Visualizing Uncle Tom

Pictorial Interpretations of Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin

"There is no arguing with pictures, and anybody is impressed by them, whether they mean it or not" – Harriet Beecher Stowe, 1851.

January 23 – May 31, 2014
Hawthorne-Longfellow Library
Guest curator: Richard J. Ellis, University of Birmingham (U.K.)

Handbill promoting a theatrical adaptation of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (ca. 1885).

Written here in Brunswick over a decade before the abolition of slavery in 1863, Uncle Tom’s Cabin’s sensational portraits of the sufferings and occasional victories of enslaved and escaping African Americans have, over the years, proved to be highly controversial. These controversies have been greatly exacerbated by the thousands of visual representations that have appeared in the book’s many editions. Those images have lent impetus to: slave holders and their supporters who accused Stowe of distorting slavery’s realities; African Americans who accused Stowe of stereotyping them negatively; and abolitionists who accused her of being too accommodating to Southern sensibilities. Simply put, the illustrations made Uncle Tom’s Cabin even more controversial.

This exhibition, which features items from my personal collection, explores how visualizations of the characters and events in Uncle Tom’s Cabin precariously swing between how Stowe’s text describes them and how other biased, distorted, or incendiary versions of its scenes and characters are created:  in the theatre, in burlesque shows, in Southern “anti-Tom” ripostes to Stowe’s novel. What effect do these distorted portrayals have on our ultimate understanding of Stowe’s work?

Proper examination of this conflicted intersection between text and image has necessitated the inclusion in this exhibition of many offensive and racist images, and you need to be cautioned about this. They distort Stowe’s novel, even if very few are completely misleading—yet the influence of such illustrations has been profound. While examining such visual evidence may be difficult, it leads us to a better understanding about the past, about racism, and about our own sensibilities.

"Onkel Tom’s Hütte" collector's card (Germany, ca. 1900).

Just close your eyes and picture Tom. Do you see an aged character passively learning how to read at the behest of Little Eva? Or do you see a much younger Tom teaching himself to read from the one book he owns (and relies on), the Bible, instituting a self-help reading club of two with Eva, and learning from it how to stand up against slave masters?  Which one of these is Stowe’s Tom? Or should you be saying “Uncle Tom,” even though he is less often called this in the book? And what happens when you do say “Uncle Tom”?  “Visualizing Uncle Tom” explores these difficult questions.

–R. J. Ellis, University of Birmingham (U.K.)  University of Birmingham Crest

Read more about the exhibition

Bowdoin Workmark For more information: 207.725.3288

Funded in part by the
Andrew W. Mellon Foundation
George J. Mitchell Department of Special Collections & Archives · Staff · Hours
Bowdoin College Library, 3000 College Station, Brunswick, Maine 04011-8421 · · (207) 725-3288