“Bound in Black Morocco”

Manhood and Enchantment in Uncle Tom’s Cabin
  • David Greven


In his essay on the evolving cultural history of Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Or, Life among the Lowly, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s great1 1852 novel, Thomas Riggio considers the ways in which the book was and remains utterly entangled with the racist stage plays and the Tom shows that followed it: “the full picture has yet to be constructed of how a book whose avowed and successful purpose was to champion an oppressed people came to stand as a major symbol of that oppression.”2


Male Community Racist Ideology Oppressed People White American Woman Maternal Love 
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  1. 1.
    Ann Douglas writes: “Uncle Tom’s Cabin is a great book, not because it is a great novel, but because it is a great revival sermon, aimed directly at the conversion of its hearers.” See Douglas, The Feminization of American Culture (1977; reprint, New York: Noonday Press, 1998), 245. I see no reason to qualify the greatness of Stowe’s novel, which, in its staggering ambition and complexity, should surely earn its claim to being a “great novel.”Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    Thomas P. Riggio, “Uncle To m Reconstructed: The Neglected History of a Book,” Critical Essays on Harriet Beecher Stowe, ed. Elizabeth Ammons (Boston, MA: G. K. Hall & Co., 1980), 139. A similar argument that the racism of the staged versions of the novel misrepresent Stowe’s own work can be found inGoogle Scholar
  3. Beatrice Anderson’s “Uncle Tom: A Hero at Last,” American Transcendental Quarterly, Volume 5, June 1991, 95–108.Google Scholar
  4. 3.
    Richard Yarborough quotes this passage in his essay “Strategies of Black Characterization in Uncle To m’s Cabin and the Early Afro-American Novel,” collected in New Essays on Uncle To m’s Cabin, ed. Eric Sundquist (Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1986), 67.Google Scholar
  5. 4.
    See Baldwin, “Everybody’s Protest Novel,” James Baldwin: Collected Essays, ed. Toni Morrison (New York: Library of America, 1998), 11–18.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Then again, Stowe may also be said merely to be continuing a line of representation of black bodies endemic to abolitionist rhetoric. In a recent study, one critic discusses the conundrum of a sensationalist representations of the black body as “lush” and sensual by the very forces (abolitionist activists) motivated to effect the cessation of the slave trade. See Robert Fitzgerald Reid-Pharr, Conjugal Union: The Body, the House, and the Black American (New York: Oxford UP, 1999), 38–39.Google Scholar
  7. 7.
    See P. Gabrielle Foreman, “This Promiscuous Housekeeping: Death, Transgression, and Homoeroticism in Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Representations, Number 43, Summer 1993, 51–72, p. 67. Like Hawthorne’s Fanshawe and Melville’s Billy Budd, who also exist to be looked at, Tom’s body is nonnormative in its very availability as an object of scopophilic interest, conventionally the female body’s role. Foreman’s brilliant essay illuminates what is at stake in representing the protagonist’s body as ever-violable, as Stowe does here. But where my emphases differ from Foreman’s is my contention that the intensity and concatenation of erotic/affectional/psychic/physical violations swarming around Tom are matched—outmatched—by Tom’s own perpetual resistance to these threats.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. 8.
    See Cynthia Griffin Wolff, “‘Masculinity’ in Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” American Quarterly, Volume 47, Number 4, December 1995, 595–618.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. 10.
    See Michael Newbury, “Eaten Alive: Slavery and Celebrity in Antebellum America,” English Literary History, Volume 61, Number 1, Spring 1994, 159–87. Newbury makes the unusual case for overlaps between antebellum discourses of the consumption of celebrity and slave bodies.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  10. 11.
    Kobena Mercer, Welcome to the Jungle (New York: Routledge, 1994), 137.Google Scholar
  11. 13.
