting close to Tom, “cuddling,” Eva gently grasps his proffered arm as she casts their joined gaze into the distance.
Yet Wood seems to equivocate. “Tom’s desexualization is paradoxically determined by the readiness with which the illustrators of the day flung him and Eva together” (190), he adds. If a picture is repeated, does the viewer become inured to it, reading meaning into it regardless of ostensive content? Even so, it was not merely that Tom and Eva were “flung . . . together” so much as how they interacted. Admittedly, British Tom seems more than able, and the puny Bible resting at the font of Eva’s lap is a frail armor at best. Any semblance of sexual prowess in Tom is undermined by his passivity in relation to Eva. “Sentiment …” for Eva, Ruskin believed, “excited by the exhibition of Christianity in youth,” was the subject in the picture. Tom’s “de-sexualization” was reinforced by his subordinate status to the child. Tom was elevated while being diminished. A blazoning candle flame, ignited only to be stifled.
Ultimately, the story was the foundation for Tom’s tameness and docility, and without doubt, the source of his popularity. Tom was, Wood reasoned, “the ideal Christian house-slave, probably the only type of black male which Victorian society could imagine in physical contact with virginal white girlhood” (190). Or else why would that society, American or British, have delighted to see him with her? Repeatedly.
“Uncle-Tom-mania” was unquenchable as entrepreneurs rushed out more illustrated editions, Tom almanacs, songbooks, wallpaper, and antislavery notepaper with scenes from the book. Tom and Eva in the garden were immortalized as fine porcelain figurine. The English coined the word “Tomitudes” to describe their penchant for the slave (Birdoff 144). As testament to Uncle Tom’s impact on Britons, the British Museum today owns an extensive collection of “Tomiana” (Lorimer 85-86; Fisch 147).
Ever keen to developing trends in popular taste, theatrical entrepreneurs rushed to capitalize on the unprecedented success of the novel. George C. Howard’s premiere production of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, set to George Aiken’s script, was mounted in New York City a mere five months after the book’s debut (Birdoff 24; Gossett 269). Within that year, P. T. Barnum had a play by Henry J. Conway up and running at his American Museum, one offering a more positive view of the South (Toll 91). On January 16, 1854, the Bowery Theater hung a “very large painting of Little Eva crowning old Tom with flowers” on the façade, announcing yet another stage version, with minstrel star Thomas Dartmouth “Daddy” Rice in the role of Uncle Tom (Birdoff 102, 132, 140). By 1879, there were forty-nine touring “Tom Shows,” as they became known, listed in the New York Daily Mirror (Moody 29-33, 102-03).
Harry Birdoff began his survey of Tom shows with a description of the large, colorful lithographic sheets that promoters posted in advance of a troupe’s arrival:
With the coming of Spring they blossomed forth – covering barns and fences, and in flaming colors overrunning stone walls; the ‘three sheet’ lithographs could not be read from a distance, but there wasn’t a boy -who didn’t recognize immediately the familiar figures: Little Eva ensconced in old Tom’s lap, Eliza pursued across the ice by the hounds, lawyer Marks striking that grandiloquent posture, and Topsy doing a breakdown … (1)
Birdoff’s The World’s Greatest Hit “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” was written in 1947, almost a century after the story “was first published. Through the decades, certain scenes and tried-and-true characters had remained favorites, while others had faded from memory. Of all of the scenes and all of the characters, “Little Eva ensconced in old Tom’s lap” was uppermost in Birdoff’s recollection. From 1852 to 1947, and even longer, Tom and Eva in the garden not only endured but became the quintessential enactment of the story.
Posters highlighted dramatic moments from the novel -“Eliza pursued across the ice by the hounds,” for example. Others were funny: “Topsy doing a breakdown,” or, in his “grandiloquent” pose, “lawyer Marks,” a rather insignificant character from the novel who had become a hit through actors’ bombast on stage. In the journey from page to stage, there had been changes. When Eliza escaped over the iced Ohio River in Uncle Tom’s Cabin the novel, there were no dogs in hot pursuit, but the notion of slavering, bloodthirsty hounds lapping at the heels of runaways was fraught with heart-stopping thrills. On stage, the beasts of choice were not even the lop-eared bloodhounds of legend, but huge mastiffs or great danes. Packs of them chomping across the foreground of the posters headlined the production. Monstrous dogs were so popular that, for Jay Rial’s production of the 1880s, they were featured on the advertisement cards.
Nor had the novel’s Topsy danced a breakdown per se. This dance, along with the cakewalk, stump speeches, and pathetic songs, were crowdpleasers in blackfaced minstrel shows (Birdoff 292-305). Tom shows took on aspects of minstrel shows; meanwhile, the blackface stars began performing “Toms.” Foot-tapping, cork-smeared Topsys trod the boards, and pontificating Lawyers Marks chewed the scenery of the so-called legitimate theaters just as they did in the bawdier minstrel houses.
