Two coincidental events set me to musing about the longstanding American awkwardness with a less glorious part of our history, still unresolved. The first is the contentious presidential campaign season which seems designed to open old wounds. The second was the 160th anniversary of Uncle Tom’s Cabin on March 20.
The universe moves in mysterious ways; so, too, the archive. Last month on a cataloguing assignment, I was searching the backlog for the works of an obscure 19th century British novelist when I retrieved what I thought was one of her interminable historical novels. I peeled back the protective dust jacket and discovered instead a lavishly illustrated British edition of Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe, a book I have never read, except in excerpted form, compelled by well-meaning language arts teachers. We’ve become a nation adept at moral contortion and collective amnesia, haunted by haints past. And present.
British edition cover
Uncle Tom’s Cabin was originally published and distributed as a serial circa June 1851. Less than a year later the novel was a publishing sensation. It was second only to the Bible as the ethical needle that Abolitionists used to prick the conscience of a nation. The first edition, first issue was published by Jewett & Proctor of Boston with especially commissioned illustrations. So great was the demand for the book that several editions were issued that same year domestically and abroad; the Library has six iterations from 1852 alone. However, these editions are not uniform.
American edition title page
Differences between the American and British editions bear closer examination especially in the area of thematic emphasis. The variations of the subtitle are telling. The British title page reads as an indictment: “Negro Life in the Slave States of America.” The American version, in comparison, has all the bite of a languid Sunday stroll in the countryside: “Life Among the Lowly.”
Illustrated editions had as few as four up to as many as 40 etchings or woodcuts. What aspects of slavery were depicted and how they were represented seems to have been driven less by the text and more by the respective cultural proclivities. For example, the contrast between the cover art of the American and British editions is stark. American squeamishness at the brutality of slavery precludes realism. Better to show the carefree, contented “exotic race” (quoted from the preface) in their simple habitat. Tellingly, Tom is absent. Instead, the American edition’s picturesque rusticism paints a cheery gloss on abject squalor though, to borrow from Faulkner, it is “not fittin’ for hogs.” From my perspective the British illustration, with its frank depiction of the violence of slavery, especially the accompanying outraged caption, emerges as much more sympathetic and effective in persuading readers the Abolitionists’ cause.
By Lauren Buisson, Technical Services Division