    Like Poe, especially, she investigates the way cultural constructions of masculinity affect male-male and male-female relationships. Uncle Tom’s Cabin continues the cultural work begun in Poe’s 1838 story “Ligeia.” In this story, Poe suggests that the male protagonist’s own devouring anxieties—figured in the realms of orality and literary proficiency—disable him in regards to interactions with women. (Poe, who [in]famously married his own thirteen-year-old cousin, Virginia, was perhaps performing an auto-critique.) This treatment of Poe should not be taken as a celebration of or a willful blindness to Poe’s already quite thoroughly exposed racism. As his sympathetic biographer Kenneth Silverman notes, “Poe’s … characterizations of blacks … are … denigrating … Poe opposed abolition, and identified with slaveholding interests in the South, whom he felt Northern writers misrepresented. Although in no way consumed with racial hatred, he considered blacks less than human—as did many other Americans in the 1840s.” See Kenneth Silverman, Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), 207. But in his very helpful essay, “Poe and Gentry Virginia: Provincial Gentleman, Textual Aristocrat, Man of the Crowd,” David Leverenz compellingly argues for Poe’s cultural importance as a satirist of class—the “gentry specters of a debased capitalist future” his chief targets—in a way that at least contextualizes Poe’s failings. This piece is collected in the excellent Haunted Bodies: Gender and Southern Texts, ed. Anne Goodwyn Jones and Susan V. Donaldson (Charlottesville, VA: Virginia UP, 1997), 81.Google Scholar
  12. 15.
    Hortense J. Spillers, “Changing the Letter: The Yokes, The Jokes of Discourse, Or, Mrs. Stowe, Mr. Reed,” Slavery and the Literary Imagination: Selected Papers from the English Institute, 1987, ed. Deborah E. McDowell and Arnold Rampersad (Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins UP, 1989), 53.Google Scholar
  13. 17.
    Harriet Beecher Stowe, Uncle Tom’s Cabin: Or, Life Among the Lowly (1852; reprint, New York: Norton, 1994). All references will be from this edition, and will be documented parenthetically within the text.Google Scholar
  14. 19.
    “Nuts: 1. the testicles. See NUTMEGS. [since the 1700s].” Richard A. Spears, Slang and Euphemism (New York: Signet, 1991), 314.Google Scholar
  15. 20.
    John Gatta, American Madonna: Images of the Divine Woman in Literary Culture (New York: Oxford UP, 1997), 53.Google Scholar
  16. 23.
    Melville’s satirical masterpiece Pierre (the undoing of his career) also came out in 1852. Discussing the love between “Glen Stanly” and Pierre, the narrator remarks that their “boy-love” is not without “the occasional fillips and spicinesses, which at times, by an apparent abatement, enhance the permanent delights of those more advanced lovers who love beneath the cestus of Venus.” Melville’s novel, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin, plays around with schemes of both homoerotic and heteroerotic incestuous attraction, in its suggestions of sexual and romantic affiliations between the eponymous hero and his cousin and the woman, Isabel, who may or may not be his sister. (It is also a text obsessed with the power of the mother.) But whereas Melville playfully, if woundedly, toys with taboo in order to make his parody of the domestic novel all the more savage, Stowe deploys the schemes of cultural taboo in order to bolster the power of the domestic novel to effect social and cultural change. Here she means to alert us to the terrible condition of unsaved, mother-love-denied men trapped in their homosocial worlds. Elsewhere, Stowe, like Melville, employs a satirical humor to make her points. But, in her depiction of the erotic energies surrounding St. Clare, she is deathly serious. It is astonishing, indeed, that both of these 1852 masterpieces present incestuous, homoerotic relations in order to alert the larger culture to pressing social problems, in Melville’s case, the bankruptcy of the domestic novel, in Stowe’s case, the failure of domestic ideology to rescue men from themselves. Both Pierre and Uncle Tom’s Cabin are cultural interventions. See Melville, Pierre: Or, the Ambiguities, 1852 (New York: Library of America, 1984), 253.Google Scholar
  17. 24.
    In her study Home Fronts, Lora Romero takes Stowe to task for her “translation” of “hygienist domesticity into abolitionist critique” through a depiction of patriarchy as a kind of total power: “[S]he makes power uniform and centralized by referring all of its manifestations back to the patriarch … essentially patriarchal in origins … the power Stowe imagines is both homogenous … and negative,” (Durham, NC: Duke UP, 1997), 110. A different sort of critique emerges in Marianne Noble’s study of domestic fiction and masochism: “The political ramifications of the eroticization of sympathy in Uncle Tom’s Cabin are equally doubled-edged from a feminist standpoint. Sentimental authors conceived of feeling along with others as an important contribution that women could make to the political sphere… . But in promoting ‘feeling right’ as a significant form of female political agency, she unwittingly fostered the sadistic exploitation of slaves positioned as erotic objects.” See Noble, The Masochistic Pleasures of Sentimental Literature (Princeton, NJ: Princeton UP, 2000), 146.Google Scholar
  18. 27.
