Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

UNCLE TOM'S CABIN IN KRAKOW: CROSS-CULTURAL APPREHENSIONS: Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin Has Been Mired in Controversy since 1852; It Continues to Challenge Readers Today. during Spring 2018, I Had the Opportunity to Teach the Novel Twice, Once at Salem State University in Massachusetts, and Then as a Visiting Professor at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland

Magazine article Phi Kappa Phi Forum

UNCLE TOM'S CABIN IN KRAKOW: CROSS-CULTURAL APPREHENSIONS: Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin Has Been Mired in Controversy since 1852; It Continues to Challenge Readers Today. during Spring 2018, I Had the Opportunity to Teach the Novel Twice, Once at Salem State University in Massachusetts, and Then as a Visiting Professor at Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland

Article excerpt

In Salem, many of my students had not read it, and most found it to be a much better book than expected. As a class, we acknowledged Stowe's unenlightened depiction of African-American slaves was problematic, but most of us agreed the books powerful contribution to ending slavery in many ways compensated for its flaws. Many of us expressed admiration for Stowe's comic writing and the astute employment of the sentimental that powers her book.

But not all of us.

One student told me after class that it was painful for her to read Uncle Tom's Cabin. She was distressed by its insensitive portrayals of black people. I taught the book a dozen times to diverse groups of students, and alongside James Baldwin's angry 1949 essay "Everybody's Protest Novel." I was, of course, sympathetic, and concurred that Stowe scholars regret that her mid-nineteenth-century perspectives on race are benighted by today's more sophisticated constructions of racial identity. I contended that, as a key work of American literature, the book's passionate argument for abolition elevates it as an ethical text in spite of, or even as it surpasses, its own time-bound perspectives.

Then I went to Krakow.

I was invited to teach at the School of English Studies at Jagiellonian University, where I offered an intensive course called "Harriet Beecher Stowe: Literary Responses to Racism and Slavery." Teaching the text in Poland, I thought, required providing more information on slavery in the United States, so I prepared an overview. …

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