‘The Victorian Oprah’
With the publication of Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Stowe became one of the most influential and popular figures of the 19th century
Uncle Tom’s Cabin was and still is the most famous American book ever written. It sold three million copies in the United States between its publication in 1852 and the start of the Civil War, nine years later. In the 19th century, it outsold the Bible.
You probably know the story. You’re probably familiar with the characters. But have you read it?
“I hadn’t read Uncle Tom’s Cabin myself until maybe two days after I accepted the job here,” says Dawn Adiletta, curator of the exhibit “Uncle Tom’s Cabin at 150,” sponsored by the Harriet Beecher Stowe Center located in Hartford, Conn.
“I had read other works by Stowe. I had read the Joan Hedrick biography of Stowe. I had worked in the history field on the early 19th century and was very familiar with the role of the Beecher family and the importance of the Beecher name.”
In short, Adiletta says, she had more reason than most Americans to think that she knew everything there was to know about Uncle Tom’s Cabin. But when she actually finished the book, “I thought to myself, ‘This not anything like I expected; this isn’t like anything else she’s written; this isn’t like anything else I’ve read.”
With “Uncle Tom’s Cabin at 150″— a series of lectures, roundtables, symposia and exhibits — the Stowe Center has been working to spread that message to the Hartford community and beyond.
“Our hope is to catalyze and convene conversations around the issues raised in the book,” says Katherine Kane, executive director of the Stowe Center, “and not just to stop there, but to connect the legacy of Uncle Tom’s Cabin to issues that are still of critical importance today.”
Many of those issues are visible in the neighborhood surrounding the Stowe Center. Once called “Nook Farm,” and home to well-heeled artists, activists and intellectuals including Harriet Beecher Stowe, her radical feminist sister Isabella Beecher Hooker, and Mark Twain, the neighborhood has fallen on hard times.
The wooded vistas that charmed 19th-century visitors now are cluttered with strip malls, run-down homes and public housing. But the Stowe Center, in a more or less complete reversal of its one-time image as an “introverted, inward-looking” organization, as Kane describes it, has made its mission to forge a stronger connection with its largely working class, heavily immigrant and mostly non-White neighbors.
“We’ve been asking ourselves, ‘What is our stake in the neighborhood and our proper role in relation to our neighbors?’ ” Kane says.
The fruits of that period of soul-searching have been a series of innovative programs — both sponsored by the center and inspired by it — that have gotten the whole town talking about race. Some of the year’s highlights include:
“A Moral Battle Cry for Freedom,” the exhibit curated by Adiletta, tackles the issue of Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s mixed legacy: Its role as a “moral battle cry,” using Langston Hughes’ famous phrase, that sparked the Civil War and as a “moral outrage,” as James Baldwin put it, that created the stereotypes that have defined Black Americans for better or worse for the past 150 years.
“Cassy’s Story”, a half-hour radio play on Connecticut Public Radio dramatized by playwright Eliza Anderson and directed by a former BBC senior producer, focused on Cassy, the defiant and vengeful slave driven to the verge of madness by her forced concubinage to Simon Legree.
“Writing Pictures: The Harriet Beecher Stowe Experience,” conceived by Mark Wilson of the Greater Hartford Academy of the Arts and performed by a multiracial cast of local high school students, dealt with the book’s relevance for young people.
“Uncle Tom’s Cabin: 150 Years of Inspiration in the Theater,” a panel discussion featuring theater scholars and Stowe experts as well as Robert Alexander, whose “I Ain’t Yo Uncle: The New Jack Revisionist Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” inspired a generation of avant-garde African American playwrights.
And most significantly, according to Kane, who calls it “the program that transformed us,” was an institute for Connecticut high school teachers using the novel as a springboard to discuss the issue of slavery. “That program, more than any other we’ve done, made it clear how much potential there is to educate students through their teachers,” Kane adds.
The Stowe Center recently altered its mission statement. The new wording says it wants to “inspire individuals to embrace Harriet Beecher Stowe’s message of social justice and to work toward positive change in their communities.”
Indeed, it appears the conversations that the commemoration has sparked are allowing the center to focus on the most important aspect of Stowe’s legacy —”not the house, the library, the beautiful grounds, but Mrs. Stowe’s ideas,” notes Dr. Booker T. DeVaughn, chairman of the Stowe Center’s board of trustees and retired president of Three Rivers Community College in Norwich, Conn.
“The fact that she took stands when she didn’t have to; the idea that one person can make a difference; the fact that the things she was concerned with in the 19th century — the race problem and the struggle for justice and freedom — have been with us through the 20th century and are still with us, in different forms, today.”
For more information on the Stowe Center, visit <www.harrietbeecherstowecenter.org>.
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