    Thomas Gossett, Uncle Tom’s Cabin and American Culture (Dallas, TX: Southern Methodist UP, 1985), 102.Google Scholar
  19. 30.
    Elizabeth Hardwick, American Fictions (New York: Modern Library, 1999), p. xv.Google Scholar
  20. 35.
    As ever reading such dire warnings over onanism, one feels inclined to echo Keanu Reeves in the 1999 The Matrix: “Whoa.” Beecher and Stowe, American Women’s Home (1869; reprint, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers UP, 1998). Though compiled in 1869, this volume largely contains Beecher’s writings from 1841 to 1856.Google Scholar
  21. 36.
    For his part, Tom is depicted as a stranger in a strange land, rather like Bunyan’s Christian. The world of St. Clare engulfs him with ripe, paradisiacal sensations, “to which his sensitive race are never indifferent.” [A]nd he did enjoy [my emphasis] … the birds, the flowers, the fountains, the perfume, and light and beauty of the court, the silken hangings, and pictures, and lustres, and statuettes, and gilding, that made the parlors within a kind of Aladdin’s palace to him. (155) It is no accident that the St. Clare world is described as an enchanted realm; this quality is crucial to Stowe’s stratagem. It is precisely because this world is enchanted, protected from time and space—in a zone that is almost fetal—that allows Stowe covertly to negotiate transgressive desires. As the astute cultural critic Marina Warner puts it, in a discussion of the setting in the fairy tale, “the remoteness of their traditional setting … the palace, the forest, the distant and nameless kingdom … all this underpins the stories’ ability to grapple with reality. As Wallace Stevens believed, it helps us to see the actual world to visualize a fantastic one.” See Warner, From the Beast to the Blonde: On Fairy Tales and their Tellers (New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1994), xx.Google Scholar
  22. 40.
    David S. Reynolds, Beneath the American Renaissance: The Subversive Imagination in the Age of Emerson and Melville (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1988), 79.Google Scholar
  23. 41.
    Stephanie A. Smith, Conceived by Liberty: Maternal Figures and Nineteenth century America-Century American Literature (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1994), 109.Google Scholar
  24. 42.
    For a discussion of interracial erotic relations—“amalgamation”—between whites and free blacks of the North, particularly those involved in the project of African colonization, see Bruce Allen Dorsey, “A Gendered History of African Colonization in the Antebellum United States,” Journal of Social History, Volume 34, Number 1, Fall 2000, 77–103. Notable, too, is Dorsey’s discussion of the nineteenth-century figuration of Africa as a site of penetration by colonizing European and U.S. white men and the gendered implications of African Americans’ involvement in African colonization.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. 43.
    Werner Sollors, Neither Black Nor White Yet Both: Thematic Explorations of Interracial Literature (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1997), 4. In her study, White Women, Black Men: Illicit Sex in the Nineteenth Century South (New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 1997), Martha Hodes examines black male–white female affectional/sexual relationships of the era, pointing out that there were often cases of such relationships that were received in unpredictable ways.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. 44.
    Peter Kolchin, American Slavery: 1619–1877 (New York: Hill and Wang, 1993), 117.Google Scholar
  27. 47.
    Sarah Smith Ducksworth, “Stowe’s Construction of an African Persona and the Creation of White Identity for a New World Order,” The Stowe Debate: Rhetorical Strategies in Uncle Tom’s Cabin, ed. Mason I. Lowance, Jr., Ellen E. Westbrook, and R. C. De Prospo (Amherst, MA: Massachusetts UP, 1994), 212.Google Scholar
  28. 49.
    Daniel P. Black, Dismantling Black Manhood: An Historical and Literacy Analysis of the Legacy of slavery (New York: Garland Publishing, 1997), 126.Google Scholar
  29. 50.
    Joan D. Hendrick, Harriet Beecher Stowe: A Life (New York: oxford UP, 1994), 143.Google Scholar
  30. 52.
    See Stowe, A Key to Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1853; reprint, Bedford, MA: Applewood, 1998), 27.Google Scholar
  31. 59.
