Tracing Lasting, Local Footprints of 'Uncle Tom's Cabin'
Story posted March 02, 2010
As a student tour guide for Bowdoin's Office of Admissions, Tom Brickler '10 had led dozens of prospective students past Appleton Hall.
Stopping, he would say: "It was here, where Harriet Beecher Stowe sometimes worked on the novel Uncle Tom's Cabin." For full dramatic effect, he might add the words: "writing late into the stormy winter night."
Though it is campus legend, no one knows for sure if Stowe—the wife of a Bowdoin professor—actually worked there during the years that she wrote the novel in Brunswick. But it hardly matters: The compulsion to imagine and re-imagine the daily existence of luminaries connected to Bowdoin—including Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Joshua Chamberlain, and Nathaniel Hawthorne—is part of the ambience of being at such a historically significant college.
Stowe's notable connections to Bowdoin have taken on new, very specific meanings for Brickler this term. As part of the course Reading Uncle Tom's Cabin in the Twenty-First Century, taught by Assistant Professor of Africana Studies and English Tess Chakkalakal, he and his classmates are tracing Stowe's footsteps through Brunswick. They will visit the house on Federal Street where Stowe lived, sit in the pew at the Brunswick church where Stowe is said to have gotten the inspiration for the novel, and handle first editions of the novel from the Bowdoin Library's Special Collections.
"It's crazy that we're on campus and not that many people know about the Stowe House or the book connection, really," says Brickler, a biology major. "Basically, Brunswick was a literary capital for American novelists ... we students are in a place where literary history was made!"
While it was the number-one bestselling novel of the 19th century, firing up interest in Uncle Tom's Cabin among readers today can be challenging, says Chakkalakal, who is a Stowe expert. "People don't feel they need to read it because they know it already," she says. "The novel's scenes, characters, and events are already so familiar to us that there doesn't seem to be much point in actually sitting down and reading the novel and considering how its aftermath shaped the novel's meaning. That's exactly what this course allows students to do."
Although the plotline of the anti-slavery novel is action packed, some of the novel's literary conceits can be difficult for modern readers: Much of the conversations are written in Stowe's interpretation of African American dialect. The novel includes lengthy descriptive paragraphs. Its style is unabashedly sentimental.
Chakkalakal is using some surprisingly simple strategies to unlock the novel's power. For one, she gives students free rein to criticize some of the novel's maudlin characterizations. "This is a great novel for different reasons than the ones we're used to—it's a great novel because of the way it makes readers feel—you either love it or hate it," says Chakkalakal. "Stowe is interested in feeling over form. Critics have said that's its downfall: it's not complicated or nuanced enough. But its complexity lies instead in its ability to produce such violent, passionate responses."
Students also are reading parts of the novel aloud, as it would have been read when it first was published in 1852 in serialized form. "Each student has gotten up at a podium and read aloud in character," says Chakkalakal. "Some of them really got into this. It surprised them how different it sounded when they read it aloud."
But it is the novel itself—its emotion, its contradictions, and the seriousness of its moral purpose to decry the evils of slavery—that speaks loudest to students.
Brickler says the subject of race and slavery is difficult to discuss even now: "It's hard to talk about something that was so wrong. Slavery really left a mark in our history. In addition, Stowe made her black characters very one-dimensional, so when taking the book out of the time period it was written for, many people feel that African Americans should not be depicted this way."
Chakkalakal became fascinated by the pervasive influence of both the novel and the figure of Uncle Tom during her doctoral studies at York University, where she focused on early African American literature.
"You can't understand African American literature or cultural identity without looking at the influence of Uncle Tom's Cabin and how its meaning changes over time," notes Chakkalakal. "When you read the work of writers such as Richard Wright, James Baldwin, Toni Morrison and Ishmael Reed, you can see how profoundly they were affected by Stowe's representations of black and white characters."
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