With no theatrical tradition to uphold or revive in performing the inaugural Tom show, the Howard production may have found visual inspiration in Billings’s pictures. The choice to end each of the play’s eight parts with a tableau resembles how Billings encapsulated segments of the written story into the stop-action moment of a print. These staged tableaux functioned similarly to book illustrations, with actors frozen in place and holding a group pose momentarily, fixing an image from the action into the minds of the audience. For example, stage directions at the end of Act II in the Aiken script read “George and Eliza kneel in an attitude of thanksgiving, with the Child between them,” echoing of course Billings’s illustration of the Harrises reaching Canada in the original novel (Aiken 37; Birdoff 5).
“Little Eva ensconced in old Tom’s lap,” first pictured by Billings for the novel, was a favorite scene on posters and other stage advertisements from the start. Onstage in the Howard-Aiken adaptation, Howard’s own daughter Cordelia played Eva. “Little Cordelia Howard,” the ads trumpeted, “The child of Nature” (Birdoff 37). Cordelia became the star of the show. As a result, Eva’s few scenes from the original story, most with Tom, were prolonged to showcase “little Cordelia.” Many Tom shows ended with Tom and Eva reunited after his death in the heaven of an eternal garden (Birdoff 316). The poses that performers of Tom and Eva struck for promotional photographs were reenactments of staged moments.
Care was taken to produce memorable artwork for the theatrical productions in competition with dioramas of scenes and the magic lantern shows elsewhere. While the Howard-Aiken version was at the National Theater, manager Captain Purdy spent $2,000 on a 10,000-foot panorama. Purdy also used tinted lithographs in promotions. Alanson Fisher was paid $565 to paint a 4′ by 3′ portrait of Stowe mounted within a gilt frame (Birdoff 100-03). At Barnum’s American Museum, the script was simplified, but the visual aspect was embellished to include especially sumptuous scenery. “A grand panorama by C. Lehr” was an added draw for audiences (86). With theater lobbies draped in Spanish moss and cotton bolls, Tom shows became veritable theme parks of slavery. On display would be such things as slave whips with bloodstains, posters offering rewards for runaways, and slave shackles (Birdoff 320).
If the printed image of virile Tom snuggling delicate virgin Eva was cause for caution, what a sight the flesh-and-blood stage Tom and Eva must have been. In the original Howard-Aiken version, it was the producer’s own darling daughter bouncing on Tom’s knee. Stage performances confounded by a dicey situation solved the dilemma in several ways. For one thing, in the earliest stagings of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, white actors performed all roles. Under the grease and ash, Tom was not really a black man. For another, Tom grew old, fast.
In the Howard-Aiken production, Tom was played by G. C. German. He had been reluctant to take the role, presuming it would be what he called a “Jim Crow darkey,” similar to a minstrel show. In these early performances, Tom seems to have been played as the physically robust father whom Stowe first imagined. That a New York Daily Times review (27 July 1853) called German’s characterization “a strong, black, labouring man” indicates that he successfully avoided a minstrelsy stereotype. German played Tom from July 18 to August 22, 1853 (Gossett 278-79).
Subsequently, Tom was played by J. Lingard, a white actor evidently less reluctant to play the familiar stage “darkey.” He was perceived as an older man when the performance was reviewed for the New York Atlas (16 October 1853). “The character of the meek, pious, and subdued old negro . . . was ably delineated,” it read, describing Tom as a “pathetic” man (Gossett 279). Meanwhile, at the Bowery, Thomas D. Rice as Tom-the very performer who had in 1828 originated the blackfaced character Jim Crow, the rustic old slave with the quirky jumping dance-was expected to perform as an old man (Birdoff 132).
Thomas F. Gossett has offered other possible reasons why Tom aged onstage (279). People lived fewer years in 1852, and standards for being considered old may have been “more arbitrary.” To support this, he cites A. M. Woodward’s review of the novel, describing Tom as “an old man, not less than forty-five, and probably fifty years of age.” Although a slave such as Tom might feasibly have been fifty, that he would be a prized field hand at that age was improbable. Sold by Shelby, purchased first by St. Clare, and again by Legree, Tom was a valuable commodity. Moreover, had Tom waited to father his toddlers so late in life, it would have severely curtailed increasing the master’s stock. Nevertheless, Gossett maintains that Tom’s qualities of “meekness, patience, and calm fortitude” were not the virtues a young man was expected to have.
