Slavery on Trial: Law, Abolitionism, and Print Culture/The Cambridge Introduction to Harriet Beecher Stowe/Uncle Tom's Cabin as Visual Culture

By Browne, Ray B. | Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA), September 2007 | Go to article overview

Slavery on Trial: Law, Abolitionism, and Print Culture/The Cambridge Introduction to Harriet Beecher Stowe/Uncle Tom's Cabin as Visual Culture


Browne, Ray B., Journal of American Culture (Malden, MA)


Slavery on Trial: Law, Abolitionism, and Print Culture Jeannine Marie DeLombard. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2007.

The Cambridge Introduction to Harriet Beecher Stowe Sarah Robbins. New York: Cambridge, 2007.

Uncle Tom's Cabin as Visual Culture Jo-Ann Morgan. Columbia: University of Missouri Press, 2007.

Three books published at the same time on virtually the same subject cover our desk with deliberations of American (and human) actions and abuses of other human beings.

Slavery on Trial is essentially concerned with verbal and printed cultures. Before Civil War two powers pulled at society's attention and conduct. Legal actions and literature drove toward precedent and authority as interpreted by the printed word and precedent. At a time when the printed word used for entertainment and "literature" was suspect and legal practice and authority highly respected slavery was in fact practiced and condoned by an authority out of the reach and control of the people. What public literature there was generally consisted of newspapers and broadsides, which in DeLombard's words "disproportionately featured malefactors of color" (5). But any spread of language eventually weakened the institution of bondage. "It was precisely through ... the appropriations of legal language and imagery that antebellum writers debated not only the status of Southern slavery but the place of African Americans in the national polity" (2). DeLombard ends a rich and exhaustive study of the changing role of language in the altering behavior of Americans with a tight summary: "Troubled though it may have been, the practice of imagining the debate over slavery as a vast, ongoing trial had made antebellum print culture a forum for interracial collaboration while providing an alternate vision of race and justice under American law-at its most forward-looking, that still-elusive vision of full black civil inclusion" (222).

In The Cambridge Introduction of Harriet Beecher Stowe Robbins tries to encompass an active and influential life in less than 150 pages. And she succeeds. She uses four chapters: (1) Life; (2) Cultural Contexts; (3) Works; (4) Reception and Critics. In the nineteenth century women were systematically excluded from literature because it was thought they were incapable of doing anything except, in Hawthorne's blind words "scribbling." Stowe, however, was one of many exceptions. She became one of the driving forces not only in producing literature but also of fighting for a noble cause, that of slavery. In Uncle Tom's Cabin, unquestionably Stowe's most lasting book, the author was writing for a white middleclass readership, that is, her neighbors, for whatever political and moral forces they might bring to bear, and therefore she set the stage in portraits and developments that white readers would have recognized. The results were, of course, playing on precisely the most powerful heart strings of her readers. This powerful work, published first in the magazine National Era upon being published as a book became the most popular book of the time except the Bible. In this brief book of Stowe's career Robbins discusses Stowe's other numerous books and her dedication to other causes, authorship of Dred, The Christian Slave, the Key to Uncle Tom's Cabin, her regional writings and such nonliterary activities as her defense of Lady Byron. …

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