    Cynthia Erb, Tracking King Kong: A Hollywood Icon in World Culture (Detroit, MI: Wayne State UP, 1998), 14–15.Google Scholar
  32. 62.
    Classical representations of Pan would suggest that Panlike Tom may be a sexual threat to more than just little Eva. Describing the Pan-related scene on an ancient Greek vase on display at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts (Boston 10.185, bell krater by the pan Painter, Arvin 550, 1), classicist Eva C. Keuls writes, “The Pan Painter … shows Hermes’ son, Pan, a randy mountain spirit, half-goat and half-man, running away from a herm [a statue of the god Hermes, complete with sculpted head, erect penis, and testicles] which has a penis reaching up to the level of his face. Pan is in lusty pursuit of a young shepherd … there is little doubt that he will consummate his desire.” Keuls points out the pansexual energies of Pan in a way that can only enlarge our view of Stowe’s linkage between Pan and Tom. To my mind, this ancient vase scene metaphorizes Tom’s position in the novel: dwarfed by larger structures of phallic power, he yet exudes an animalistic carnal energy all his own, as suggested by his Panlike goat-fur and seductive qualities, that leaves no female or male safe. See Keuls’s The Reign of the Phallus (Berkeley, CA: University of California boy Press, 1985), 387. In addition, the rivalry between Pan and Apollo provides an interesting backdrop to the Tom–St. Clare relationship. As Thomas Bullfinch described it, Pan had the “temerity to compare his music to that of Apollo,” a contest pipe-playing Pan lost to the lyre-playing Apollo. See The Age of Fable: Or Beauties of Mythology (1855; reprint, New York: Mentor, 1962), 79. It is easy to see the rivalrous contest between the Panlike Tom and the Apollonian St. Clare over Eva in terms of the triangulated desire of Girard and Sedgwick. “In general,” states the Oxford Classical Dictionary (2nd ed.) in its entry for Pan, “he is amorous, as is natural in a god whose chief business it was to make the flocks fertile.” The OCD notes Pan’s formidable nature (silence was imposed at noonday, when Pan slept, since he would be angry if awakened); his ability to induce terror, “Panic”; his penchant for sending nightmares; and his love of caves and other “lonely places,” all attributes highly suggestive for both Stowe’s and my own understanding of Tom. Cassell’s Encyclopedia of Queer Myth, Symbol, and Spirit, ed. Randy P. Conner et al. (New York: Cassell, 1997) Pan-entry notes Pan’s associations with both Ganymede, Zeus’s homoerotically fetishized beloved cupbearer, whom Zeus, while in the form of an eagle, rapes and transports to Olympus, and Christ, a linkage also made by French Symbolist poet Paul Verlaine (lover of Rimbaud); and Gabriel Garcia Lorca’s conflation amongst Verlaine, Christ, Dionysius, and Pan: all in all, a continuous stream of pansexual/homoerotic affiliations. Ultimately, my point is that, rather than shutting down Tom’s sexuality, Stowe opens up subterranean paths moving toward and emanating from it; Tom’s pansexuality makes him a multivalent sexual presence and threat. Indeed, Stowe’s Tom fuses the “Victorian,” the “Benevolent,” and the “Sinister” Pan described by Patricia Merivale. “Whether Pan is to be benevolent or malevolent depends on some state of inner grace, or possibly of conscience.” Like the sinister Pan, Tom provokes and endures a state of sexual Panic. See Merivale’s engaging book Pan the Goat-God: His Myth in Modern Times (Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1969), 192.Google Scholar
  33. 64.
    “The slave, however abject and crushed, is an intelligent being; he has a will, and that will cannot be annihilated, it will show itself; if for a moment it is smothered, like pent up fires when vent is found, it flames the fiercer. Make intelligence property, and its manager will have its match; he is met at every turn by an opposing will, not in the form of downright rebellion and defiance, but, yet visibly, an ever-opposing will.” This description seems the clearest blueprint of Stowe’s aims in her depiction of Tom. See Reverend Theodore Dwight Weld, American Slavery As It Is (1839; reprint, New York: Arno Press, 1968), 111. Stowe consulted this book for background information when writing Uncle Tom’s Cabin.Google Scholar

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© David Greven 2005

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  • David Greven

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