Actor German had been wary of attempting a role to be acted out in blackface. Several decades worth of minstrel stage lampooning made him question whether Tom would be taken seriously. According to Gossett, this was the most compelling reason for making the stage Tom old, for in minstrel shows the only black characters “with any dignity at all were portrayed as those Old folks at home’ who remembered days long past on the plantation” (280). If the ancient retainers, loyal old slaves, were the only characters with dignity, it was a spurious honor at best. The Aiken play may have been the first to present an African American character in a serious drama, but Tom was nevertheless portrayed with “far less inherent intelligence and ability” than whites. The “Jim Crow darkey,” adds Gossett, was supplanted by the old uncle, a stereotype “all the more powerful because it was conceived in idealism” (283).
By performing Tom as old, there was less likelihood that intimacy between Tom and Eva would be interpreted as, well, intimacy. Gossett notes, “had [Tom] been portrayed as a young man he might conceivably have been seen as a sexual threat -a threat, for example, to the absolute purity of little Eva” (280). A “white actor hidden beneath charred cork and a powder-dusted wig was not factually an “attractive” or “powerfully-built” black man with “brawny arms.” When, in 1878, an African American performer finally did portray Tom, Sam Lucas was partnered with an Eva so fat that when she settled onto his lap, likely what aroused that audience was concern for his safety. The production “was not successful (Toll 217; Wood 224-25).
For all of the possible reasons that Tom was performed as an old man in the beginning, once he appeared as such, he remained old in almost all productions of the play from 1853 and thereafter. In an 1873 photograph, for example, the famous stage actor David Belasco was costumed for his San Francisco performance as Tom. He appeared to be elderly, bald with a fringe of white hair. Belasco was then 20 (Gossett 280).
Of all of the mitigating factors that may have tamed and desexualized Tom into a suitable companion for Eva, aging has ultimately been the most effective. As Tom aged on stage and in pictures, he became an “uncle.”
Literary uncles had been around before the war. Although not called “Uncle,” a character in John Pendleton Kennedy’s novel Swallows Barn of 1832 is an early example of the type. An old servant named Scipio with “a head of silver wool” expressed nostalgia for the past, of a time in Virginia before the old estates had been ‘”cut up'” and people had ‘”gone over the mountain.'” The primary job of an “uncle” was to speak well of the past, conveniently eluding mention of slavery.
The titular Tom from Stowe’s 1852 novel follows in the footsteps of Scipio. Despite being ripped from his wife and babies, chained and sent off in a coffle with other miserable chattel, let down by even a good master, and beaten, finally to death, at the hands of another, he never spoke an ill word of any man (Kennedy 11-12).
Tom had originally been perceived in the prime of life. Before emancipation, a few other darkhaired, broad-shouldered adult black men had appeared in print. Images of one escaped slave, “Union Jim,” holding a rifle and standing tall, was inspiring propaganda to justify the war for northern readers of Harper’s Weekly. Once hostilities ceased in the mid-1860s, the proud, able-bodied black man disappeared. Now that his battle service was over and he was free, that same northern weekly forgot the worthy soldier. Printer’s ink flowed into an effigy of an elderly former slave who spoke well of “old massa” and held fond memories of slavery. An engraving by Richard Norris Brooke for the front page of Harper’s Weekly in the early 1870s is an example. Like Tom, this old man sat on a mound of earth out in nature. His shoulders slump, he has stopped his fiddle playing, overcome with memories. Behind him a winding river, gay dancing figures, and the palm trees of an exotic old South haunt his reverie. Musing on the past, it was “dem good ole’ times” of happy bondage that this ancient fiddler recalled, not the glory days of prideful participation in a Civil War and quest for freedom. By this time, Uncle Tom had become just such a man. His popularity on stage not only coincided with but contributed to a market for these kinds of portrayals.
Adah M. Howard’s short story “Uncle Ned’s Cabin, or, the Little Angel Comforter” featured the now familiar old uncle on the front page of the New York Family Story Paper in 1873. In an imitation of Stowe’s story, using an updated rendition of Billings’s arbor scene, the “little angel comforter,” here called Ida, sat with gray-haired, slumped old Uncle Ned, pointing toward “the Heavenly Zion.” The name Uncle Ned had been famous since blackface minstrel shows were at their height in 1848, when Stephen Foster’s “Old Uncle Ned” was performed by almost every troupe (Toll 78).
As the nation reconciled Reconstruction, numerous songs and their printed covers featured uncles. “The Dear Old Home We Loved So Well” sang a freed man pining for “Dixie,” ragged and miserable, remembering happier days. Another feeble oldster groped his way home, singing, “Fse Gwine Back to Dixie” on that song cover. Recognized by the tufts of gray hair and stooped-over postures, this profusion of aging ex-slaves left the impression that they were returning south to die. Yet “The Old Home Ain’t What It Used To Be” realized another old geezer on a song sheet of 1872. As North and South regrouped and formed new economic and political alliances, freedmen’s bureaus had closed; African American causes and voters became obsolete.
