In the art world we frequently hear about a forgotten artist from previous centuries being rediscovered and then reclaimed – returning the artist to his or her rightful place in the constellation of great artists of such-and-such century or of all time.
And while this is also done in the literary world, it isn’t as easy as displaying the artwork of the reclaimed artist. It requires reading with an open mind – and often reading a book of considerable length.
On top of this, literary works (probably much more so than artwork) are subject to negative spin. In other words, there may have been conscious or unconscious bias on the part of literary critics to do a hatchet job on a specific book, often for political agendas.
Such a literary work is Harriet Beecher Stowe’s powerful 1852 novel UNCLE TOM’S CABIN.
And before you stop reading this blog post because you are annoyed that in a “woke” time I would bring up this novel for reclamation, answer this one question:
Have you actually read the entire novel of UNCLE TOM’S CABIN? (No, Cliff Notes or the like don’t count.)
If you have read the novel with your full attention (and not while checking Twitter or watching the football game), you should have realized what a powerful portrayal it is of both the brutalities of slavery and the heroic figures of Stowe’s black characters including Uncle Tom.
For example, in the novel, the unwavering Christian faith of Uncle Tom is set against the insidious use of the Bible by Southerners to justify slavery.
And, yes, when the novel was published in 1852 there was pushback from Southerners who said the novel wasn’t accurate on these brutalities. In consequence, Stowe wrote a nonfiction book that came out the following year – A KEY TO UNCLE TOM’S CABIN – Presenting the Original Facts and Documents Upon Which The Story Is Founded.
For me one of the most important aspects of the novel is that it deals with the trauma of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act that required Northerners to return runaway slaves. Imagine being a law-abiding abolitionist in a free state who finds a slave hiding in your barn and by law you are required to return that slave to his or her master?
So how did such a powerful book portraying several heroic black figures end up being considered negatively (mostly) by people who have never read the book?
I have had the pleasure of communicating with Professor William Barclay Allen, emeritus dean and professor from my alma mater of Michigan State University, who is the author of the book RETHINKING UNCLE TOM: THE POLITICAL PHILOSOPHY OF HARRIET BEECHER STOWE. Professor Allen told me “of the incredible damage done by the ‘Tom shows’ to engender the false stereotype of Tom. The last of those shows appeared on a stage in Seattle in or about 1956, having been staged somewhere in the U.S. virtually everyday since first introduced in 1852 and until that date.”
Here is how Wikipedia defines “Tom show” (boldface mine):
“Tom show is a general term for any play or musical based (often only loosely) on the 1852 novel Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe. The novel attempts to depict the harsh reality of slavery. Due to the weak copyright laws at the time, a number of unauthorized plays based on the novel were staged for decades, many of them mocking the novel’s strong characters and social message, and leading to the pejorative term ‘Uncle Tom.’
“Even though Uncle Tom’s Cabin was the best-selling novel of the 19th century, far more Americans of that time saw the story in a stage play or musical than read the book. Some of these shows were essentially minstrel shows that utilized caricatures and stereotypes of black people, and thus inverting the intent of the novel. “Tom shows” were popular in the United States from the 1850s through the early 1900s.”
This brings us to the pandemic:
Yes, during the first months of the pandemic I adapted the novel of UNCLE TOM’S CABIN into a four-episode miniseries. I didn’t add any of my own interpretations. Why alter storylines based on firsthand accounts?
Then I went looking for a producer courageous enough to undertake this project given how many people who have never read the book react negatively to the concept.
Lo and behold, in a Zoom networking group when I mentioned my project, film director Jenni Gold of Gold Pictures replied that a high school teacher had given her the book to read. Jenni had thought highly of the book and couldn’t understand why it had such a negative reputation.
And since then, Jenni and I have agreed to work together on producing a two-part project: the four-episode miniseries of the novel and a documentary to reclaim UNCLE TOM’S CABIN from the hatchet job that has been done on this amazing literary work.
If you know anyone in the entertainment industry who might be interested in this two-part project to reclaim UNCLE TOM’S CABIN, contact me through my website at www.PhyllisZimblerMiller.com
Say yes to reclaiming UNCLE TOM’S CABIN!
Phyllis Zimbler Miller is a screenwriter, playwright and book author in Los Angeles. She is the co-founder of the free nonfiction Holocaust theater project www.ThinEdgeOfTheWedge.com to combat anti-Semitism and hate. The play is also available at www.SchritteInDenAbgrund.com in a professional German translation.