Sterling Brown has termed the literary type a “wretched freedman, a fish out of water” as an example of how “stereotypes … have evolved at the dictates of social policy” (1-2). There was no place in public propaganda for the strong figure of an adult male African American head of household. Unable to thrive without slavery, the wretched freedman yearned for a return of the old ways. North and South joined forces and developed an agricultural peonage system kept in place by a complex web of political, social, and economic limitations. Visual culture responded with images of an idyllic South where the “old folks” remained at hoirie.
Tom had never left. His story replayed the days of slavery. In the ultimate irony, African American characters such as Tom could be loyal slaves in perpetuity. By continually restaging Uncle Tom’s life, white actors, producers, and artists found a way to keep slavery viable as an ideology of race and class.
The same aging process that occurred in prints and onstage happened across all of popular culture from the 187Os and thereafter. Minstrel shows incorporated Uncle Tom and plantation life into performances laced “with themes of nostalgia, reconciliation, and southern redemption. Toll writes, “Romantic and sentimentalized images of happy, contented slaves and nostalgic old Negroes looking back to the good old days on the plantation completely dominated minstrel portrayals of slaves.” Minstrel performances of old slaves like Tom became a “comforting façade of romanticized, folksy caricatures.” Cast aside were “wiley tricksters and antislavery protesters” from pre-emancipation days “for loyal, grinning darkies” (Toll 88).
After emancipation, Tom survived m print imagery and on stage, a combination perpetual slave and loyal old uncle. Tom the father, husband, and strong fieldworker was gone. He had died his martyr’s death at the end of the novel. Apropos, Tom the venerable, grandfatherly companion of Eva was the figure who lingered in the imagination, not a dark ghost of slavery past, but a beloved slave who never was and so could always be.
Uncle Tom and his story persisted in popular culture well into the twentieth century. Tom shows were still touring in the 1940s and played on occasion into and beyond the 1950s. There have been several motion pictures, beginning in 1903 with a twelve-minute film directed by Edwin S. Porter in which Uncle Tom was played by a white actor in blackface. African American actor Sam Lucas was 72 when he played Tom in a 1914 film, reconfirming audience perception of an elderly slave. Carl Laemmle produced a bigbudget full-length feature in 1927, and Uncle Tom’s Cabin was reinterpreted on film as recently as 1989 (Birdoff 395-98).
Tom and Eva had solidified into an enduring relationship. In motion pictures, animated cartoons, and advertising campaigns, wherever Tom and Eva appeared together, superiority acceded to the tiny girl. In several films, Shirley Temple and Bill “Bojangles” Robinson recall Tom and Eva. The Little Colonel of 1935, based on Anne F. Johnson’s novel of 1896, featured curlyheaded Temple as a reluctant young belle and Robinson as her “servant” pal. The Littlest Rebel of 1935 -was another faintly disguised rendition of Tom and Eva, where the southern missy cavorts with her best friend, an older male slave named Uncle Billy (Hébert 191).
In a 1946 magazine ad for the Ink-O-Gram pen, the couple wore contemporary dress, Tom in a professorial vest and suit trousers, Eva in a little girl’s ruffled frock. Although they looked up to date, nothing had changed. Proudly, Tom pulled back in the straight back chair to survey his handiwork. Dutifully, Eva stood behind him, her right hand proprietarily on his arm. Although Tom brandished the fancy pen, he had made his marks on a child’s toy blackboard. Uncle Tom had been “awritin’,” boasted the ad. With white thinning hair and furrowed brow, Tom had aged over the years, yet time had not brought equality. Eva was still supervisor. Little missy remained “massa.”
Where has Tom been lately? The Tom shows are gone. Pictures of little blond girls bouncing on African American men’s laps, or any man’s lap, would give pause to viewers in a time of increased awareness about the inappropriateness of touching children. Still, the relationship persists. Authority finds new ways to “accrue to whiteness,” and imagery creates other icons, demeaning African American men in subtle ways that pose as fondness, all the while privileging the European American character’s point of view. Think about popular culture and which relationships are continually recreated. Driving Miss Daisy is only the most obvious of film actor Morgan Freeman’s roles as a white woman’s genial companion. Film scenarios for Denzel Washington sometimes reprise the dynamic of a sexually charged but unconsummated relationship with a white woman. In The Bone Collector., for example, he is a detective paralyzed from the neck down and has an Eva-like Angelina Jolie as his “partner.”
If Hammatt Billings’s engravings of Uncle Tom and the reproductions of his imitators have passed on a legacy, popular imagery has reinforced America’s European ancestors’ notions of colonial power relationships. By replaying a scenario where African-descendant Tom must depend on the master’s little daughter Eva, visual culture has sustained European American feelings of confidence and authority. Hammatt Billings’s engravings for Uncle Tom’s Cabin did not so much leave a legacy as begin a strategy.